Re: RARA-AVIS: you're HOW old?

From: Bob Toomey (
Date: 06 Jan 2000 wrote:
> Jim Doherty mentioned his belief that most people on this list were first
> "blown away" by a hard-boiled writer while they were in high school. I'm
> wondering if that is true, just as I am wondering if most of you were born
> after '58, as another recent post suggested.

I was born three weeks after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. My mother taught me to read when I was four and by the time I was ten I'd read everything, fiction and nonfiction, that was available in the juvenile room of the local library. With my parents written permission, the library then allowed me to check out books from the adult section.

My early favorites were the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks, Fran Striker's Lone Ranger series, Rachel Carson's THE SEA AROUND US, retellings of Greek and Norse mythology, Heinlein's juveniles, Kipling, Poe. I memorized the poetry of the latter two and, being a kid, I giggled at Poe's line about how "angels tinkled on the tufted floor." But it was the driving rhythms of Kipling that really turned me on.

The first things I read in the adult section, on my father's recommendation, were the Tarzan and Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs -- not sure why they weren't in the juvenile room. The Martian novels were my favorites, with all those weird critters and scantily clad Barsoomian lassies. I went through a major Western period: Luke Short, Zane Gray, Frank Gruber, William Colt McDonald, W. C. Tuttle, Dorothy M. Johnson, etc.

Not much SF was available in hardcover those days, but I read what I could find: Groff Conklin's thick anthologies, Heinlein again, Van Vogt, Asimov, Clarke, Sturgeon, the usual suspects. Ray Bradbury and Fredric Brown were my favorites. In the meantime, I was plucking stuff randomly off the shelves: social novels by James T. Farrell -- as a young second generation Massachusetts Irish Catholic farmboy, I found his stories about Irish ghetto life in Chicago fascinating -- Willard Motley, Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair -- another of my father's recommendations. I expect these realistic tales formed the foundation of my interest in HB fiction. I was especially fond of comic novels and stories. Among my favorites were the Don Camillo books by Giovanni Guareschi, anything by P. G. Wodehouse, the Gunner Asch books by Hans Hellmut Kirst, Guy Gilpatric's tales of that rogue Glencannon, anything by Thurber, Robert Benchley, Perleman, E. B. White, Dorothy Parker -- the whole New Yorker/Algonquin crowd. And I really loved Damon Runyon, another writer who pointed me in the direction of HB fiction.

The first mysteries I read, and my first taste of pulp HB, were by Earl Stanley Gardner. His early Perry Masons were a lot harder boiled than the later stuff he did for the Saturday Evening Post. I devoured them all. And then I just worked my way through the mystery section, eventually hitting the Black Mask Boys, but at age ten or eleven I preferred Ellery Queen, Anthony Boucher and John Dickson Carr, creators of complicated puzzles and impossible crimes. But Agatha Christie and her ilk never did anything for me. I had no problem with an imaginary Mars or Africa, but English country house life was too foreign to my experience.

Around this time -- I was maybe twelve -- I discovered a secondhand bookstore that sold tons of used paperbacks for a nickel each, six for a quarter. At first I just filled in books by favorite authors that weren't in the library: Bantam's reprints of Fredric Brown and Frank Gruber, Signet's reprints of Heinlein and Asimov, etc. From there I moved on to paperback originals.

Richard S. Prather's Gold Medal books starring Shell Scott, that
"happy-go-lookie" private eyeball, really knocked me out. Lots of action, bad puns and, most importantly for my pubescent libido, the requisite scantily clad ladies. From there, the deluge. My shelves at home filled up with Gold Medals: Edward Aarons spy thrillers, Dan Cushman westerns, Bruno Fischer, Donald Hamilton, John D. McDonald, Stephen Marlowe, Richard Matheson, Theodore Pratt, Peter Rabe, Jim Thompson (I grabbed his Lion books too), Jonas Ward's Buchanan westerns, Harry Whittington, Charles Williams, names fondly remembered or nearly forgotton. I bought them all, six for a quarter, as long as the covers showed scantily clad females -- and all of them did in those days.

It was quite an education for a repressed Irish Catholic farmboy from Massachusetts.


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