When I was a teenager in California, we had a huge built-in bookcase in the family room of our house; basically, only one side of the room featured a standard-issue wall, one side was entirely glass, one side was a brick fireplace, and the fourth side was floor-to-ceiling bookcases, stuffed to capacity and beyond with all manner of reading material. In addition to the Encyclopedia Americana, there were numerous other reference books on aviation, history, and sciences of all manner; National Geographic illustrated coffee-table tomes, Reader’s Digest condensed books, and even a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, a slightly catty gift from my aunt to my mother one Christmas, which touched off (or at least fueled) a years-long family feud.
The fiction on offer tended toward war stories (Ernest K. Gann, Herman Wouk, James Michener, et al), mysteries (John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Richard S. Prather), and a whole bunch of books by some guy I had never heard of, by the name of Nevil Shute. Because my parents were huge Shute fans, I knew with the surety of my advanced sixteen years that his books would be lame beyond belief; there would be no steamy love scenes, no swear words, and pathetically little action. Even when I heard the plot outlines, I was left unmoved, and the one time I actually picked one up, I put it down after just one chapter.
Of course a certain amount of reading was required in high school: The Red Badge of Courage, Great Expectations, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter. I remember thinking at the time that it was a wonder that we all didn’t voluntarily poke our own eyes out with sharpened sticks, rather than have to read aloud from these books every day in English class. So in the evening, faced with the desperation that stems from only one television in the house, which was typically tuned to something I didn’t want to watch, I raided the bookshelves for something a little less weighty than the school curriculum choices. Choosing to defy conventional wisdom, and prejudge the paperback books by their covers, I was naturally attracted to the mystery novels, with their lurid jackets featuring sultry babes en deshabille (hey, I was sixteen, what do you expect?). By contrast, the Nevil Shute books were mostly hard cover, with the dust jackets long gone, so they were something of an unknown quantity to be dealt with at a later date.
Long story short, I went through the mysteries like the proverbial hot knife through butter, never realizing that I was laying the paving stones for a later-life career. Lew Archer, Travis McGee, Mike Hammer, Shell Scott—these guys were what I wanted to be, or at least be like, when I grew up. When I finished all the “hardboiled” mysteries I could get my hands on, I turned my attention to the likes of Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers, from whom I learned a bit about the elements of romance (as applied to a detective novel) as well as arcane ways to murder someone (I believe it was Professor Plumnose, in the drawing room, with the ampule of curare…). Finally, however, I worked my way through the entire selection on hand, and all that was left was…Nevil Shute.
(to be continued…)