Gateway Drugs

by J.D. Rhoades

All my life, I’ve been a reader. My family still talks about how I’d disappear at family gatherings, only to be found later in my parents’ car, stretched out on the bench seat with my feet up in the open window, reading.  Whenever and wherever a book was lying around, I’d have to pick it up and read it. Some of the books I picked up during those formative years certainly served as gateways to my  current addiction to writing and reading about bad people doing bad things.  So return with me now, to those glorious days of me misspent youth,  to the writers who hooked me on mysteries and thrillers and led me inexorably to the hard stuff….

Donald Sobol: The Encyclopedia Brown series  featured  a "boy detective" and the P.I. agency he ran  out of the family garage.  I snapped them up like popcorn in elementary school. Encyclopedia (given name: Leroy)  was a brainy kid who somehow managed not to get the crap kicked out of him by bigger kids. This may have had something to do with his pal Sally, who even the bullies feared. (Come to think of it, this may explain my long standing affection for tough female characters). Encyclopedia always managed to foil the machinations of his personal Moriarty, an evil kid named Bugs Meany. He always caught some inconsistency or other that showed Bugs or some other junior miscreant was fibbing. Once caught, of course, the bad guy always confessed. The best part was where, just before the big revelation, the story would break and give the reader a chance to figure the mystery out for themselves. I managed it about half the time, which made me even more eager to try my hand at the next one.

Arthur Conan Doyle: It’s impossible to have grown up in the late twentieth century and not at least had a good idea of who Sherlock Holmes was. His image, in one form or another, was everywhere: commercials, movies, even on children’s television where a parody character named  Sherlock Hemlock was a fixture on Sesame Street. So when I found a collection of Holmes stories in the school library, they seemed strangely familiar, yet still totally engrossing. (I can still remember the cover of that book by the way,with its iconic painting of Holmes in deerstalker cap and magnifying glass). The line, "They were the tracks of an enormous hound!" still sends a chill down my spine, thirty-odd years later.

Rex Stout: It was shortly after falling under the spell of Holmes that I discovered Nero Wolfe in the town library where my Mom took me every Saturday (or at least the ones when I didn’t ride my bike to the Sunrise Theater to watch Godzilla flicks and chop-socky movies). It’s a natural progression, when you think about it, since there’s actually a theory that the corpulent agoraphobic sleuth Wolfe is actually a descendant of Sherlock’s smarter and equally reclusive  brother Mycroft. Whatever his origins, Rex Stout’s pairing of the intellectual, puzzle solving detective with the wisecracking hard-boiled type, as embodied in Wolfe’s assistant Archie Goodwin, bridged the gap between two supposedly incompatible sub-genres. 

Erle Stanley Gardner (writing as A.A. Fair): Hammett, Chandler and Ross McDonald may have done it better, but "A.A. Fair’s"  series about the team of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool were my first introduction to the wonderful world of P.I. fiction. You can thank one of those library book sales, where I found a dozen or more "Mystery Book Club" 3-in-1 volumes for a quarter each, several  featuring the wonderfully named Lam and Cool. Bertha was the boss of the outfit, a plus-sized lady as "tough as  a coil of barbed wire." Lam was, in Bertha’s words A "brainy little runt" who did better using his wits (and his wit) than he ever did with his fists. Great characters, snappy dialogue, and ingenious (occasionally too ingenious) twists. How can you go wrong?

Ian Fleming: "The two .38’s roared simultaneously." So begins Moonraker, the first James Bond novel I ever read. I picked it up when I was 12 or 13 from the bookshelf in my uncle’s old room at my grandparent’s house. I was hooked from the first scene, where Bond is engaging in gunfighting  practice under the amused eye of "the Instructor" ("I’m in hospital, but you’re dead, sir"). From there, Bond heads upstairs to M’s office, and from thence to a confrontation with the evil Sir Hugo Drax. Like Sherlock Holmes, the image of Bond was unavoidable for anyone not living in a cave in the late 60’s-early 70’s, but these were the first books I found that were actually better than the movies.

