by Deborah Elliott-Upton
When I was a preteen, the city library moved from quarters in the civic center to a mansion downtown bequeathed to the city by Mary E. Bivins following her death. We rarely went downtown, but one day when my mom was pregnant with her fourth child who would be my only brother, she took me and my two younger sisters to the library. She signed me up for my own library card that day. I treasured that little slip of cardstock as if I’d been presented with a medal.
I’m not sure where Mom took my sisters and disappeared in the cavernous three-story plus full basement structure originally home to the city’s elite, but I was left alone. “Find whatever you want to read,” Mother said. Obviously, no one worried about child predators then and Mother thought at 11, I would choose books other 11 year-old girls were reading. She trusted me and always said I was born old. I’ve always taken this to mean she thought I was an old soul. Or maybe it was because I took to bossing my sisters around as if I were the one in charge.
Other girls probably read LITTLE WOMEN or WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS. Not me.
Just beyond the staircase was a doorway. I was drawn toward that opening as if there was a magnetic charge deep within me that didn’t just pull, but yanked me toward the floor-to-ceiling shelves of the east-facing room off the original foyer of Mary E. Bivins’ private homestead on Polk Street. This was the mystery section and before I ever learned where other sections were in the library, I read every mystery book housed in those shelves.
Mickey Spillane’s protagonist was Mike Hammer, a tough guy and a man’s man in the vein of John Wayne’s portrayals I’d seen on the movie screen. As a detective, Hammer always got his man. He was intense and used rough language I wasn’t used to hearing, much less reading. He carried a .45 and did not hesitate to use it when it was necessary. His office had a miniature bar by the window and Mike frequented that often enough to make me curious about such things, but no so much that I worried about him.
Mike Hammer was everything I thought a man should be and I wanted nothing more than to be Velda, his faithful and beautiful secretary. Velda was more than arm candy: she had brains and kept even Mike Hammer in line, albeit subtly.
I was in love with the man who oozed sex appeal through the pages, yet would outwit any antagonist.
Finishing the book, I wanted to know more about his creator. When I tracked down what Mickey Spillane looked like (not as easy in pre-Internet times), he matched my imaginary vision of Mike Hammer. Trench coat flying behind him, I knew Spillane would be a man’s man and this woman’s (okay, almost-a-woman at that time) ideal man.
For a small town, naive girl, many of Spillane’s novels were enlightening. I envisioned every guy in a big city lived like Mike Hammer.
Finding that section of the library that first day probably sealed my fate. I would never be a girl who read flowery romance novels. I didn’t care about their stripped-to-the-waist chiseled physiques. I was more interested in a sturdy man who I wouldn’t have to worry if he happened to be prettier than me. To me, romance novels’ heroes pale in comparison to Mike Hammer. They are more than welcome to keep Fabio. Give me a Spillane character any day.
Mother never said anything about my choice of reading, but she did notice I wanted to go to the library every week. The library had no limit on the number of books we could check out at a time and each week it seemed I carried a taller stack with me out the door. Some librarians smiled at me, some stamped the dates delicately while others acted as if they squashed bugs between the stamp and paper slips. None ever told me about a children’s section where I could find “suitable reading.” Until I was an adult, no one questioned my early choices.
Some writers have been slightly horrified when I spoke of my first reading choices and suggested I may have been warped somewhat by reading such books at an early age. Maybe, but I don’t care. I have been shaped into who I am. I am a mystery writer and a mystery reader and I like it.