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The Sirens of Suspense




Glen Erik Hamilton is a Seattle native, who lived aboard a sailboat as a boy, and grew up finding trouble around the marinas and commercial docks and islands of the Pacific Northwest. He now lives in California with his family. Past Crimes is his first novel.


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Every kid reads mysteries, even if they don’t realize it at the time. We have a first-grader in our house, and a quick glance at her messy bookshelf (how’d she get peanut butter there?) reveals how many stories have a whodunit or what-happened structure. Even non-mystery series like Nancy Clancy or How to Train Your Dragon delve into secrets and hidden truths.

Looking back, I realize I learned a lot about writing from my own favorites. Maybe our daughter is picking up a few of these lessons as well, in addition to her vocabulary and the occasional grooming tip for sea serpents.


Encyclopedia Brown

Donald Sobol’s series of short stories made a great entry point into the solve-it-yourself brand of mystery (even if Sobol sometimes hinged the solution on knowledge way out of reach of elementary-school kids.) Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown consistently foiled the schemes of liars and cheats, usually by quoting back their own slips of the tongue. Fans learned to read carefully, and look for the specific fact that “felt” wrong. And if our brainy hero found himself in a jam – often threatened by Bugs Meany, who was obviously predestined for bullydom by his name – Encyclopedia’s friend and bodyguard Sally had his back.

Lessons: Pay attention to what people say. Also: Girls kick ass.


The Hardy Boys

I collected (and still have, somewhere) every one of the blue-spined hardcover editions of the Hardy Boys published in the 1970s. I remember a few of the covers and titles, but not a single one of the stories. They were the ultimate in disposable fiction, more about the recurring characters of brothers Frank and Joe and buddy Chet Morton than about plot. The Hardys also had cool stuff; cars and boats and – I realized the coolness of this later on – steady girlfriends. Each book (in these revised editions) had exactly twenty chapters, to aid the multiple ghostwriters in pounding out pages and hitting the required story beats at a rapid clip.

Lessons: Structure, pacing, and the advantages of owning your own jalopy in chasing crooks.


Roald Dahl: Danny, the Champion of the World; “The Hitchhiker”; “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”

With the possible exception of that kid who visits a chocolate factory, these are the Roald Dahl stories that I remember best. All of them feature, if not outright criminals, at least protagonists comfortable with skirting the law. And all feature individuals with unique skills: Danny is a boy who breaks new ground in the art of poaching pheasants. Henry Sugar is a man fascinated with the idea that he might develop the ability to see through objects. And the Hitchhiker’s particular talent is left for the narrator, and the reader, to discover.

Lessons: Not everyone who’s on the side of good is on the side of the law.*

*The opinions expressed are the author’s own and may not necessarily be endorsed by his Mom and Dad.


Scooby Doo, Where are You?

Okay, I’m cheating here: it’s a TV show. But it’s also mystery and monsters, for St. Shaggy’s sake. You couldn’t beat that combination for thrilling me at age seven. The mysteries themselves were appropriately cartoonish, but the undaunted courage of the group of friends – bolstered by Scooby Snacks – and their faith in a rational solution to supernatural happenings was comforting. ‘Cause that ghost-robot thing with the glowing eyes was creepy.

Lessons: Teamwork counts, especially when the world gets scary. Also: It’s always the guy you least suspect. And Also: It’s shockingly easy to scare the locals using a flashlight and a stencil of a pirate ship.


The Three Investigators

Less well known today, but “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” followed the adventures of stocky logician Jupiter Jones (kind of an early-teen Nero Wolfe) and his friends Pete and Bob as they scrutinized mysterious goings-on, debunking the supernatural – much like Scooby – and then reporting their findings to the famous director. Yes, Hitch was a cursory character in the series. I don’t recall if the three junior detectives ever investigated flocks of aggressive birds or disappearances at a roadside motel. But they did have the coolest headquarters in Christendom: a trailer hidden within a scrapyard, with secret entrances and its own library. I still want that for my clubhouse.

Lessons: The value of Occam’s Razor in judging theories.



The big guy. It’s a little unsettling how many of my later pursuits could be traced back to wanting to be Batman: Criminology. Martial arts. Skulking around in the shadows.

Most of the comics I collected were during the era of writers Denny O’Neil and Len Wein (and artists like Jim Aparo and Carmine Infantino), a high-water mark for Batman as action hero and especially as an investigator. People often forget that about the Caped Crusader. Setting aside the fighting skills and the gadgets and the immense wealth, he was the World’s Greatest Detective (with the ever-present capitalization to prove it.) O’Neal was especially good at having Batman outwit his foes through careful attention to detail and science.

Best of all, Batman made himself a hero, through dedication, wits, and huge amounts of effort. And isn’t that a lesson every writer can appreciate?

Lessons: Biceps and a bankroll count for very little, without intelligence and hard work to back them up.




WHAT CHILDHOOD MYSTERIES DEFINED YOU? Tell us or leave a comment on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of PAST CRIMES! (U.S. only please.)


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