A mystery in seven titles
I have always been fascinated by detective stories. It started with the Enid Blyton series, featuring the ‘Five Find Outers and Dog’, which I loved (and still own!). In my early teens I became hooked on the Sherlock Holmes films (with the debonair Basil Rathbone and jovial Nigel Bruce); I subsequently read all of Conan Doyle’s novels and short stories. I became an avid listener of the Paul Temple audio books. I also read Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey and others.
I like the challenge of trying to solve the mystery, evaluating the different characters and their possible motivations, as well as enjoying the various settings (from posh garden parties to the streets of Victorian London). What I enjoy most is the suspense of wondering how it will turn out, maybe because I’m a bit of a control freak! In ‘real life’, I’m always looking for guarantees and am not a big fan of surprises, but, as someone once said to me, ‘if we knew all the details in advance there would be no fun‘, and I have to admit no growth and development either. Most detectives find themselves up blind alleys, following a false trail or feeling like nothing is making sense, and then gradually or in an a-ha moment, it all comes together. Often the clues to the mystery are there at the very beginning, but it’s easy to miss or discount them.
I find the personality of the detective to be a fascinating one too. Usually a shrewd observer of human nature, they see things that others miss. They can be eccentric, aloof or secretive. I like the way that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple blends into the background seemingly unnoticed, but noticing everything and everyone else, or the way that G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown artlessly blends the role of priest and amateur sleuth. Then there’s Paul Temple with his catchphrase of ‘by Timothy’. He sometimes teases his wife Steve about her ‘intuitive nudges’, although these prove insightful and get her out of trouble on many an occasion. I also feel it is important that they retain a sense of humanity. Sherlock Holmes says comfortingly to one young man he has just unmasked, ‘Come, come, it is human to err.’ For me, liking the detective is essential to enjoying the mystery.
However, it’s not only in books that we are presented with mysteries to solve. I have often felt like a detective in my own life, trying (like many of us) to answer the following questions:
Who am I?
Why am I here?
A voracious reader since childhood, I have found that books of all kinds have helped me to unlock my inner self, shone a light into the darkness and guided me in times of confusion and despair.
I spent many years trying to understand myself and searching for my life purpose and, just like in the detective stories I enjoyed so much, the clues were often there at the very beginning or reappeared at key moments, if I had but noticed them. Everything is inside us just waiting to be revealed and, for me, books have been a fundamental and ongoing part of that journey.
I’m also someone who has never grown out of asking, ‘Why?’ Something in me always needs to know. I also love figuring people out, what motivates them, what makes them tick, what their passions are and where these come from.
I had never thought of myself as a ‘book detective’, but some ‘chance’ conversations with business coaches made me realise how much I love discovering unusual authors, and how often I have stumbled upon them in a dark corner of a bookshop or by randomly surfing the internet and following a trail of click-thrus.
If you had told me when I was growing up that I would become a book detective I would have been delighted. But how do you become one? Well, the answer is one book at a time.
The Case of the Unanswered Question
‘Arriving on the platform at Pimlico tube station, I’m feeling tired and look to see when the next train is due. Suddenly a poster on the wall leans over and taps me on the shoulder. It is advertising a book called, What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson. The cover is as striking as the title and I make a mental note to check it out at the earliest opportunity. Two days later I find it on a table in a bookstore. A two-minute perusal confirms my initial feelings; this one is a winner.’
Based on interviews with people from around the world, and told like a story, these are intimate portraits. We meet the chemical engineer who became a lawyer in his sixties, the former dancer, who went back to college and then tried out different careers, wanting to find her place in the world before realising she needed to look within, the auditor at an accounting firm who is a radio presenter on the side, and the lawyer who discovered that his true love in life was baking cakes. Most of them are accompanied by a picture, not stylised studio headshots, but simple snapshots, which complement the revealing nature of these encounters.
Struggling to answer this very question myself at the time, I found solace, guidance and inspiration in these stories, which elicit themes such as synchronicity, ignoring the obvious, learning what’s real, never giving up, overcoming fear and reconciling love and money.
I have also re-read this book many times to marvel at the way it has been written. Rather like a portrait painter or photographer, the author allows the voice, personality and personal history of these people to be revealed. He holds a space for them on the page, without overshadowing them. At the same time, there is clearly a master-hand at work and he also shares anecdotes from his own journey with us. I sincerely hope to be able to bring this magic to one of my future books.
