Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Who Is Your Favorite Sleuth?

By Martha Reed

Everyone I talk to who’s a mystery writer has come to it from one of two ways: either through true crime stories or because of the mystery stories they read and at some point decided to write. We all know that Truman Capote blurred the line between true crime and fiction with IN COLD BLOOD and I can promise you that I had a couple of sleepless nights after reading about the Manson Family in HELTER SKELTER but what I wondered about for today’s blog is: who is your favorite sleuth?

Did you start out with Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys? Stumble across a massive old volume of A. Conan Doyle on your grandfather’s bookshelf as I did and disappear for so long your mother had to come looking for you? The Hound of the Baskervilles changed the way I viewed storytelling forever and to be honest there was a serious period of adolescence when I considered Sherlock Holmes a close personal friend; forget the fact that he was fictional. Mere existence was irrelevant.

But the sleuth who really led me to it was Lord Peter Wimsey and I’m proud to say I stumbled upon him myself. I have an old copy of a collection of Lord Peter short stories that I know was mine – my name and the date 1982 is written on the flyleaf and it kind of freaks me out to think of where I was in time and in my life when I must have purchased this book. I had graduated from college and was starting out, so I know money must have been tight and yet somehow I plunked down $7.95 (plus tax) for this collection. I know I loved it – as I reread some of the stories I still have bits of it memorized and the binding is so broken that I have to hold the book together with both hands or the pages fall into my lap. This book means so much more to me now than it ever could have 27 years ago. Whoever would have guessed I’d be a mystery writer? Yes, all the signs were there but I didn’t know enough to figure out what they meant.

To honor my favorite sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey (and his creator Dorothy L. Sayers) I’d like to insert a little bit of the writing here from one of my favorite short stories The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention. Lord Peter’s horse has picked up an engine bolt in her shoe and he has had to stop and dismount to remove it. He's about to meet the Death Coach of the Burdocks:

“The nut resisted his efforts, and the mare, touched in a tender spot, pulled away, trying to get her foot down. He soothed her with his voice and patted her neck. The torch slipped from his arm. He cursed it impatiently, set down the hoof, and picked up the torch from the edge of the grass, into which it had rolled. As he straightened himself again, he looked along the road and saw.

Up from under the dripping dark of the trees is came, shining with a thin, moony radiance. There was no clatter of hoofs, no rumble of wheels, no ringing of bit or bridle. He saw the white, sleek, shining shoulders with the collar that lay on each, like a faint fiery ring, enclosing nothing. He saw the gleaming reins, their cut ends slipping back and forward unsupported through the ring of the hames. The feet, that never touched the earth, ran swiftly – four times four noiseless hoofs, bearing the pale bodies by like smoke. The driver leaned forward, brandishing his whip. He was faceless and headless, but his whole attitude bespoke desperate haste. The coach was barely visible through the driving rain, but Wimsey saw the dimly spinning wheels and a faint whiteness, still and stiff, at the window. It went past at a gallop – headless driver and headless horse and silent coach. Its passing left a stir, a sound that was less a sound than a vibration – and the wind roared suddenly after it, with a great sheet of water blown up out of the south.
“Good God!” said Wimsey. And then: “How many whiskies did we have?”

To really see how good this writing is, read it aloud and see how melodically it trips across your lips and over your tongue. I swear I can even hear the cadence from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in it but that could be my over-imagination.

To finish up, I’m curious to hear your story. What led you to a life of crime and/or who is your favorite sleuth? And Why?


Annette said...

Interesting post, Martha.

I started with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and then moved on to Agatha Christie.

My favorite sleuth tends to change from year to year and ranges from Christie's Hercule Poirot to Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan.

Martha Reed said...

Hi, Annette. Agatha Christie led an interesting life. Have you read her biography? I'm partial to Miss Marple (in small doses) although Christie wrote one book based in ancient Egypt that I loved way back when. I don't think it was Death on the Nile. Hummm.. I'll have to look that title up again.

Joyce said...

I started with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, too. Then (although not technically mystery writers) I moved on to Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney. I should probably add Mary Stewart and Barbara Michaels.

I don't really have a favorite sleuth--more like a top five: Clare Fergusson, Anna Pigeon, Sharon McCone, Harry Bosch, and Kinsey Millhone.

Jennie Bentley said...

God, that gave me chills! I've read (I own) all the Lord Peter Wimsey books, but I must have missed a few short stories, because this doesn't ring a bell. Brrr!

I read Nancy and Trixie and the Hardy boys as a kid, then moved on to Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L and Quentin Patrick - who's actually one of my all-time favorite writers/writing teams. The big one for me, though, was Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Michaels/Mertz). I stumbled on 'Night Train to Memphis' in 1994 and was floored.

As for a favorite sleuth, I don't know if I can pick one. Lord Peter is awesome. So is Inspector Alleyn (Ngaio Marsh). And like Joyce, I really like Clare Fergusson. And Amelia Peabody, although I don't really usually go for historicals. Ditto Falco (Lindsey Davis).

(You'll appreciate this, Joyce. I went to a private party with Sue Grafton this weekend. Nice lady, very encouraging to us small fry. "U is for Undertow" is coming next month!)

Lovely post, Martha!

Dana King said...

I had the traditional childhood start: HArdy Boys and Sherlock Holmes.

Mike Hammer put the hook in for adult mysteries in general, but the sleuth that got me to want to write seriously was Phillip Marlowe.

SZ said...

I really like the humor of Harlan Cobens Myron Bolitar.

Martha Reed said...

Well, here's another suggestion: how about Travis McGee?