Today on the blog I am delighted to welcome Elena from Books and Reviews, one of my favourite bloggers whose fantastic reviews cover mainly crime fiction. I love her insightful reviews and feminist critiques and hope you’ll check out her blog!
I have been a voracious reader of crime fiction since I was 2. I am not kidding. Back in the early 1990’s there was an amazing book about a group of animals that lost a cake in the forest called The Lost Cake – although no pictures of said book survive. The plot centred on their quest, and the final finding of the cake to everyone’s happiness. My Mum always remembers how much I loved the story, and the joy I got from learning, once again, that the cake was found. So much so, that I wanted the book to be read aloud to me at least twice a day. Apparently, it was a nightmare for both my parents, although they now remember those nights with love. To their joy, I learned to read, I eventually grew out of the story.
I spent my childhood reading almost everything that I could lay my hands on. My parents would buy me as many books as they could afford, but I also browsed my grandparents’ and aunt’s libraries in search for my next read. I remember trying to read Tom Sawyer – and miserably failing! – when I was 8, just because I loved the cover from a collection aimed at young readers that my grandparents got as soon as they discovered my passion for books. Around this time, I also got my first library card, and tried – I still do – to use it as much as I can. Remember libraries count on us to stay alive, especially in times of economic crises, like the one Spain went through during my childhood. Despite the volume of books available to me, I must admit I spent a few years trapped between children’s literature and more adult stories. I lusted after covers of adults’ books and I used to browse the mystery and crime section at our local shop to no avail. Children’s literature did not appeal to me, and I was scared by adults’ books – after all I was an 8-year old pounding on the possibility of reading adult crime fiction.
And then I was handed a quick way out of that limbo: My aunt presented me her collection of comic books, though not the ones that you are imagining. These were two volumes of literary classics adapted to comic format that made it very easy to me to explore more adult narratives in a more approachable way. My 10-year old was in heaven! I would carefully explore both volumes before deciding on a story, always with a renewed desire to find a story that would make me feel like my lost cake. Even though these stories were – now I see it – mainly written by white, English/American men, they meant the key to a new world, or at least, a necessary rite of passage in Western literature. And one day, I found a story that excited me more than my lost cake:
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the first Sherlock Holmes story that I read, but also the first adult novel that I allowed myself to read. Back then it took me a few attempts to go through the grotesque depiction of the hound in the comic, but everyone in my family kept encouraging me to keep reading. I did, and once I finished reading the story I asked my parents for the real deal: My first Sherlock Holmes book. Since I had always been a voracious reader, my parents looked at me with a mix of love and sadness knowing I was no longer a children’s books reader, and there was no way back. My adult book hauling had started.
I live in a small town and although the book was not available at our local bookshop, they requested it to the publisher for me. They promised they would call me, and I patiently waited by the phone for days. I’m actually still waiting, as they never called. Seeing how important the book was to me, my parents decided to take me to the City. I remember browsing the mystery section, which I saw with new eyes now that I was familiar with that formidable detective that I so much admired. I discovered them, as I squealed telling me parents, that he was famous, very famous, and there were so many books that I imagined I had a lifetime of crime stories to read. From that moment on, I would request a Sherlock Holmes book to anyone who offered to buy me a gift.
The problem with the Canon is that is extensive, except if you are a pre-teen who would only read Sherlock Holmes. In less than a year I was left with five Sherlock Holmes stories. I decided then I did not want to live in a world where there are no Holmes stories left for me to discover, and I have kept that childish promise to myself until the present day. Instead, I focused on compulsory readings at high school, learning English, and reading British, and American literature. Even though I am Spanish, I have always drifted towards English culture, a passion that everyone in my family still holds dear nowadays. During this period, I discovered three female sisters who died young but wrote dark novels in 19th century England. I discovered the power of the Mississippi and male friendship; and the cold winter in New England where four sisters gave away their Christmas breakfast to a family in need. I read as much as I can, already showing an interest for women authors, and thinking myself the Beth of my life story, even though I am clearly a Jo. For a while, I left crime fiction and instead abandoned myself to tales that resonated with the sometimes hard process of growing up.