John D. McDonald; I came across Travis McGee, John D. McDonald’s "tattered knight errant on a spavined steed" at just the right time in my life. Around my mid-teens, I was a lonely kid with a streak of romanticism and a tendency to wax philosophical.  McGee was a loner with streak of romanticism and a tendency to wax philosophical, but he was as tough and cool as I wanted to be someday.  Plus, he lived on a boat, and he got all the hot women, even though they were usually gone and often dead by the beginning of the next book. Re-reading those books now, I can’t help but still be impressed at McDonald’s storytelling abilities. Despite the digressions over relationships and the destruction of the beauty of South Florida, these books really move.

Trevanian:    When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I read and reread Trevanian’s books five or six times each. Trevanian, the pen name of Rodney Whitaker,  was probably best known for his novel The Eiger Sanction which was made into one of the more fun 70’s Clint Eastwood flicks. 

The movie was certainly memorable, but there was no way to capture
on film that certain atmosphere that Trevanian brought to his spy
adventures, that sense of never being quite sure when he was putting
you on. I mean, how could you resist a character like art
collector/assassin Jonathan Hemlock, who worked for a shadowy
(literally) intelligence boss named Yurassis Dragon? (say that last
name fast if you don’t know why it makes me laugh out loud).   My absolute favorite Trevanian character was Nicolai Hel, the half-Japanese assassin of Trevanian’s classic Shibumi.
Killer. Philosopher. Master of Oriental sex tricks.  Wine connisseur. When it came to cool, Nicolai Hel gave Bond a run for his money. Trevanian’s books had style. They had wit. They had great and
often bizarre characters. They had hot sex. They were, above all, huge
fun to read.

So what were YOUR "gateway drugs"?

16 thoughts on “Gateway Drugs

  1. patti abbott

    Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey and of course, Agatha. My favorite male writers were Ross Mc Donald, John D. McDonald, Rex Sout, Nicholas Freeling and the team of Sjowalh and Wahloo.

  2. Bryon Quertermous

    I started as a kid with Encyclopedia Brown, The Boxcar Children, and The Hardy Boys, and then I went off on a long science fiction and fantasy bender until I was about 15 that’s when I get hooked again.

    My uncle gave me a few books that changed my life. It was Harry Bosch, Elvis Cole, and Robert B. Parker. That’s all it took and now I’m the sad little writer I am now.

  3. Allison Brennan

    Very fun blog, JD! And I think it’s true that writers are readers first, then they write what they love to read.

    I also started with Encyclopedia Brown and just yesterday I bought my first grade son a bunch of the books, along with HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS, one of my favorite little kid books.

    I graduated to Trixie Belden, then Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and by the time I was 11 I was reading Agatha Christie . . . I remember reading Lillian O’Donnell and Joseph Wambaugh off my mom’s bookshelf. I also had a fascination with science fiction, and read a bunch of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein.

    When I was 13 I read THE STAND by Stephen King and it changed my focus. Started reading Koontz and Straub (Straub after I read THE TALISMAN which he co-authored with King.)

    I didn’t really read romance until college. But I started to devour any mysteries or suspense novels with strong relationships in them.

  4. norby

    Great post Dusty. I was never allowed to take books when we went to family functions. Darn it.

    I too started out with Encyclopedia Brown and his pal Sally. Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators were another big, big favorite of mine. I read my way through the children’s department of the local library fairly quickly (pretty easy when you avoid all the ‘girly’ books), then moved downstairs to the coveted ‘adult’ sections. Peter Benchley, Stephen King, a whole new world lay before me. I was in heaven.

    Those family gatherings? I finally decided that if they took place in my house, I was free to do what I wanted, after all, my room was there, nothing wrong with me getting away for a few minutes (hours).

  5. Louise Ure

    Geez, you’ve stirred up some memories this morning, Dusty.

    My gateway drugs of choice started with The Brothers Grimm.

    And I still have a complete set of every original John D. McDonald. It’s one of my proudest possessions.

  6. Stacey Cochran

    Sobol’s a big one for me. Those EB were the first books I actually read for pleasure.

    I could probably put Madeleine L’Engle up there, as well as Michael Crichton.

    And of course, tons of comic books: Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, X-Men.

    Throw in TV shows like “The Dukes of Hazard” and “Scooby Doo” and you pretty much have the sum total ingredients of everything I’ve written the past ten years.

  7. Mark Terry

    Ah yes, Encyclopedia Brown, ALfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, Hardy Boys, later Stephen King, even later Robert B. Parker…

    And dammit, if I ever meet a male crime writer that HASN’T been influenced by John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGree, I’ll have to buy him a drink (of Boodles, if I recall correctly) and a copy of “The Deep Blue Goodbye” or “The Green Ripper.”

