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In Which I Become a Mystery Fan

I was supposed to spend my final semester in college working on my honors thesis, a spectacularly turgid comparison of Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud. I did not do this. Most of my time was given over to a series of romantic dramas, with some actual paid acting work on the side. With about five days till deadline, I bought a fistful of illegal diet pills, strapped myself to my typewriter, and set to cranking out some sixty pages of deathless prose.  

Come that deadline I was so twitchy from five days without sleep that I could barely make it to my advisor’s office. But I did make it, dropped off the envelope, and somehow staggered back to my house, where I found my roommate, Kenny, reading in the kitchen. “What is that?” I asked hoarsely, peering at his paperback.

“It’s….it’s a murder-mystery,” Kenny said. He wasn’t exactly frightened, but there was a very weird light in my eyes.

I narrowed them. “Does it have any social theory in it?” I said.

He shook his head.

“THEN GIVE IT TO ME!” I hissed, and I believe snakes may have slithered from my mouth. Kenny threw the book on the table and ran; I clutched it to my chest and lurched up the stairs, grunting to myself. I opened the book – it was Mortal Stakes, by Robert B. Parker – and was healed. 

Not too much later I graduated from college, and moved into my father’s apartment. I was meant to be starting my life as a famous actress, but instead I got a job selling wigs over the telephone. At night I plundered my father’s bookshelves, and discovered the world of smartass detective-fiction. My dad had piles of mass-market paperbacks – all of Robert Parker, to be sure, but also Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake and Roger Simon, and – my special love – Gregory McDonald, author of the “Fletch” series and the better (but less well known) series about Frances Xavier Flynn. I devoured them all, but Parker’s “Spenser” books had and still have a special place in my heart. 

At the bookstore, we had a section devoted to “100 of the Best We’ve Ever Read,” and Mortal Stakes had a place of honor there, for all of our 18-year run. A customer asked me once about it: Did I really think it was one of the world's great mystery novels? No, I didn’t. Not even the best of the “Spenser” series. So….why did we give the book such a place of importance? he asked. I smiled. “Because for me, that started it all.” 


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