From Boats Finds a House to Miss Marple Finds a Body

I know many of the readers of this blog would point to something such as the Nancy Drew or Encyclopedia Brown series as their early loves, but the first book I remember truly adoring as a child is Boats Finds a House, by Mary Chalmers. It’s a picture book about a cat who’s retired from working as a mouser and ratter on a sailing ship, and is now looking for the perfect house in which to live—one with a fireplace, daisies in the yard, cows in the pasture, and friends nearby. I was absolutely captivated by this story when I was about five or six, which perhaps explains why I’m such a homebody to this day. (I still have the book, and have just now reread the story; it’s as darling as I remember it.)

I later, at about age eight, graduated to the Space Cat series, which was likely the result of a combination of my previous infatuation with Boats the cat, and my newly discovered love of Star Trek. I just took a look online, and they’ve recently republished these charming books. Perhaps I should give them a reread!

Once a pre-teen, I became utterly obsessed with horse books (and everything “horse,” for that matter), and my favorite was probably The Black Stallion by Walter Farley (and all its myriad sequels). I so wanted to live on a desert isle with a beautiful race horse!

But then puberty hit, along with the British Invasion, and I switched my allegiance from animals to reading pop music magazines and anything else I could get my hands on that contained any information about the Beatles. Though there was a period of about a year when the two interests overlapped, and my fantasy future life involved living with Paul McCartney on a horse ranch….

my Beatle dolls, which I got circa 1964

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I finally discovered murder mysteries, when my mom handed me an Agatha Christie she’d just finished: Nemesis (I remember the name, because I had to ask Mom what the word meant). But from then on I was hooked, moving from Christie to Dorothy L. Sayers (at which time my current crush switched from Paul McCartney to Lord Peter Wimsey) and eventually to Sue Grafton, when I realized that there were people closer to my generation who were writing fabulous mysteries, too.

I’ve never looked back.


Readers: What were your first book loves? When did you first start reading mysteries?

62 thoughts on “From Boats Finds a House to Miss Marple Finds a Body

  1. My 4th grade school teacher would read to us The Bobbsey Twins or The Happy Hollisters at the end of the school day if there was time. I would tell my mom how much I liked when she did that so then my mom started getting me books like that.

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    1. I loved all the traditional books that people mention as their gateways into reading. But I have a special fondness for Edward Eager’s witty Knight’s Castle and The Peterkin Papers, which my mom introduced me to. They’re short stories about this incredibly dim family that does things like saw a hole in the ceiling to fit their Christmas tree until The Lady from Philadelphia shows up to share sensible advice like, saw off the trunk to make the tree fit. My mom and I would rosemary these stories. I think both books inspired me to write with humor.

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  2. My mom was born in 1910. I came late in life. She was 43 when I was born. She loved to read and kept her favorite books as a child. I still have her 1915 edition of “The Tale of Frisky Squirrel” by Arthur Scott Bailey, and the bedtime story book she got for my brothers in the early 30’s “The Adventures of Chatterer the Red Squirrel” by Thornton W Burgess. I loved those books and the Uncle Wiggley, the Bobbsey Twins, and Beatrix Potter stories. But then I discovered The Hardy Boys Books. I read them all, and have loved mysteries ever since.
    Carol

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  3. Nancy Drew was so inspiring when I was 11, I started a club called Secret Spying Society that summer in the small Southern Illinois town. Only my good friend, Margaret Bea, joined. But we had fun biking around town with walkie-talkie’s, peering in windows of the old hat factory, taking notes with our #2 pencils in ringed notebooks. Reading Nancy, the Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, plus my club, helped make that year my dad was in Vietnam a better reality than it might have been without them.

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  4. My first mystery was The Bobbsey Twins of Lakeport. I read all the old books in the series, then collected all the newer ones. Favorite: The Greek Hat Mystery. Next I found a huge book of the Complete Sherlock Holmes. I had no idea what half the words meant, but some I looked up and some I just guessed. I whizzed through Nancy Drewat summer camp, never dreaming I’d someday edit new books in the series and also write my own kids’ mysteries. Leslie, I worked with Walter Farley and his son on the last Black Stallion book, which they co-wrote. His son then started his own new series called The Young Black Stallion. Steve taught me a lot about horses, including the fact that Thoroughbreds have tiny heads. (I remember that because the cover illustrator had to create a whole new painting and I had to break the news to the art dept, ha.)

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  5. I definitely remember reading Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and Agatha Christie. Interestingly, I think I read Christie’s The Mousetrap first.I also have a soft spot for Charlotte’s Web. In the school library, I was drawn to Sherlock Holmes. The assigned From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler fascinated me, and I was mesmerized by the teacher reading to us from The Westing Game.

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      1. Leslie, my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Isaacman, read Charlotte’s Web to us a little each day. I eagerly looked forward to it. When Charlotte died, I sobbed. I was embarrassed to cry in front of my classmates — but I wasn’t the only one who cried!

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    1. I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler a few years ago with an Active Reading Group – we visited the Met to find all the places mentioned in the book!

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  6. Teddy and the Mystery Dog was the first book I remember reading. It was a Christmas present from my grandparents. I think I still have the copy, somewhere. I then began reading sports biographies. Of course, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were favs.