The Case of the Finicky Eater
‘My mother opens the door and I move ahead eagerly. The honey-coloured wooden shelves beckoning. But I know what I want. This one! Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban. It is my fifth time of borrowing, but my appetite for it is unappeased. I clutch the book to me delighted to be reunited with it, and walk up to the desk presenting it proudly to the librarian.’
This is the story of a little bear, who, as the title explains, will only eat bread and jam and nothing else, until one day she grows tired of it and is tempted to try something different.
Looking back I’m not sure why this resonated with me so much, although perhaps in Frances I sensed a kindred spirit: as a child I wasn’t really that interested in eating, I too sought refuge in the familiar, and perhaps admired the way she doggedly went her own way.
Who knows? My older self may wish to aggrandize it with all kinds of interpretations, but what this really tells me is that books are among my earliest memories. In fact, I was born three days later than expected and I believe it was because I still had a chapter to finish. Since then, books have been a constant in my life. They have been a source of knowledge, comfort, humour, friendship, refuge and guidance. Quite simply, I would not have made it through life without them and I really do know they can make a difference in the world. Little wonder then that they have become my life’s work, although I never saw that coming.
The Case of the Shift in Thinking
‘I’m in my second year at university and feeling very stressed about my work. Having tension headaches and panic attacks, and eating lots of chocolate. My father recently learnt to meditate, but I’m totally uninterested and sometimes even tease him about it. Now he is urging me to learn. Anxiety runs in my blood, but, for the very first time, I wonder if it is possible to live differently. I take the plunge and go on a weekend course. There are some books for sale at the meditation centre and I purchase one, which makes quite an impression on me. It is Return of the Rishi by Deepak Chopra.’
Now a bestselling author, this book is his very first, and I feel one of his best. It tells of his childhood in India, his training to become a medical doctor, his arrival in America and his subsequent journey into Ayurvedic medicine.
It is clear from the outset that he is a consummate writer, with a style that is compelling and authentic. His story is engaging, but moreover he invites us to open our awareness to a deeper reality and to go on our own journey of discovery.
Even the chapter titles entice you in like a beckoning finger…
- Dark Night in New Jersey
- The Ten-Rupee Brain
- The Glass Mountain
- An Arrow to the Heart
Looking back, this book heralded the start of my exploration into spirituality, and the journey of a life-time.
The Case of the Vicarious Adventure
‘I hold the parcel in my hands; it feels like a pile of books. Oh, the anticipation. As I tear back the paper, the first one to be revealed is ‘The Picts and the Martyrs’ by Arthur Ransome: a chunky tome just tingling with possibilities. Having already read ‘Swallows and Amazons’ and ‘Swallowdale’, I just know I’m in for a treat.’
I’ve since read every single one of Arthur Ransome’s books, but this still remains my favourite. Dick and Dorothea have arrived to spend a few weeks with their friends Nancy and Peggy, whose mother is away on holiday for her health. Their cook will be looking after them in her absence. They are looking forward to sailing and other delights, when their fearsome Great Aunt Maria, (a.k.a. The G.A.), finds out and sends a telegram saying, ‘I cannot consider cook sufficient guardian in your mother’s absence’ and declares that she will be arriving to take charge. Anxious to spare their mother recriminations on her return, the D’s are bundled off to stay in a cabin in the woods nearby, whilst Nancy and Peggy have the unenviable tasks of keeping the G.A. happy.
As a lonely only child I found a sense of companionship and excitement in books like this one. Despite being privileged and growing up a simpler age, these are not prissy kids, and their exploits are both appealing and believable. We have Dick and Dorothea taking care of themselves in their hut in the woods and improving their sailing skills, whilst Nancy and Peggy are relegated to best frocks, reciting poetry and piano practice. There are lovely touches such as Cook staggering up to the woods carrying an apple pie, Peggy sneaking out with her and Nancy’s comfortable clothes hidden in a watering can, so they can go sailing whilst the G.A. is having her afternoon nap, and even a midnight burglary (one of my favourite parts). Ultimately, what makes it so exciting is wondering if they will pull it off without being caught. Read it and find out!
The Case of the Unexpected Triumph
‘Chuckling, I watch as Jeeves the Butler solicitously fills the bath for his master, Bertie, and then places a rubber duck in the water. Oh, the delightful world of P.G. Wodehouse. I’m hooked on the TV series ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ (featuring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie). When it is over I start to read the books on which it is based, and then discover his many other titles, in particular his school stories. One, The White Feather, really resonates with me.’
