I first began to read mysteries as a substitute for scotch which I was using to survive 12-hour days with my mother. Each evening at about seven, I’d flee from the Palm Beach nursing home to the nearest bar and drink two scotches in succession, giving myself a splitting headache and a reason to go to bed at once. So I’d drive the few blocks to my motel, and fall asleep in my clothes, only to wake in the middle of the night, head aching still, and in need of food.
Back in New York, I ran into Jane Marcus, who recommended P.D. James rather than scotch, and in a short time I was hooked. This was 1990 and when I finished all there was of James, I asked Jane for another suggestion. Amazed that I had never heard of Dorothy Sayers, she told me to search in second hand stores, where I also found a cloth version of Gaudy Night. I read them as I found them, in no order, as I had read James’ books, and without curiosity about the writers themselves. The mysteries were panaceas for my personal pain. I read them on the planes to and from Florida and through the time I spent there, and stopped reading them the moment I returned to my apartment.
A fast reader, I needed something else quite soon, since Sayers like James at that point had only 10 books, and I could read one a day. So I began to ask other friends for recommendations and I continued to buy my books in second hand bookstores, in one of which in the mid-1990s I found a “guide,” Detecting Women 2 by Willetta L. Heising.
I still have it, with a page on Margery Allingham’s 22 entries scribbled over and checked off in pencil and in blue ink. Others authors are marked out similarly, though it’s clear that I tended to read all by a few authors rather than skip around. So there’s Ngaio Marsh’s 32 volumes, which I read at random and then a few years later reread in order while traveling. It was easy to toss five or six worn paperbacks into my luggage, two of which I could read on the way to Africa or China.
My mother died in 1999, and the reading of mysteries at first petered out. When I moved apartments, I gave away all but a dozen favorite series, and put those into a small bookcase in my study closet. And I’ve turned to them several times for short reading bouts, and even sometimes made new purchases especially for travel. A few years ago, when I heard that Batya Gur had died in her mid-fifties, for example, I decided to reread her books as a way of mourning her death.
I expect none of this is interesting to mystery fans. Perhaps you are wondering why I am bothering to write this out, and where I am going. Perhaps I don’t know myself, for I thought I was going to write about how I got to Dorothy Sayers a couple of weeks ago.
I was looking for something else in my study closet, when out dropped the biography of Sayers by James Brabazon. For no reason I picked it up and took it with me on a bus ride, reading first the respectful Forward by P.D. James, and then, with a small shock, I read the two pages preceding James, a preface by Anthony Fleming, her son. Her son? I was hooked at once. More tomorrow.