When at 18, I had to decide what to study at university, I was caught up between Philosophy and Spanish Grammar. I was really good at both subjects in high school, and I thought I could pull off a degree in any of them without much effort. But, less than 24 hours before the deadline to apply ended, I looked at my bookshelves just in time to realise that they were crowded with books from the UK, and the States. What if I could make of my passion my profession? Could it be THAT easy? As I announced my decision to my family, they all sighted in relief: ‘We didn’t want to interfere with your decision, but it was so clear English Studies is your thing!’ So, English Studies it was for me! During my degree, I had amazing lecturers who taught me the classics, and even offered extra reading, sometimes lending me their own personal copies of books that were not in the programme. Back then I read two or three books a week, all related to the subjects I was studying. I loved every single literature class. I loved to study a text, and finding the structure. Mapping out the characters’ development. Deconstructing the hidden meanings of every line. It was hard work. I did not have much free time. And I was at my happiest. But I had no time for crime fiction, and needless to say, it was no included in the programme. Until I met MS.
Just half an hour talking to MS in her office about my reading habits and my reading she knew I had a passion for crime fiction. She was the person who told me I could study crime fiction. And since she is an English Literature professor and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my English Degree, I believed her. But again, I found myself thinking: Could it be THAT easy? Can some of the hardest decisions in life be made this easily? This was 8 years ago, and I have never looked back. I have studied crime fiction under MS’s tutelage since then. I wrote my dissertation about the Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series. I wrote my MA dissertation about the television show Rizzoli & Isles, and I am currently writing my doctoral thesis about forensic crime fiction. Words cannot express how lucky I feel that I have found someone who understands why my bookshelves are crowded with crime novels.
It was also under her advice that I discovered Patricia Cornwell and the Kay Scarpetta series. My inspiration! The reason I have decided to pursue a PhD in Humanities with no funding! The one person with whom I share lack of sleep and lots of coffee! After reading the first novels in the series, I decided to explore more contemporary crime fiction. What if there was a bunch of female forensic doctors out there who understand me better than some real people? Enter Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series – and their television adaptation Bones – who have also taught me that it takes a lot of hard work to get to where you want to be. But can be made. So keep working! Do not never give up!
I credit Dr. Maura Isles – from the TV adaptation of the Rizzoli & Isles series, I’m just discovering Tess Gerritsen’s novels! – with teaching me that you do not have to adhere to social constructions, and if you want to go to a crime scene with your new Louboutin’s, you can. And you should be proud. Even though they are fictional, these women have taught me more about resilience, ambition, and work ethic than any teacher did during elementary school.. I am constantly surprised by their power as fictional characters, but I am also honoured to have met them, and have them in my life. There is nothing I like more than a (fictional) morgue when I’m stressed!
As I see it now, my life has just been a succession of realising my passion for books could be turned into something useful. Something similar has happened with my blog Books & Reviews, which I started inspired by a friend, and has now become a key part of my career and my online identity. However, I would not be here if it weren’t for the books mentioned here, and all the wonderful authors that made me discover that I can be a Humanities person and still love medicine and forensic science. Reading is an act of self-discovery, but it is also a rebellion against social, familiar and professional expectations that try to label us. Crime fiction has taught me that the status quo can be questioned, and that it is possible to get out of your comfort zone and come out of it triumphant.
What a fantastic post from Elena! It’s so interesting that Arthur Conan Doyle features frequently on crime writing fans lists, clearly an incredibly influential writer.
Are any of your favourites on this list?
It may be Reading Ireland Month here at 746 Books in a week, but The Books that Built the Blogger will continue, and next week I’m delighted to feature Susan from the brilliant A Life in Books!