Remember how last week I claimed that the Bernie Rhodenbarr books were the first mysteries I ever read? Well, as I researched that blog entry I discovered that Lawrence Block had published another burglar book in 2004, one that somehow slipped under my radar (maybe because I had a brand new baby that year, born right around the time the book came out). So of course I got it from my library and read it immediately: The Burglar on the Prowl.
On page 104 of the book, Bernie receives a call at his bookshop from someone wondering if he has a particular Joseph Conrad title. As I read this passage I realized that the burglar books weren’t the first mysteries I read at all. They were just the first adult mysteries I read. The first mysteries I read as a kid were Ellen Raskin’s middle-grade novels: The Westing Game, Figgs & Phantoms (in which Joseph Conrad’s novels play an important role), The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel), and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues.
Oh my god those books were sooooooo good. If you’ve read them, you know. Maybe your teachers made you read The Westing Game, which won a Newbery and is Raskin’s most famous book. My favorite, by far, though, is Figgs & Phantoms, with its big beautiful ampersands and other typographical niceties. The jacket of Figgs & Phantoms states that the book is “a mysterious romance or a romantic mystery” and says “if you want to read it as a mystery, a clue is: the bald spot.”
Raskin designed the book herself (she also designed the cover for the first edition of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time), and it’s full of kid-pleasing text-illustration meshes, including a number of signs (one character is a sign-maker) in Playbill font. How do I know the name of the font? Because Raskin includes a detailed note on typefaces at the end of the book. And this, dear reader, may have been the beginning of my personal love affair with the alphabet and typography and the book as object, which led me to my current position as Curator of Special Collections at Colorado College, where classes make things like this and like this.
As soon as I realized I’d read mysteries meant for kids, I also, of course, remembered the Encyclopedia Brown books, which Josh has already talked about. And for that matter, Josh has mentioned Raskin, too, and I think I may have given my final approval of him as a husband for my friend Amanda when he got as excited as I did to hear that there’s a posthumous Raskin novel coming out next year, A Murder for Macaroni and Cheese. It can’t possibly be as good as Figgs & Phantoms, but I will certainly read it.