Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Tracking and trailing and other useful skills

In Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang (1965), Archie Goodwin offers the following practical advice:
If you think you have a tail on a subway train and want to spot him you keep moving while the train is under way, and at each station you stand close enough to a door so that you might get off.
Simple, no? And potentially useful, should I find myself picking up a tail when I'm in New York for work again this week.

It also reminds me that a couple of favorite books when I was a kid were essentially how-to manuals for this sort of work, pitched at kid level. The first one I encountered was my father's copy of The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook (1959). He would have had the first edition--which, as the brief but informative Wikipedia entry for the book tells us, had to be replaced in 1966 when Dominic A. Spina, the retired NYPD detective who served as the book's voice of authority, was indicted on corruption charges. Spina was eventually acquitted, but not before he'd lost his role as advisor to the Hardy Boys (and, one assumes, a more thankless advisor to Chet Morton).

The Detective Handbook, however, never grabbed me like its straightforwardly enchanting title led me to hope it would. It was too dry, and, even to a kid's eye both its techniques and tone seemed a bit dated by the time I was reading it in the early 1980s. What I wanted was to be a brilliant private detective; what it taught was how to be a cop.

So imagine how excited I was when our local library got copies of two books in a UK series of spycraft manuals aimed at kids, The Good Spy Guide to Tracking and Trailing and The Good Spy Guide to Secret Messages. Both were written, the Internet tells me, by Judy Hindley, and the series, from Usborne Books, also included a volume on fakes and forgeries which ten-year-old me would also have enjoyed.

What made the Usborne books was their illustrations, which were in cartoon style but at the same time extremely effective at conveying the point at issue. I still distinctly remember the image of the bad spy using a shop window to look over his shoulder at his quarry--not realizing that if you can see someone in a window or mirror, you know they can see you. For a budding pre-teen spy/detective, that was hot stuff.

Even better was the books' tone: they offered tips and tricks in simplified form but with full seriousness, at least to my memory. These were honest-to-goodness spy tricks, and the author didn't scoff at your reasons for wanting to know them: it was taken as a given that a life well lived might at any moment throw up a situation requiring some hunting or evasion, or a secret communicated by some carefully placed rocks or sticks--even if the reader lived with his parents in the middle of nowhere and had never seen a shady character.

I checked those books out of the library over and over and over again. And thinking about them now makes me glad that I didn't encounter the Nero Wolfe books at that age. I suspect that they would have entertained me greatly, like Agatha Christie's did, even as I missed a lot (their humor, for one thing). But the lure of Wolfe and Archie's perfect little world would have been too much--it would have represented everything I was hoping for out of life. Hell, it's hard to resist even now: as Donald Westlake wrote in his introduction to The Father Hunt,
One doesn't drop in at the house on Thirty-fifth Street for the plot line but for the house itself and its denizens--lovingly described, familiar, comfortable, though with Nero Wolfe in charge and Archie as Virgil never so comfortable as to bore.
Ten-year-old me was content to learn spycraft and detective skills assuming I'd one day have a use for them, and aching for the chance; having had the house on Thirty-Fifth Street to aspire to would only have made the waiting more unbearable.

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