Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Criminally Amusing

‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ so sayeth the Jesuits but in my case it was more a case of ten or eleven. It was at that age that I mentioned casually to my mother that there was a hard-backed copy of the Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories occupying a huge chunk of shelf space in my primary school library and she immediately instructed me to borrow it for her to read.

My mother was a great devourer of detective fiction – Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret was her favourite - and a chance to read all the Sherlock Holmes stories at a stroke was too good to miss. So it was that I ended up struggling home with the massive tome one fateful afternoon. The book took up residence in our home for so long that, out of curiosity, I started to read it myself and having finished it I, too, became hooked on crime fiction.

In my teens I read all 80-odd Agatha Christie novels and then graduated on to writers such as Dorothy L Sayers, Ruth Rendell, P D James and a host of others. It had become my favourite genre and to a large degree, still is.

My other preferred reading style can be traced to the school book club, operated by my English master at secondary school. This was designed to allow pupils to purchase books at low prices and thus benefit from our rich cultural heritage. Unfortunately, not all the books on the monthly lists were of what the school would consider an improving nature. My first purchases included ‘The Art of Coarse Rugby’ by humorist Michael Green who wrote a whole series of ‘Art of Coarse...’ books in the 1950s and ‘How to be Topp’ by another humorist, Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by Ronald Searle (of St Trianians fame). Willans was an ex-school master himself and his books are about life at a fictional post war boarding school, St Custards, written through the world-weary eyes of pupil Nigel Molesworth (the gorilla of any fule kno!)

His Molesworth books were a riot of poor spelling and uncannily adept insight into the schoolboy mind and I loved them...and still do. These two writers led me to humorist novels and pretty soon the likes of P G Wodehouse, Keith Waterhouse and Spike Milligan followed.

And thus were born from an early age my duel reading preferences which have remained largely unchanged all my life. Funnily enough, I now find myself reading many of the American crime writers like Sue Grafton and particularly, Janet Evanovich, who combine the traditional crime mystery with a degree of either wry or madcap humour. For me, the perfect combination.

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