It is the tale of a solitary schoolboy, Sheen (surnames only in true public school fashion), who runs away from a fight with some local boys in town. Branded a coward by his classmates, he retreats even further within himself, using the excuse of preparing for an upcoming exam. A chance encounter with a former professional boxer, now turned trainer, Joe Bevan, leads him into the ring and ultimate triumph at a prestigious school tournament.
It is a delight in itself as a tale of school life: playing fives, house rivalry, having tea in your study and the importance of having a strong first eleven cricket team. But this is really a story about the underdog. It shows just what can happen when someone chooses to believe in us at a time when we may not believe in ourselves, and that we can do things that, in our darkest hours, we may never have imagined.
My own self-esteem is still a work in progress, and if I ever feel like I’m falling behind others, or don’t have what it takes, this story reminds me to be my own champion and to dare to strike new ground.
The Case of the Misunderstood Title
‘Standing by the shelves, I have one book tucked under my arm (already ear-marked for purchase after just five minutes) and I’m perusing another. Despite vowing not to buy too many books today, given the pile awaiting me at home, I decide to have just ‘a quick look’ on one of the display tables. I stride over and then something catches my eye. There it is again. Oh lord! Everywhere I go I keep seeing this book. I’ll admit it’s the ‘G-O-D’ word that’s putting me off. I mean what would I want with some preachy, ecclesiastical volume, and why on earth is it in the ‘Mind Body Spirit’ section?’
Eventually, I saw it so many times that curiosity got the better of me. One day I flipped a few pages and realised that this book was not what it had appeared. I bought a copy and a few weeks later I read it. It quite literally blew my mind. It picked me up and spun me head over heels. All the secrets of the universe were revealed, not by some guru or psychic, but an ordinary guy, giving us a chance to have a dialogue with the head honcho. The book was Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch. At the time, Walsch was experiencing a low point in his life and he decided to write a letter to God, venting his frustrations. What he did not expect was a response. As he finished his letter, he was moved to continue writing or rather the pen began moving on it own:
‘Do you really want an answer to all these questions or are you just venting?’
This led him to ask all sorts of questions to which he had always wanted answers, and the answers are extraordinary.
Whether you call it God, Spirit, The Universe, Source, Oneness, Consciousness etc is irrelevant. Every time I re-read this I discover something new or rather it takes me to a new level of understanding meeting me where I am at this moment in time. Check it out and who knows, you may start a conversation of your own.
The Case of the Old New Book
‘Please don’t bring anything! This is the eternal cry from my mother, whenever my ‘surrogate’ grandparents come to visit. She is wasting her time. They always arrive bearing a gift for me. This time it’s a book, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. I’ve never heard of her and can’t wait to discover what her book is all about.’
I’m soon hooked and waste no time reading her other books. But this one is where it all began. It is effectively a love letter to books and bookstores (particularly poignant in this day and age). The story is told through letters between Helene and Frank Doel, book buyer at Marks and Co, sellers of rare and second-hand books. An impecunious writer with a taste for antiquarian books and who dreams of going to London, she sees their advert in the ‘Saturday Review of Literature, and decides to purchase her books from across the Atlantic, rather than her neighbourhood bookstore.
Her feisty New York style is in fabulous contrast to his proper British tone:
“14 East 95th St.
October 15, 1951
WHAT KIND OF PEPYS DIARY DO YOU CALL THIS?
This is not pepys’ diary, this is some busybody editor’s miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys’ diary may he rot.
I could just spit.
Where is jan 12, 1688, where his wife chased him out of bed and round the bedroom with a red-hot poker?’
MARKS & Co., Booksellers
84, Charing Cross Road
20th October, 1951
Miss Helene Hanff
14 East 95th Street
New York 28, New York
Dear Miss Hanff,
First of all, let me apologise for the Pepys. I was honestly under the impression that it was the complete Braybrooke edition and I can understand how you must have felt when you found your favourite passages missing. I promise to look at the next reasonably priced copy that comes along, and if it contains the passage you mention in your letter I will send it along.
With best wishes
For MARKS & CO
It shows how the love of books can unite us, how one book leads to another, and that the joy of reading is timeless and universal. Pure joy!
Want to find out how books played a role in the rest of my life? Read on…