The Oddball Kid and the Adventure of the Paperback Heroes
The Oddball Kid and the Adventure of the Paperback Heroes is a critical essay by Dale Davis exploring the paperback heroes of his childhood: Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, comic heroes and others.
Sometime during 1972, I said farewell to Doctor Dolittle and the Hardy Boys. I had been hanging out with Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. I was 12 years old, bored with the adventures of a man who talked to animals or of teenage detectives who solved mysteries between going to school and tinkering with their roadster.
My passion for comic books was ebbing too, more from the difficulty in finding the next issue in a continuing story than from a loss of interest in the characters. Coming to the last panel in a book to find the words “To Be Continued” was a pain in the neck. Chances were I would not find that next issue.
I liked mysteries, and while I had read a number of books in the Three Investigators series and the Hardy Boys series, I longed for something more mature. I had read several Sherlock Holmes short stories, but I was not a fan yet. In the stories, Holmes and Watson never fought the Nazis as they did in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies that played on Saturday afternoon television.
My passion for comic books was ebbing too, more from the difficulty in finding the next issue in a continuing story than from a loss of interest in the characters.
Reading the stories on which those movies were based was a let-down. Holmes and Watson were the same men, but they were not the same characters. The tales had the same titles, but they were not the same stories. For goodness’ sake, in the stories, Holmes and Watson raced around London in horse-drawn carriages.
My reading tastes were changing. I was changing. In my mind, I galloped around town on my white charger but longed for the day I could switch from riding a bicycle to driving a car. In my mind, I always rescued the cute blonde girl in home room, my damsel in distress, but most days, I barely knew what to say to her.
I watched movies and television shows that featured confident, suave, and self-assured heroes. I yearned to be to be cool and confident as they were, and every morning, I debated whether to go another day not shaving the few whiskers on my upper lip that I knew made me look cool and mature.
Reading was no simple pastime for me, no page or two in the evenings if there were no good shows on tv. Reading was my escape from being twelve years old.
Two authors whose books I had seen on the metal spinner rack in my father’s drug store were Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie. One day I decided to find a book by either writer at the public library. To do so, however, meant wandering over to the Adult Fiction side of the building.
During an earlier visit to that side of the library, the older librarian stopped and barked that I was in the wrong part of the library. She didn’t move until I returned to the kids’ section. I’m sure she could have been a nice lady in another life-time, but I thought librarians were supposed to encourage kids to read.
Disgruntled and disappointed with her protecting me from moral corruption, I wandered back to the kids’ section but couldn’t force myself to check out Pippi Longstocking, another Hardy Boys adventure, or some other “age-appropriate” book. This day, however, was my lucky day. The old lady was not there.
Afraid she might suddenly appear from a back room, I rushed to the Q’s and selected a book entitled Ellery Queen’s Poetic Justice. I carried the book to the front desk, signed my name on the card stuck in the sleeve glued to the inside cover, and dashed outside, hopping on my bike with my prize and rushing home.
…I wandered back to the kids’ section but couldn’t force myself to check out Pippi Longstocking, another Hardy Boys adventure…
In the solitude of my Inner Sanctum, my bedroom, I read the book’s description on the back cover and inspected the table of contents. Poetic Justice was no book-length adventure featuring detective Ellery Queen. It was a collection of literary short stories and poems featuring crime-related themes by authors who were not usually considered crime writers. Poetry? The old lady had won the fight again.
Ten Days’ Wonder was my first Ellery Queen novel. During a family shopping trip to Memphis, I bought a paperback edition at Waldenbooks. I did not know at the time that the book was Ellery’s third case set in the fictional New England town of Wrightsville. Neither did I know that this book, published in 1948, featured a more mature version of Ellery Queen rather than the ultra-intellectual, pence-nez-wearing Ellery of earlier books. These were pre-internet days, and information wasn’t available for me to learn beforehand about the book.
Ten Days’ Wonder featured a strange, bizarre, even surreal story far different than any Hardy Boys’ adventure. The story unfolds slowly, and several times I wondered what I had bought. The characters were intriguing, but what was the mystery? A murder finally occurs in the eighth chapter entitled “The Eighth Day.”
Poetic Justice was no book-length adventure featuring detective Ellery Queen. It was a collection of literary short stories and poems…by authors who were not usually considered crime writers.