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  7. I loved Nate the Great as a kid. It’s a picture book detective story about a boy who solves the mystery of a missing picture for a neighbor. We didn’t discover the rest of the series until my brother came along, although I’m sure the rest were out there. That first was still the best.

    Of course, I also enjoyed Bill Peet and Dr. Seuss picture books. I read much more widely as a kid than I do today. Now, it’s pretty much just mystery all the time.

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  8. I started checking out books at the library at age 5. Daddy took me weekly and I was in 1st grade then. I do not remember the first book that made me love reading, but I had (and still have some) of the Bobbsey Twins books. I had a huge bookstand in my room that Daddy had made, and it was full of books. I still have some. Then I went on to Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton and the Hardy Boys books. Next came Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney and Sue Grafton. I used to love all kinds of genres but am pretty much a mystery fan. Daddy got me interested in John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee series and that is when I really became a mystery fan.

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    1. Like you, Madeleine, my dad took us to the library every Saturday. I could check out five books every week. When people ask what my literary influence was, my knee-jerk is to say Nancy Drew (and it was; I inhaled those books), but I’m sure I read a wide variety of books. And the day I realized I could check out books from the adult section was a heady day indeed! I thought surely the Library Police would arrest me. When my kids were little, the library was within walking/biking distance so they were there all the time. In fact, that’s how I got them to practice their handwriting. I told them as soon as they could write their name in cursive, they could get their own library card. Boy howdy, did they learn to write in cursive with that the prize at the end!

      And Leslie, I still have my copy of the Black Stallion on one of my shelves!

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      1. I won the award in first grade for the most books read, and I still have that certificate. I think it was 209 books and there were 60 kiddos in my first-grade class taught by Sister Agnes Celine, and we were all well behaved. You did not give nuns trouble. I love that story about cursive. When I taught from 2000 to 2008 here in Alpharetta, Ga., I taught 10th grade English. After reading the rough draft of their research paper and editing them, I handed them back. One girl said, “Mrs. Spangler I can’t read your comment” and I said, “why not as I wrote very well and not in a hurry.” She said, “You don’t understand. I can’t read cursive.” Sure enough, I went back and looked at all of their papers and out of 150, only two wrote in cursive. They could sign their name in cursive, but they all printed. They all wrote on the computer and did not like to have to do a handwritten first draft. A lost art.

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      2. It’s interesting about cursive. It’s not just a pretty way to write. There are a bunch of studies showing that it’s important to learn cognitively as well as to develop that fine motor control.

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      3. I agree. My handwriting is very nice, and I get compliments on it all of the time. But I learned it at age 5 and I am 74 now. It is a shame that they aren’t teaching it anymore. They probably never learned how to write a check either.

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  9. My mother had a huge love of reading. We had a bunch of the original Oz books (with amazing color plates). I also remember loving the Robert McCloskey books, Stone Soup, Beatrix Potter tales, and of course Dr. Seuss. When I got older, it was books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Harriet the Spy, The Phantom Tollbooth, and, of course Nancy Drew. This is the time when I also fell in love with bookstores. Thanks for engaging the memories.

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  10. I read a lot of Golden Books as a child, also have fond memories of Harold and the Purple Crayon (which my son & grandson have both enjoyed!). In elementary school I discovered a series of biographies & read them all, but I also discovered Trixie Belden. I would haunt the five & dime for each new book! Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew & Rover Boys I read at friends’ houses. At home, Mom read mysteries & science fiction so I started reading a lot of those, moving into fantasy by high school with The Lord of the Rings and a mix of fantasy & science fiction books. Today my go to books are generally mysteries, but also enjoy reading in a wide range of genres.

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      1. One of my college best friends had read them and told me I should, but I never did. She named her cat Gandalf. My first year of teaching, a student told me about them, and I read them all and loved them and could not believe that I had waited so long.

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  11. Love this so much, Leslie! Also went through a horse book phase, though my fave was probably Misty of Chincoteague & Company.

    I started with Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew (though also loved standalones like Mixed-Up Files, The Westing Game, and The Egypt Game etc. We had some Bobbsey Twins books, but I wasn’t a huge fan of those. I was surprised when they popped up in the live-action Nancy Drew series on the CW– wow, were they different from the original depiction!

    (Other books that weren’t mystery that I loved were The Witch of Blackbird Pond and the Anne of Green Gables + Emily of New Moon series.)

    Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane. I have never heard of the first book you mention…and the drawings on the cover are so delightful!

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  12. Mystery on the Nine-Mile Marsh by Mary C. Jane is the first mystery I remember reading and I checked it out of the school library several times, as well as all the Nancy Drew books on our library shelves. Moving up to Miss Marple books when I was eleven or twelve was a game changer! Took me a while to warm up to Poirot.:)

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  13. I loved the usual suspects (and, hey, special shout out to The Black Stallion!). I did take a big leap from Nancy to Carrie when I was a young teen–then continued to mix it up between dark and fun and funny from there on out!

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  14. I can’t remember the very first book I read. But I do remember falling in love with Little Women in the 4th or 5th grade. I liked it so much I read LMA’s other books (and liked even better!). Nancy Drew was a favorite, but I really, really liked the Cherry Ames books. Cherry started as a student nurse and proceeded to solve mysteries as every type of nurse you could name. When I read my first Agathe Christie short story (and cannot remember the title, much to my shame), I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. What ever do people do who don’t read?!?

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