By Russel D McLean
I always find the question difficult, when people ask, “what book had the most profound effect upon your life” because I can never point to just one. It’s a kind of cumulative thing, I think. There was no one “eureka” moment for me, but a slow, gradual realisation that stories and storytelling somehow mattered to me.
However, I was recently asked a variant on this question that I found much easier, and perhaps in its own way revealing:
What books did you read as a child?
There are three distinct phases of my reading that stand out in my head. All of them, strangely, to do with series fiction rather than individual books.
The first phase that stands out is the one my mum didn’t like:
The Target novelisations of Doctor Who. I read these before I watched the show. And I loved them. They were simple adaptations with house style rhythms and repetitions. The TARDIS would always appear – no matter the author – with a “wheezing, groaning sound” and the fourth doctor was always a “bohemian” fellow. I think I loved these books because they really appealed to my imagination. I always had a weakness for stories that took place in outer space or other realities, so the Who books had a strong appeal. They were, in retrospect, filled with clichés and some very dodgy writing, but the ideas clearly appealed to me, even if my mum refused to buy them new for me – they would have to be secondhand or from the library. That was the rule. And I know why she did it. She wanted me to read other books as well.
And read other books, I did. Books like:
The Three Investigators.
Having just watched a bizarre and beautiful documentary about Alfred Hitchcock the other night, I am in the perfect frame of mind to think about the Three Investigators. After all, in those early books the Investigators worked for the great director himself. Or so the books claimed. I think it was one of those terrible moments of impending adulthood when I realised that Hitchcock himself did *not* write the introductions to the books. Something that still mildly distresses me to this day.
I also remember when I was reading the Three Investigators series that a lot of folks told me to read The Hardy Boys. I tried and failed. One of things that always sticks in my head clearly about the Three Investigators books was that the characters were very real in a way that the Hardy’s were not. The Hardy’s were wish fulfilment, impossibly lucky and gifted chaps, where the Investigators were more like me and my friends. They were flawed, a little eccentric and prone to improvising their way out of situations. The idea of their junkyards headquarters was also hugely appealing.
Its funny, because when I was a teen I was heavily into SF and this coloured my perception of my early reading for a while; it felt as though I had alwayus read SF. But the more I look back at what I was reading when I was younger, the more I see that the crime genre was what interested me because not only did I dig the Investigators, later on came
The Diamond Brothers.
These days, Anthony Horowitz is better known for his Alex Rider books. I don’t know the books, but I know they’re popular. For me, Horowitz will always be the creator of The Diamond Brothers; a London based detective duo comprising of Tim “world’s worst investigator” Diamond and his infinitely smarter younger brother, Nick.
The first of the books I read was South by Southeast; a superb parody that takes into account Hitchcock among numerous other sources. Later, watching Hitchock’s North by Northwest as a grown-up(ish) I began to appreciate all the touches Horowitz put into his novel, right down to the train sequence (unlike Cary Grant, however, poor Tim Diamond has his younger brother handcuffed to him throughout his entire attempt to charm the mysterious blonde they meet on the train) and the far more famous crop dusting scene.
I read the book again a few years ago, when I found it back at my parent’s house and was pleased to admit I found it every bit as funny as an adult, perhaps because this time I knew where Horowitz was coming from and got more of a subtext to the gags than I had before. And, of course, The Falcon’s Maltesers was my first introduction to Hammet long before I knew who he was, while Public Enemy Number Two (from what I remember, it was the only one I didn’t own, but borrowed many times from the library) was a pitch perfect gangster parody.
So, yes, while my first “adult” fiction-love tended to be for SF, I can see that even as a kid, it was the crime stories that got me excited. And does it say something that one of my favourite Who books was The Talons of Weng Chiang, a very deliberate homage to Sherlock Holmes?
When I first said I wanted to write, my dad said he could see me writing crime novels. I laughed, thinking at the time that I was going to be the next Philip K Dick, but when I look back on what I read as a child, and relate it to what I read now, what I write now, I can see that he was right on the money.
As he tends to be most of the time.