When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Long, announced to the class that we would all be participating in a district-wide short story contest. There were some groans, but I was thrilled. I spent most of my classes making up stories in my head anyway; now I would get to do it for an assignment. In order to start us all on the same square, participants were given a list of character names to use as well as a basic plot: a diamond heist. When I looked at the list of names, I had a pretty good idea of what the judges expected to see. Names like Johnny and Jenny Goodfellow sounded like brother and sister sleuths, whereas, who but a bad guy would be named Dirk Snively?
Our mission was clear. However, as I thought back to a discovery I’d recently made, I had a whole different story in mind.
One Year Earlier:
“What’re you watching?” I asked my brother.
Bruce was two years older, and most of the time he wanted nothing to do with me. But I persisted, because my mother had assured me that one day he would be human. He was ensconced in the “Dad” chair in our unfinished basement where the TV lived. Dad was busy elsewhere, or Bruce wouldn’t have dared.
Without taking his eyes from the TV, he mumbled, “Nothing,” as if I were both stupid and lacking in curiosity. What I saw on the small, black-and-white screen was a man wearing a light-colored suit and a fedora that was like my dad’s hat, only more rounded.
I flounced in front of Bruce (At 11, I was at the peak of my flouncing years.) to get to the worn couch, trying to avoid being vaporized by his glare. Our boxer, Jill, was curled up on the good cushion. I settled for the lumpy side.
Bruce took his eyes from the TV long enough to cast a sideways, malice-filled glance my way, which clearly said, Why do you insist on ruining my life?
As if. (Okay, there was that unfortunate incident years earlier when I sneaked into his “boys only” club wearing my long hair tied up under my Davy Crockett coonskin hat. Some suspicious minion snatched my hat off my head, and I was rudely expelled. My brother’s reputation never recovered.)
“You won’t like it,” he mumbled.
I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like it either. There were no horses or cacti. But my desire to hang out with my big brother equaled the joy I took in annoying him. If I could not have one, I would settle for the other.
A commercial for Marlboro cigarettes came on, and my brother yelled upstairs. “Mom! Deb wants to watch Mike Hammer. She’s too young.”
“She’s not bothering you,” came my mother’s reply.
With an eye roll that must have been visible on Mars, he stomped upstairs. A world-class eavesdropper even then, I tiptoed partway up the steps and heard my mother say, “She’s not going to like it, Bruce. Just give her the chance to find out for herself.”
“Bruce.” I couldn’t see her, but I knew that end-of-discussion tone. I hurried back to the couch, determined to love this Mike Hammer detective show. Both my mother and my brother would be sorry they ever thought I lacked sophistication.
It wasn’t love at first viewing, While I immediately liked the guy playing the lead—Darren McGavin (who continued to be a favorite of mine for years to come)—it seemed kind of … gritty. A bit uncomfortable. But I watched the next episode and began to enjoy his narration, wry humor, and the world-weary way he had, which, to this 11-year-old, seemed weirdly romantic. I believed there was nothing he hadn’t seen. I looked forward to each life-informed observation. Things like: “I'd been lucky. Torrey's toad-sticker had bounced off a rib. It had plowed up a furrow of skin, but it hadn't made any holes that needed vulcanizing.” (In an attempt to prove my new-found sophistication to my family, I began referring to the kitchen cutlery as “toad-stickers.”)
Mike Hammer was a new kind of good guy for me. He laughed when a bad guy pulled a gun on him and disarmed the gunman by tossing his half-eaten sandwich at him. As it turned out, I could live without horses and cacti, and I liked “gritty.”
One Year Later:
For that contest, I wrote my first hard-boiled detective story. It wasn’t as gritty as Hammer’s world, my metaphors weren’t as colorful or insightful, and it was clear that most of the show's innuendo had gone over my head. But I loved writing it. I suspected this story would not be a contest winner (I was right); the judges would be looking for something a bit more wholesome. Not fledging noir. I didn’t care—I was writing the story I wanted to read, creating the characters and worlds I wanted to explore. Learning a valuable lesson.