  8. Alexandra Sokoloff

    What a great post! OF COURSE Encyclopedia Brown – loved him! I was also a rabid TIntin fan – talk about your international thrillers… although very scathing toward women, when you look at them.

    Madeleine L’Engle I’ve posted about at length, and Jane Langton (THE DIAMOND IN THE WINDOW) and Zilpha Keatley Snyder (THE VELVET ROOM) were other fantastic YA mystery/fantasy writers I adored.

    At the same time I was devouring The Bronte sisters, Shirley Jackson, Agatha Christie, Stephen King and Ray Bradbury. I read Ira Levin WAY too young, too, and THE EXORCIST.

    And Louise is as right as always – fairy tales. All the Andrew Lang, THE BLUE FAIRY BOOK in particular – all those creepily erotic plates… still love them.

  9. woodstock

    I think Encyclopedia Brown came along a little late for me to enjoy those books, but I read Nancy Drew, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout. Tried Erle Stanley Gardner a few times, couldn’t get into him much. No one has mentioned Frank Yerby. They weren’t mysteries, but very intense, bodice ripper sort of books set in and around New Orleans. I remember one scene in which a beautiful woman surprises a man sitting as his desk. In answer to his query about her elegant attire, she says “No, Stephen, there is no ball.” Much of the action was way over my 12-13 year old head, but I looked for everyone I could find.

  10. simon

    It was nice to see you mention Trevanian. I hadn’t realized that the Eiger Sanction was based on a book until I caught movie again a little while ago. It made me look up the sanction books and wish I thought of them first. 🙂

  11. Fran

    Bruce Campbell’s “Ken Holt” series was one of my early ones; dated, yes, but I thought it was much better than the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew or those Bobbsey Twins.

    Christopher Stasheff, Roger Zelazny, Isaac Asimov, Shirley Jackson – I especially loved her stories about her family, and some of the gothics, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Dorothy Eden were the authors I’d take with me when the rest of the family went fishing. I’d read.

    I’m still outrageously fond of Travis McGee and Brother Cadfael.

  12. J.D. Rhoades

    Fran, I recently picked up about a dozen of the Brother Cadfael paperbacks at a library book sale (some things never change) and I’m burning through them at a prodigious clip.

  13. JT Ellison

    Groan.My TBR list just grew exponentially.I am woefully under read in the crime fiction genre. I did the Nancy Drew stuff, moved into adult books and never stopped. I didn’t get into genre fiction full force until I discovered James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell, Tami Hoag and John Sandford. I still haven’t read 90% of what influences everyone else. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

    I need to acquire a child so I can experience all of these titles through their eyes. ; )

  14. a Paperback Writer

    Hmmm… I’m unclear if you’re talking about getting hooked on reading in general or getting hooked on mystery/crime. I loved Zilpha Keatley Snyder as a kid, but she’s hardly mystery (I suppose you could call the Velvet Room mystery in a pinch).My first addiction came in 2nd grade with the Little Eddie books (of which I do not own a single one; I always got them from the library).But by third grade, I was devouring the Three Investigators series. (Of those, I’ve managed to track down a few 2nd hand copies now.)My tastes then went off to fantasy/supernatural (hence my obsession with Snyder) and the classics (yes, really).I was in my early 20s before I read all Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (Yes, I do mean ALL of them).But a few years ago, I got hooked on Ian Rankin’s stuff, after I heard him at a small-group reading in Edinburgh, Scotland. I am now a huge Rebus fan, and I like Rankin’s other stuff, too.What I’m trying to say here is that I’ve gone through different waves of addiction to mystery.

  15. pari

    I read some Nancy Drew but didn’t like how goody two-shoes she was. Most of the my childhood reading was obligatory. It’s only in adolescence that I began to love reading and, at first, I picked books for their length rather than content. If it was more than 500 pages, it HAD to be worth reading. I went through many of the Russian classics before I could understand them . . .

  16. Dana King

    greta post, got me smiling thinking back to who got me hooked.

    The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, The Thinking Machine (I can’t remember who wrote these), Doyle, and Mickey Spillane probaby got me through high school. I stayed clean for several years (no 12 Step program, cold turkey) then got hooked again with Robert B. Parker leading me to Chandler.


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