The ending, however, astonished me. Instead of one concluding chapter as in a typical detective story that unmasks the villain and offers the detective’s explanation to the mystery, the book presents two explanations. To top it off, Ellery gets everything wrong the first time. He makes mistakes because he misreads the clues right in front of him. Ellery Queen is fallible, and that fallibility not only humanizes him, it revealed to me how making mistakes and dealing with the consequences played a major part of growing up.
This was strange and heady stuff, nothing like other mysteries I had read. Would Frank and Joe Hardy have confronted a killer and, after explaining how they solved the mystery, left the villain with no choice but to write a full confession and then blow his brains out? Nothing that twisted had appeared from the typewriter of Franklin W. Dixon. This story was full of deception, jealousy, envy, madness, adultery, and murder, and I loved every page of it.
Ten Days’ Wonder featured a strange, bizarre, even surreal story far different than any Hardy Boys’ adventure.
I was hooked on Ellery Queen after reading Ten Days’ Wonder, and I searched the library for more titles. I later discovered that Ellery Queen, the author, was a pseudonym for cousins Manfred Lee and Frederic Dannay. In a picture on the back of one book, the two cousins looked nothing like the character of Ellery Queen. They looked like normal, average guys. The character Ellery Queen was no tough-guy private eye or burly police detective.
He was an amateur sleuth, and he helped his father, Inspector Richard Queen of the New York City police department, solve the most bizarre crimes. The police never dismissed Ellery as some foolish busy-body who had no business involving himself with police matters. They respected his intelligence and his ability to work through the clues to catch the killer. People took him seriously, something any 12-year-old kid desperately wants.
Ellery Queen was a writer who solved mysteries. I loved that idea. I wanted to be a writer. When I was in the third grade, I wrote a Sherlock Holmes story in which the world’s greatest consulting detective solved the murder of the mayor of London. Of course, I wasn’t sure what kind of writer I wanted to be, and I didn’t know how to be a writer. Tagging along with Ellery Queen to Wrightsville, though, had opened a door to a new level of escapism. Frank and Joe Hardy were always going to stay stuck in high school, and I didn’t want to stay there with them.
Third Girl introduced me to Agatha Christie’s work, and I read the book during the week of the 1972 Republican National Convention. Politics didn’t interest me when I was twelve, so I secluded myself in the living room and read the book every night while Republicans nominated Richard Nixon for a second term.
Third Girl is a later Christie book, published in the 1960s, and she attempts to examine the generation gap between older people like my parents and grandparents and young people with their long hair, loud music, and so-called loose morals. Christie’s detective, retired Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, tries to help a young woman who dismisses him, blurting that he is too old to understand her predicament.
Poirot was weird, strange, and odd, and I wasn’t sure what to make of his vain obsession with his moustache. Mine wasn’t as luxurious as his was. I didn’t understand his exclamations in French. Yet, I knew how it felt when others dismissed a 12-year-old kid because he was too young to understand certain things.
I can’t say that Christie’s book provides an illuminating portrait of the social changes of the 1960s. I am no cultural historian or sociologist. The mystery, though, fascinated me. Poirot, the amateur detective, fascinated me. I connected with Poirot’s foreignness. The younger characters view him with skepticism and some mistrust. His fussiness over his appearance sets him apart from others; his inflated ego irritates many. The fact that he is Belgian sets him even more apart from polite British society.
Poirot’s amateur status, like Ellery Queen’s, makes him an oddity. The police accept his work on murder investigations, yet he is an outsider. The suspects in the case allow him within their social circles but never accept him as a member of their society. After reading other Agatha Christie novels, I noticed that polite society’s occasional patronizing manner to Poirot’s foreignness angers him, yet he understands his difference to others and sometimes uses that difference to his advantage when the pompous and condescending suspects who dismiss him fail to see that he observes everything.
I understood the awkwardness of being part of a group but also being different. A 12-year-old is no longer a child, not yet a teenager, and definitely not an adult.
I rarely felt isolated or outcast at school. My classmates and I were all the same age; we took the same classes. At home, though, I acutely felt that isolation. While my parents never ignored me, I was the youngest of three children. My brother attended college and went out all the time with his buddies or on dates. My sister attended high school and dated a steady boyfriend. I perceived my isolation as more substantial than it was, and I longed to escape the confines of home on Saturday nights.
