I’m always interested to learn what childhood reading inspired the authors whose work I enjoy. In this post, David Bridge recalls how a young-adult novel changed his life. It’s a book I hadn’t heard of before, but I’m willing to bet many of our readers are familiar with it. David’s first professionally published story appears in our current issue (July/August 2020), in the Department of First Stories. It provides the most unconventional twist to the English country- house setting (so common in Golden Age mysteries) that I have seen in a long time. The author spent the best part of a decade in South America before returning home to the U.K. and beginning to devote more time to crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings
It’s difficult to remember childhood accurately—memory in general is a pretty flaky thing—but I’m fairly certain the first book I picked up to read on my own wasn’t just a story; it was a mystery story.
I was nine or ten years old when I ended up living with my family on Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, following one of our frequent moves throughout my childhood. Our house was located right next to a graveyard, perched atop a hill overlooking the Atlantic ocean. My bedroom window looked out across the graveyard itself and several ancient gravestones leaned up against my bedroom wall. The island itself is only five by ten miles so you were never far from the sea but at night it felt as though we were camped right on the shore. Storms would blow in off the Atlantic, the likes of which I’d never experienced back on mainland Britain. I can still hear the gale-force winds whistling through the rafters, the downpours hammering the roof tiles, and that dank, earthy smell of damp moss seeping through from the graveyard next door as the rainwater seeped into the soil.
If there was ever a perfect setting for tucking yourself up with warm blankets and a cup of hot chocolate with a tale of intrigue and suspense, or two, then this was it.
Something about crime is undeniably adult.
But there is also something supernatural . . . almost magical about it.
Especially when told through the eyes of a kid.
That’s a quality Keith Gray captured brilliantly in his 1996 young adult mystery Creepers.
At around age nine or ten I’d read books pretty begrudgingly, and almost exclusively because of school assignments. I’d always found myself one-degree removed from the words on the page, eyes mechanically skimming from one line to the next.
For me, though, that all changed when I read Creepers.
Young boys—or at least the young boys I associated with when I was a young boy—would often assert that reading isn’t cool. I was always suspicious of this although I never came out and challenged it out loud. I just sort of assumed that they were like me. That they were saving face in public but that in truth they were secret readers.
Sadly, more often than not, I don’t think this was the case. Every year we get these articles coming out decrying whatever thin slice of the population have read—or intend to read!—a book that year. I think at that early stage of life, or perhaps all stages of life, a large factor in determining interest or disinterest has to do with subject matter.
Or perhaps it has everything to do with it.
In Creepers, I was lucky enough to find something that chimed with me. And at the right time. Maybe if I’d never read that book I might never have had that “lightbulb” moment at all . . . when reading stopped being work and became fun.
What I loved about the book in particular was that it featured a narrator who was quite like me (although at fourteen years old a little older than I was at the time) doing things that I would never dare to do.
After school, the narrator and his best friend—his “Buddie”—spend their evenings “Creeping.” Once it gets dark enough they run through their neighbours’ back gardens, vaulting fences, evading prickly hedges and snarling dogs, and doing their best to avoid being “Snared” by “Resies.” Although they’re trespassing (and in the course of trespassing damaging private property) the central motivation for Creeping is cachet at school rather than any material gain. And the biggest prize in Creeping is to complete a Dash through the back gardens of the twenty-five houses on Derwent Drive.
At its centre, Creepers is a story of friendship. And what most pushes the narrator to go through with these daring Creeping antics is his determination to impress his “Buddie” and establish him as his best friend. At a time of moving between different schools, changing homes, this was especially poignant for me.
What stood out for me most at the time about the book was the language used. Not just how the kids would swear—although as a nine- or ten-year-old reader this was certainly impressive—but how they’d sound just like the kids I was with every day at school. It was unlike the often stilted dialogue in the set school reading which incidentally or not featured heavily on magical beings and talking animals.
(Not that there’s anything wrong with magical beings or talking animals . . . funnily enough it was the next year when the first Harry Potter book was released and which subsequently sealed the deal on me being a lifelong reader).
It wasn’t just a lifelong love of reading, however (as if that wasn’t enough!). Ever since reading Creepers as a boy I started to think about what might lurk just below the surface of everyday experience. It made me think twice about that sly look the bus driver gave the old lady with her shopping or that suspicious car which pulled up at the curb every day at the same time every afternoon. In short, I started to imagine goings-on in the world around me.
That all was not quite as it seemed.
And once that had happened, it was difficult if not impossible to unsee.
I’m not quite convinced that anything—or anybody—was ever the same again.
I’m sure that everybody has a book which sets them on this path—the right book at the right time—but Creepers was the book that did it for me.
And it just so happened to be a mystery.