It’s my ode to Harriet The Spy—which yes, has been banned, because it allegedly inspires, well, spying, and other miscreant behavior.
In my case, it inspired surviving junior high and, in many ways, my own writing career…
When I was 11-years-old, I happened upon Harriet The Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.
At the time, I didn’t know that the novel—published in 1964—had already been out for eight years and was (and is) a classic of children’s literature.
What I did know was that if I could meet Harriet, she and I would be (I hoped) fast friends. Oh, we were different, but only in surface ways. (She lived in New York City; I lived in Ohio. She had a nanny; I didn’t know of anyone who had a nanny.) But in many ways that mattered… we were just alike. We both knew we would be writers when we grew up. We both kept notebooks and wrote what we REALLY thought.
So, during my sixth grade year, I read Harriet’s story thirteen times. (I kept track in my own notebooks.)
I was both shocked and inspired by Harriet’s gutsiness. I realized that recording my own thoughts would not be enough to make me a real writer. I’d have to observe people. Take notes. Mull over what I’d witnessed. Come to my own conclusions.
So I started watching people more closely, recording snippets of conversation, observations. There
weren’t any dumbwaiters or alleys in suburbia, where I grew up. But… one could hide under windows behind ubiquitous suburban bushes (three green dots per house). Or, oh so casually and slowly, roller skate past the most interesting houses in the neighborhood. Hmm…
After sixth grade, I did not again read Harriet the Spy until recently. It was just as entrancing and scary and wonderful as I remembered it. However, upon this re-read, I also realized something new… why Harriet nudged my subconscious self toward being a mystery writer.
As Harriet says… “Life is a great mystery.” In all her spying and note-taking, the mystery Harriet is really trying to solve is: what motivates people? That tricky question, of course, is what the best mysteries attempt to answer.
And the answer to that question can be endlessly surprising. Harriet herself is surprised time and again by what she learns about the people she spies on. She thinks she knows what makes them tick, but then she observes something that surprises her. For example, when Mrs. Dei Santi discovers her grocery employee has been giving food away to hungry kids, she is so moved that she gives them even more.
Writes Harriet: “That was a scene I’m glad I saw because I would have guessed that Mama Dei Santi would have bopped him over the head…”
But Harriet also discovers the hard way that telling the raw truth can be dangerous. Harriet loses her notebook and her friends find it. They don’t like reading her harsh observations of them and, in reaction, even shun her.
As Ole Golly, Harriet’s beloved nanny, advises Harriet, sometimes you have to tell “little lies.” She says, “Remember that writing is to put love in the world, not to use it against your friends. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.” And so Harriet makes up with her friends… and converts her observations into stories she shares through the sixth grade newspaper.
I think that’s just what mystery writers must do, espy human motivations and tell themselves the truth about those observations, and then convert those truths into the most deliciously entertaining “little lies” ever told… mystery stories.