My interests in reading also created a sense of awkwardness. I don’t think my friends were avid readers. If they were, they were not fans of mystery and detective fiction as I was. We didn’t discuss books that we read. I am not sure if that was a guy thing, or if I was the weird one of the bunch because I read so much. My heroes were not swashbuckling space captains or kings of the jungle. My heroes were a writer who solved mysteries, a retired Belgian detective, and a little old lady who knitted and who stared evil squarely in the eye.
The Moving Finger introduced me to Miss Jane Marple. In the pre-cable era, WREG television in Memphis ran movies several times a day. Thanks to their late show which aired around 10:30 every evening, I had seen Murder at the Gallop, Murder Ahoy, and other films starring Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple. “A Miss Marple Mystery” stretched across the cover under the title of the copy I had checked out from the library, so I anticipated a good read similar to the comic airiness of the Rutherford movies.
Instead, an injured aviator named Jerry Burton narrates the book about poison pen letters and other evil goings-on in a small English village. Miss Marple doesn’t appear in the book until the final third of the story.
I guess it was the oddity, the unfamiliarity, of the narrative that intrigued me about The Moving Finger, much like Ten Days Wonder had. Both books didn’t fit the pattern of what I expected from a detective novel. In The Moving Finger, Miss Marple seems a minor character, an afterthought to the narrative. She was an old lady knitting a scarf or some article of clothing. Who notices little old ladies? But, before the end, she figures out who the killer is and helps the police catch the villain. Who notices little old ladies, indeed? Who notices 12-year-old kids, for that matter?
I recall no Harry Potter-like book phenomenon during the Seventies, no mega-hit series popular with kids my age. More than any book that the school or public librarians suggested, the paperback books on the spinner rack in my father’s store fascinated and captivated me: the James Bond series, reprints of Doc Savage, the Shadow, and G-8 and his Flying Aces; books by Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and Erle Stanley Gardner. And what 12-year-old boy wouldn’t find tantalizing the books by John D. Macdonald and Mickey Spillaine with their covers featuring provocatively-dressed women?
When I was twelve, I resisted the literature my teachers insisted was good for me. My classmates and I didn’t simply have to read the stories, we had to figure out all that stuff like symbolism and theme. If we didn’t do well on the tests, we hated those stories even more.
I longed for the literature of escapism. I loved when there was a Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allan Poe story in our textbooks. A grisly murder, a thrilling chase, the nabbing of the villain, these carried me away from the boredom of being stuck at home. However, the Batmobile never pulled into my parents’ driveway. Holmes and Watson never stopped by, telling me to pack one of my dad’s pipes and plenty of tobacco because the game was afoot. James Bond never needed a sidekick.
Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie presented me with fantasies that were strange yet ordinary, tales set in places so different from my hometown, yet so familiar. Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, and Jane Marple hardly qualified as typical boys’ adventure heroes compared to the superheroes of the comic books that I had devoured for years. These three amateur detectives connected with me in ways I vaguely understood at the time.
Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie presented me with fantasies that were strange yet ordinary…
I was the quiet one in the family. I never said much to others, especially grown-ups. I was tall, but chunky, slightly overweight—what the Sears Roebuck catalog characterized as “husky”—and I wore glasses. All these things made me an oddball. I wanted to be confident, handsome, strong, dashing. Masked heroes from comic books and the movies appealed to me, everyone from Captain America and Spider-Man to Zorro and Doctor Syn, the Scarecrow.
Their alter egos were meek and unthreatening, but behind their masks, these characters were daring, fearless, and courageous. I was stuck in Clark Kent’s body, and there were no phone booths in my home town to duck in and emerge as Superman. The amateur sleuths in these detective novels were ordinary people.
They didn’t hide their strength and appear cowardly and weak. They were outsiders, and they were confident being outsiders. They were themselves, and I had to learn to be confident in myself. I had to learn to be myself.
The literature of the fantastic is only fantasy in those extraordinary elements that set aside the hero from ordinary people, such as the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound or the ability to cloud men’s minds. The best fantasies emphasize characters who possess ordinary human traits, so while a 12-year-old boy realizes he will never cloud men’s minds, he will observe how others act and he will draw conclusions about human nature based on those observations.
He will recognize that he may feel like an oddball to others, but if he remains true to himself, he will understand that everybody around him is fairly odd. Any pre-teen kid wonders where he fits in. He perceives there are things he may not understand yet, but if he persists and remains vigilant in his investigation, the truths behind the mysteries of the human heart will reveal themselves to him.
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