(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)
I was one of those kids who always had her head in a book. I didn’t just adore reading—I loved being transported to fabulous other worlds, rendered magical by clever fiction writers. The first books I remember reading were those “learn to spell” picture books Dick and Dora. “This is Dick. Run, Dick, run.” I don’t remember Dora doing much running, but Nip sure did.
At age nine, I remember being asked by my teacher to read The Hobbit aloud. I had excellent comprehension skills and a quick eye, so I didn’t stumble over the tricky names or complex dialogue. No one else got up to read to the class. Towards the end of primary school, I was placed in an advanced reading strand along with one other boy and we were granted access to a more challenging set of kids’ literature. To keep up with my insatiable appetite, my mum enrolled me in a borrow-a-book club. Various slim paperbacks started arriving by mail every two weeks. It was so exciting! During lunchtime, I mostly hung out in the school library, sometimes just grabbing books off the shelves based on their cover. I attribute my pedantic grammar and spelling abilities to my voracious appetite for fiction. No wonder I became a writer!
I started hungering for meatier stories. I marveled at Anna Sewell’s novel Black Beauty, written from the point of view of a horse. I read that book so many times I virtually had it memorized. I even re-read it recently and was delighted to see the story was just as wonderful as the first time I encountered it. Next, I graduated to The Chronicles of Narnia series, set in all those magical, faraway places. I read those seven books so many times that I started experimenting with the chronology, reading them in different orders to reveal new story arcs. After The Hobbit, naturally I graduated to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I devoured in three weeks while on a South Pacific cruise with my family. I managed to get some sightseeing, swimming and lots of eating done, too, but I realized there’s nothing quite so satisfying as hanging out poolside and disappearing into a good fantasy book.
As I aged, I started to crave more edge to my reading. Enid Blyton’s mild adventures of the Famous Five led me to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. Now here was some fiction with a different kind of excitement, the kind that got you thinking and trying to guess the outcome.
As a teenager, I discovered the gritty dramas The Outsiders and Rumble Fish by S. E. Hinton. I remember feeling completely blown away when I learned the author was a girl—just like me! How did she learn to write like that? I sought out everything she wrote.
Crime fiction became my essential genre. I didn’t just delve into it…I became hooked on murder and deceit, drama and intrigue.
One Christmas, I spied an adult reading a paperback with a pretty monarch butterfly on the cover and snuck away with it. Suddenly, I was immersed in the grim prison world of Henri Charrière’s Papillion. The vicious crimes, the brutal punishment, the deprivation, the daring escape—this was a far cry from the tame scenarios of teen sleuths that I was used to. Midnight Express, with its torture and horrendous beatings in a hellish Turkish prison, gave me nightmares about being incarcerated. But I couldn’t stop; I was repulsed yet fascinated by these vivid memoirs, these traumatizing accounts from real life. I had officially crossed over to the dark side.
Crime fiction became my essential genre. I didn’t just delve into it; I had to read everything the authors had written, and then I had to re-read it in the order they had published it. I became hooked on murder and deceit, drama and intrigue. Agatha Christie’s detective novels were quaint but slight. I remember loving the language and perspicacity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary Sherlock Holmes but feeling disappointed that many of the storylines had been ripped off by Carolyn Keene in the Nancy Drew books. (I later learned “Keene” was just a collective pseudonym for a number of writers-for-hire.) Ian Fleming’s James Bond was an appealingly rakish hero—sexy, macho and daring. Patricia Highsmith introduced me to Tom Ripley, and for the first time I met an unreliable narrator with questionable morals. The stories of Australian author Peter Corris were set in the familiar streets and suburbs of Sydney, my hometown, so naturally I read them all. The works of Ruth Rendell and P. D. James, however, left me cold. I couldn’t understand their appeal at all.
One day, I crossed the pond into the United States and plunged into the seedy underbelly of urban crime fiction. Set during the depression days on the mean streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe were a different breed of detective. They weren’t noble like Holmes or plucky like Nancy. Thrillingly, they had one foot on either side of the law and mixed with unsavory types in dingy nightclubs before exchanging gunfire on rain-soaked streets. The opening lines of The Maltese Falcon were arresting because they coincidentally described an interesting guy I was working with: “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan.” That kind of writing was utterly addictive.
Sometimes my voracious appetite led me to an author whose descriptions made my stomach queasy. Jim Thompson’s The Grifters was fascinating, but The Killer Inside Me was downright disturbing. I only read that one twice. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo trilogy was imperative reading, but merely a taste of the Scandi-noir that’s available to consume. Truth to tell, my bingeing has been fairly limited, so there are plenty of crime fiction writers whose works I have yet to feast on. Next on my plate is Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series.
It was easy to lose myself in these seedy underworlds. Bingeing on crime fiction offered me an all-consuming yet safe escape route from everyday life to a thrillingly dark and suspenseful world of murder and intrigue. It didn’t shape my own fiction writing, as I have no inclination to write in this genre. Noir and detective novels simply provided an appealing and exciting diversion from my own work—and I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.