Michael Connelly is appearing in the ABC show “Castle” tonight. You can find the episode here: http://abc.go.com/shows/castle and feel free to contact Michael to urge him not to take the big-dollar acting offers and give up on writing. I know I will.
On other castle fronts: Mystery Scene magazine recently asked me to participate in their “Writers on Reading” feature with a short essay about a book of influence. I sat down to work on it thinking I’d dust off another version of my consistent love song to Dennis Lehane’s “Gone, Baby, Gone” or Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye” or Michael Connelly’s “The Poet” or…
Then I read the essay Carolyn Hart had provided, in which she reflected back on the early mysteries of her reading life. The first mystery I ever read was a young adult novel from the 1950s called “The Crow and the Castle.” In the book, a crow (named Hector) steals a chess piece (technically a rook but the often-substituted term castle makes for a better title) and thus the caper ensues. The “Carson Street Detective Agency,” comprised of two friends, Neil Lambert and Swede Larson, steps in to handle the mess. It’s a great children’s novel — the characters are realistic, the suspense is high, it’s educational in a sneaky, this-fits-right-into-the-plot way, it’s funny, and it’s able to laugh at itself in a way that allows kids to be in on the joke, and not winked at over the top of the material in the patronizing manner of some movies or books that are praised for being “fun for the parents, too!”
The novel hooked me on reading, writing, and detecting. No, really. I started to make my own attempts at writing — mimicking Robertson’s every move — after discovering the book; I began to read voraciously; I decided I would become a private detective in addition to being a writer. Most children develop as human beings after these eight-year-old epiphanies. I apparently did not, but I ain’t complaining. Throughout school and right on into my career, I stayed locked into two paths: writing and detective work. I’ve been fortunate enough to do both professionally. When I look back on the impact of that novel, it’s eerie to consider.
The novel was long out of print by the time I read it. My father remembered it as a favorite from his own childhood, and the Monroe County Public Library had two copies. I read every book Keith Robertson wrote — he was best known for the very funny Henry Reed series — but the mysteries were my favorites, and it’s interesting to me to note that they often embodied shared themes: the young protagonists had a realistic but deep love affair with the land around them and the history of that land, and weather often played a central role. Anyone who doubts the influence of children’s books on a writer should peruse “So Cold the River” and consider those three elements. But, then, it’s already been admitted that I progressed very little from the time I was eight.
I wrote Keith Robertson a letter after discovering his books, and with the help of a patient research librarian, found the address for his farm in New Jersey. The letter arrived a few weeks after he passed away. (Robertson died on September 23. I was born on September 20. My first novel was published on September 19. One of the other great literary influences in my life, Stephen King — I’ve written before about the impact his memoir/guide “On Writing” had on me — was apparently born on September 21. There’s something about that week for me…)
Keith Robertson never read my letter. His son, Jeff, did, and he wrote me a response. I immediately wrote back, and Jeff, for a reason I’ll never understand, held up his end of the chain. For years. He encouraged my writing, told me stories about his father, about his own experiences (he’d sailed around the world; often I’d get letters after he’d made port again), and offered reading suggestions. We fell out of touch for a few years when I was in my late teens, but when I found out my first novel, Tonight I Said Goodbye, was going to be published, it became important to me to track him down. This was where the detective work came in handy — it took a bit of effort. We had a nice exchange and have continued to on occasion since. I’ve tracked down most of his father’s books by now. I found one signed copy. That one gave me a thrill.
I enjoy considering the ripples and threads, moments chained upon moments that make up a narrative, the plot points of real life. I can follow a lot of threads back to “The Crow and the Castle,” and to Keith Robertson, and to letters exchanged with his son. I’ve never met Jeff, but I hope to someday — talk about a generous soul!
Last year I stopped by a small Wisconsin town to visit the “August Derleth Room” in a pint-sized library. Derleth was a prolific writer, and the founder of Arkham House, a horror publisher whose books were of tremendous influence to the genre in which I’m working of late. His impact on me — direct impact — came through a series about the “Mill Creek Irregulars,” young would-be detectives with a love of the land, its history, and the weather. Long-out-of-print books, but remembered by my father as favorites.
They had to unlock the Derleth room for me in the library basement; it doesn’t see many visitors. It’s nice that he has a tribute there, but it meant more to me to walk the Wisconsin River in the place where he’d set so many stories. Someday, I want to make it out to Hopewell, New Jersey, and find Booknoll Farm, where Keith Robertson lived and wrote. I’m guessing it won’t be much of a tourist destination, either. That’s fine. That’s great. There’s something special in the idea — and something very reassuring to me as a writer — that the tales should long outlast the tellers.