I have a friend who went to charm school. For real. I’m not certain it worked for her. She is a charming person in many ways but this education mainly causes her to become visibly annoyed when people use the wrong fork. She worries a lot about what everyone else should be doing, which I think may be the opposite of the point.
While my friend was attending actual charm school, I was attending detective school. Sort of. When I was ten years old, my father started leaving his used paperbacks in my room. Nero Wolfe and Spenser novels arrived most often, by far. John D. MacDonald, Gregory Mcdonald, Ross Macdonald (so many Donalds), Lawrence Sanders and Ed McBain made appearances. I sought out Chandler and Hammett on my own. Agatha Christie, and other more delicate writers, my dad borrowed from me.
If you’re wondering what a ten year old takes away from all those detective novels–aside from that Archie Goodwin is, full-stop, the best–the answer may surprise you. Not unlike charm school, those books were lessons in how to behave.
Spenser (first name unmentioned, at least in the early books) was obsessed with the ideas of autonomy and being a good man. He meant good person, really. Many of the Spenser novels ask how an independent person determines, and lives by, an ethical code. One book is barely a mystery, focusing instead on a neglected young teenager who Spenser takes under his wing for a summer in order to give him what he needs to parent himself.
The Wolfe books are also about autonomy and choice, as are the works of Chandler and Hammett and the Mc/MacDdonalds. Because Wolfe is nearly always in his home, and his legman Archie Goodwin roams the streets of New York, the Wolfe books add the question where we stop and our environment begins. Wolfe likes to stay in a place where makes all the rules, whereas Archie is, in his own words, “always at home wherever I am.”
When you’re staring at the oncoming train of puberty and, in particular, if you’re starting to feel your parents’ answers to life might not be for you, these questions are grabbers. What kind of person will I be? What are my options? Is it possible to live a life in which no one gets to tell me what to do? (To sum up: not if you enjoy running water and electricity. No.)
For me, these books addressed questions both large and small. Spenser introduced multi-grain bread and cheeses other than cheddar to my world (it was a long time ago and my parents were conservative in many ways. Don’t judge.) Nero Wolfe burned a dictionary because it misdefined “infer” and Archie Goodwin taught me what to do should the police ever question me: nothing. “Ask me which I prefer for breakfast, ham or bacon, and I’ll stand mute.”
The detectives taught me what courtesy to a guest looked like. They also taught me what impertinent and leading questions were, and that I should resent them.
I picked up mantras and guiding principles. “People aren’t one thing.” “I can dodge folly without backing into fear.” “The point of fashion is to wear clothes which make other people want to get them off you.”
It wasn’t charm school. I only have the vaguest idea of which fork to use (you work from the outside in, I think) and, frankly, I’m uncomfortable as soon as I see more than two. I left detective school feeling prepared for a lot of other things, though, and I think it’s served me well.
Gayleen Froese is the author of the paranormal mysteries Touch and Grayling Cross. Her third novel, the Dominion, is set for release in late 2014. She lives in Edmonton with a friend and her dogs: Spenser, Dashiell and Archie.