At least I don’t think I did. Maybe I picked one up, struggled through it, and never went back. I can’t be sure, but I suspect I did because I’ve had a life-long dislike of detective stories that had to come from an early age.
Because those stories made me feel stupid.
Whether or not it was Encyclopedia Brown or the Hardy Boys or some generic detective stories I always felt cheated at the end. Either there was a key piece of information that I somehow glossed over early on, or the main character possessed the ability to wring out a logical connection between different clues that never would have occurred to me. Instead of a feeling of pleasant surprise and marvel I felt like the author was laughing at me for not figuring it out.
But I get it. There are people who love the thrill of following the clues, ruling out the red herrings, second-guessing motives. There is a secret delight in not knowing, a build-up of tension as the detective gets closer to finding out the truth at their own peril, and the release when it all comes together in the end. I simply found the exercise as excruciating as watching reruns of I Love Lucy.
Later, in college, I fell into the writings of Chandler and Cain and other hardboiled detective fiction because of the style. The mysteries themselves were incidental to the wise-cracking dialog and twisted metaphors the narrators used. In the end the mystery of who or why didn’t matter because the surprise of the double-cross was almost always a pretext for underscoring the main character’s folly. It was the detective who missed the key clues or trusted the wrong person and was made the fool.
Even later when I studied various forms of narrative storytelling I learned the structural underpinnings and the formula for the mystery became clear as day. TV shows are the most transparent when it comes to formula, telegraphing their plot developments in neat little packages. Movies, too. But as I became more adept at seeing the solution within the structure many people around me continue to marvel, as if the solution could only be gleaned through some supernatural power. I remember good friends who were willing to put down money (the cost of my movie ticket, plus snacks) that I couldn’t guess the twist in the movie “The Sixth Sense” because they, as wise and experienced as they were, were unable to see it coming. I remember leaning over in the first five minutes and guessing the movie’s big reveal a full two hours in advance. I didn’t do it to be obnoxious, but I also didn’t understand how they could have missed it. Structurally, it was pretty freakin’ obvious.
I suppose if I hadn’t been so easily frustrated with detective stories at a young age I might have developed a better sense of plot structure at an earlier on. It would have been nice to not feel like stories and storytelling was such a mystery for most of my school years, or that I was somehow stupid for not being able to guess a whodunnit.
Donald J. Sobel, the creator of the Encyclopedia Brown series of books, died this past week at the age of 87. The 56 books in the series have never been out of print and have been instrumental in helping generations of fledgling readers achieve a mastery of reading. I would personally be proud of that as an accomplishment, though it would have to be some other genre than detective stories.
Because I would hate to make some young reader feel the way I did when I was young.