Genesis of a crime lover

Do you ever find yourself wondering why you love the books that you do? I was thinking about this last year, and found myself reviving some favourite reading memories. I guess you become a reader, or a football fan, or a painter partly because that's just you as an individual. There's something in you that responds to that particular hobby. Then there's the enthusiasm perhaps of someone who was close to you as a child that fuelled that spark - my Mum loved books. She would read just about anything but was especially keen on old fashioned romances. With the exception of Elizabeth Goudge, that wasn't a taste that we shared.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day
But some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around books and Mum. Long before I even started school, we'd cuddle up on the sofa mid-morning with a hot milk and a biscuit. Mum would listen to her favourite radio soap (I seem to remember it was a long forgotten show called Waggoner's walk, which she loved). Then she'd open a storybook and read to me following the words with her finger as she did so, then at 11, it was time for Listen with Mother, which was never ever so good as my real listening and reading with my mother.

We read out way through pop-up stories of Grimms' fairy tales (I found Hansel and Gretel particularly terrifying). I adored the Arabian nights and spent many a happy Sunday afternoon trying to persuade my Great-Uncle's real Persian rug to fly. There was a series about the author's naughty little sister, which my Mum loved, and a beautifully illustrated copy of Black Beauty which led to us both sitting sobbing on the sofa. There was Struwwelpeter, which we both hated, Alice in Wonderland, and Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare (I loved it, but Mum was never a Shakespeare fan). Most of all though there was Enid Blyton - lots and lots of Enid Blyton. Oddly enough, I think she's the author who was most responsible for my love of crime fiction. It started with a book I inherited from my cousin...

Enid Blyton is well known for her children's mystery series, most notably the Secret Seven and the Famous Five (who have been brilliantly lampooned recently). She also wrote quite a few standalone mysteries, but the series that really captured my heart, starting with that very first mystery from my beloved cousin, Dave, was the "R" mystery series, also sometimes known as the Barney mysteries. I started reading them again last year - the first time I've ever read them in sequence. And I was surprised both by how well many of them stood up as mysteries, but also by how unlike they were to the standard impression of Enid Blyton. The children still enjoyed their adventures, and there were picnics, and good weather, and one of the best ever portrayals of a spaniel in any fiction (I suspect Blyton may hold some responsibility for that passion too), but these weren't just posh school kids, there's an underlying reality here that's rather different from what you might expect.

The first novel in the series, The Rockingdown Mystery, introduces you to the central characters. Roger and Diana Linton are happy if rather serious children, away at boarding school for much of the year, back at home for the holidays with a nice middle-class life, Mum, Dad and a couple of servants who adore the children. So far, so Blyton. But then their cousin, Snubby, is thrown into the mix - naughty and irrepressible - with his beloved dog, Looney, Snubby is an orphan, who is passed around between his relations. Looney is the only true constant in his life.

It struck me reading this so many years later, that I had never wondered what had happened to Snubby's parents. Indeed, unlike Harry Potter, who is at least given a false story of his parents' demise, nothing more is said about Snubby's background. But it also struck me that it is treated as though it's a common thing, and the timing of the publication is vital here, as Blyton was writing just a few years after the war. Snubby's parents must surely have perished in the conflict.

The three cousins are together for the holidays, when a travelling fair brings adventures and a new friend in a fairground boy, Barney, and his pet monkey, Miranda. Barney's mother, who was also a fairground artist is dead, it also becomes very clear to an adult reader that Barney is illegitimate, and is now desperately trying to find the father who he thought was dead, and is unaware of his son's existence. The mystery of Barney's father underlies the first four novels in the series until they are reunited in the fourth book.

A gift from my cousin
All six stories are fun children's mysteries, but they also do what good crime fiction always does superbly, albeit at a more simplistic level. There is social commentary here too, on loss and grief and coping, on child exploitation and cruelty, on discrimination and acceptance. Perhaps, I always had some awareness that these stories had a greater depth to them, or perhaps it was just like any good story, they drew me in and kept me there. It was perhaps inevitable that the Rockingdown, Rilloby Fair, Rubadub, Ring o'bells, Rat-a-tat and Ragamuffin mysteries prepared the way for one of my favourite childhood mysteries "The young detectives", and then, one day, I discovered the only fiction book that my grandfather (another great reader) possessed - Sparkling cyanide by Agatha Christie. And many Dorothy L.Sayers, P.D. James, Kathy Reichs etc etc later, the rest is history.

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