At the age of 9 or so, while other kids were gluing stamps from Togoland in a book, or perfecting "Pony Pony" on the upright, I was packing my snub-nosed revolver in a home-made shoulder holster and heading for the street, where my business lay. Since I didn't wear suit jackets at the time, I did not know where a shoulder holster was supposed to be worn, so I wore mine between my shirt and my skin. That was a cold way to wear it; and I knew it looked odd for a 9-year-old to be walking around with a bulge in his shirt the size of a cantaloupe. If my work had not been so vital and dangerous, I might have felt selfconscious.
My work was being a detective, and I was by far the most daring and diligent detective in the neighborhood. It was routine, for example, for me to jot down all the license-plate numbers on my block, so that if someone were to make a sudden getaway, I could track him down in minutes. You may not remember the famous Vicessi hardware-store robbery case, but it was I who collected the cigarette butts on the sidewalk in front of Vicessi's in order to study them for prints and tobacco brands. My most serious work involved following suspicious-looking grown-ups - always at a distance that allowed me to be spotted (for if my quarries didn't know they were being followed no one else would either). I wonder what those fellows thought as they turned and saw a kid with a cantaloupe in is shirt 20 paces behind them. Trouble - that's what they thought.
Now that I wear suit jackets regularly, I do not sport a shoulder holster anymore (ironic), and I've also given up taking down license numbers and tailing murderers. Yet, while I have been forced by convention to give up being a detective, I have not given up the dream. Nothing would make me happier than to pick up the phone and hear the chief inspector say: "Mr. Rosenblatt, this is a sticky one. We need you help." Since that call has not yet come through, I settle for reading detective novels, getting as close as a dull man can to that manner of heroism to which I'd like to believe I was born.
Exactly why I'd like to believe that, I have not worked out; and perhaps - as Philo Vance used to say - there are some mysteries that ought not to be solved. But I do know that my fascination with detective work is not unique. Every year, especially in this season, millions of my fellow dreamers curl up in summer storms and enter the worlds and minds of Holmes, Poirot, Marlowe and Spade. There is no experience like it, nothing on earth at once so tantalizing and satisfactory.
Of course, the worlds and minds of Holmes et al. are quite different from each other. Neither the tantalizations nor the satisfactions offered by the reasonable Poirot are those of the intuitive Vance; nor does John D. MacDonald's Florida of the '50s appeal in the same way as Ross Macdonald's California of the '40s, or S.S. Van Dine's New York of the '30s, or Agatha Christie's quaint parsonages. What is common to these stories is the nature of the detective, and that is their central appeal. Detectives are grown-ups with their selfesteem intact. There is every reason to admire them:
For one thing, a detective solves crimes, and other grown-ups don't. Other grown-ups live with crime, and call it something slse.
For another, a detective has a specific mission, which, like a classical play, has a beginning, middle and end.
For a third, a detective operates from a sense of order. A murderer is a romantic; he thinks he can remake the world. A detective is both a romantic and a realist; he thinks he can improve the world by catching the murderer. And in fact he does so, for a time. That he understands his improvements are only for a time, yet makes them nevertheless, is all the more admirable.
Finally, a detective knows right from wrong, and acts on the difference. Yet he lives in mystery with style. That may be his deepest appeal.
As that list of virtues indicates, very few people are cut out to be detectives; and if the bitter truth be known, I'm not really sure I'm among the few. A major ingredient of detectiveve work is loneliness, which has no appeal at all, so it was probably just as well that I quit the game while I was still on top. Besides, it's a good deal simpler to lead a normal grown-up life. Now I can walk down the street like everyone else, knowing the person behind me is inside me.