I smuggled my first British mystery home in a plain brown wrapper two years ago.
I remember it all now. It was a cold day and a thin rain was falling. I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn't being followed but I couldn't see anyone. Maybe that was because my dark glasses were wet, but I didn't think so.
In the beginning it wasn't my fault; I thought I could read just one story and stop there. But I was hooked immediately and plain brown wrappers began stacking up all over the house. I spent hours trying to hide paperbacks so my friends wouldn't discover my guilty secret. After all, what's an academic doing reading mystery stories? I was too new to the genre to know how many mystery writers are actually professors of literature.
My friends discovered my secret anyway. They were horrified. ''An academic reading British sensational non-literature?'' they cried. ''Why, why, why?''
I knew I could never explain why; I would have to show them, but that would take planning. Meanwhile I temporized. It was after a three-hour grilling, without a break for lunch. I tried to be honest.
''I don't read mystery stories for the creative exercise of my deductive faculties,'' I said, ''and I don't plan to write a research paper, either . . .''
They might have accepted these explanations. This was academia and besides, Sam Spade had recently arrived at a local college campus. But Sam was American, cult, and therefore almost respectable. ''I read British mysteries for pleasure, '' I began.
They moaned in unison and I reflected that the joy of words may well have been lost to them under a weight of scholarship. Could they ever believe that my mystery writers might be masters of language, yet delight in exploring and exploiting the possibilities of English while also poking literate fun at themselves, their fellow writers, their readers - and all within the confines of the strict conventions of their genre?
''I read them for the menus,'' I said weakly. ''I can't resist cucumber sandwiches.'' After three hours of grilling, I was hungry.
They didn't believe me. True scholars are not supposed to be interested in food - only in food for thought.
But they wouldn't have believed me either, if I had told them that most of my favorite mysteries are not just elegantly written and witty, but that the joy of solving a locked-room puzzle is akin to the joy of solving a literary conundrum. What else is the detective but a researcher - a scholar - in pursuit of truth? And this is one search that the academic can enjoy to the fullest, in the knowledge that no commitment is required and that the solution to the problem will certainly be discovered.
How unreal, and how relaxing . . . and how to explain? I decided to stick to my story, thin as it was.
''Just ask me who committed the crime,'' I said, upending a drawerful of mysteries. ''I don't know. I can never remember. All I care is that it wasn't the cook . . .''
This, despite the fact that the deceased lamentably perished subsequent to a high tea of crumpets, scones, homemade preserves, strawberries, and Devonshire clotted cream. With arsenic.
They still didn't believe me. They knew about American private eyes and nobody cared about food in those stories - it was all greasy spoons and coffee, at midnight, amid a hail of bullets.
I promised I would try to reform and for a while I read nothing but American detective stores. There were hardboiled detectives getting beaten up, hardboiled detectives going without sleep for four days at a stretch, and hardboiled private eyes talking in short sentences around the mouthpiece of the ubiquitous pay telephone.
I began to realize why everyone in American detective stories talked in short sentences. It was to get the information across before they collapsed from fatigue and starvation.
Occasionally they stopped to eat - usually fried eggs, twice over greasy.
I couldn't give up my British mysteries. I told my friends and they took away my books. It was for my own good, they said. They promised to return them later. ''Re-read Hammett and Chandler,'' they said sternly. ''We don't think you fully comprehend the mind-set there.''
But that was where they were wrong. I did understand the mind-set - only it was the crooks I understood, not the Continental Op and Sam Spade.
I leaned against the wall and watched them go, a twisted grin on my face. I knew what would happen when they took away my books - academics just can't resist reading, especially books right in front of their eyes . . . I would show them, after all. And I did.
I remember it all now. It was a cold day and a thin rain was falling. They carried brown paper bags and they kept looking over their shoulders to see if they weren't being followed. They couldn't see anyone but that was because their dark glasses were wet. I was following them . . . They had bought their own books and I wanted a piece of their action.
I tapped each figure on the shoulder. ''Hand it over,'' I said; ''after all, it's for your own good.'' I promised to return their books later.
''Serves them right,'' I said heartlessly, munching cucumber sandwiches as I thumbed the loot. ''British mysteries, all of them,'' I said joyfully.
I threw out Hammett and Chandler.
It was a pleasure.