For me, it was always Freddy.
Other mystery lovers were given sets of Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, or stumbled upon a row of old Agatha Christies shelved between two beams in the summer cottage. Maybe they cracked open their dad’s John MacDonald paperbacks because the racy covers promised s-e-x. But my first detective was Walter R. Brooks’s Freddy the Pig.
I first ran across Freddy the Detective at the base library in Patch Barracks, Stuttgart. I can’t say now what made me check that volume out—there was a whole row of adventures: Freddy to Mars, Freddy and the North Pole, Freddy and the Circus. But I walked home with a volume of detection. The porcine hero, who had already been featured in two preceding books, Freddy Goes to Florida and Freddy Goes to the North Pole, sets himself up in his sty as a consulting investigator after reading the works of Arthur Conan Doyle to his fellow barnyard citizens. Freddy is fat, erudite, a bit of a snob, and possesses deep insights into talking animal psychology. He is aided by his best friend Jinx, a slim, athletic cat with a sly wit and an occasional tendency to violence.
Yes. They are, it would seem, the Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin of the animal world. 1
1 The two authors were contemporaries; with the Freddy books spanning 1927 to 1958 and the Nero Wolfe series running from 1935 to 1974. Rex Stout published in many magazines; Walter Brooks was an editor at the New Yorker, and both men relocated from the city to upstate New York. I leave the resulting scholarly monograph to my friends in The Wolfe Pack.
Freddy and Jinx solve several small mysteries which intertwine and become bigger mysteries. There’s action and humor and a beautifully detailed supporting cast of motherly cows and quivering rabbits and social-climbing chickens, all set in the tight-knit confines of a rural upstate New York community.
Ahem. It would seem Freddy and Jinx may also be Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson. 2
2 Although I hesitate to describe either of my heroes as fat or erudite. I do have thrilling action scenes involving cows, however, just as Mr. Brooks did.
As soon as I had finished Freddy the Detective, I read it again. Then I ran to the library and took out as many of the other Freddy books as I was allowed. I learned two things from the series: when you fall in love with a set of characters, you will follow them anywhere; and every good book, at its heart, has a mystery. Freddy never repeated his PI gig—Freddy wasn’t much for repeating experiences—but in all the books, there was some hidden secret he and Jinx and the other residents of Mr. Bean’s farm had to tease out and understand, usually while barely escaping with life and, ah, hoof.
Like some gateway drug, the Freddy books led me into the juvenile mystery section. 3
3 This was in the day when you had children’s-section-only cards. A few years later, in our small town in the southern Adirondacks, I could take out books from the adult side of the library – but the librarians would call my mother and let her know if I had anything “questionable.” Obviously not trained by the ALA.
I found Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys to be…okay. I wasn’t drawn to the lone detective or sleuthing duo genre, and despite the appearance of friends and family, there’s no doubt who was the star of the show in either of those series. I liked whole gangs of people solving crimes, which explains why I worked my way relentless through the Bobbsey Twins (two sets of twins, parents, servants!, and pets) and the Happy Hollisters (Five kids plus parents, cat,s and dog.) The “crimes” they solved fueled the plots, but they weren't my primary focus. I never warmed to the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, for instance. Too much of the puzzle mystery about it, and you so often had to know some science fact to figure out the theft—not my strong suit. 4
4 Although I do like the amateur sleuth working with the chief of police. Well done, Nat Sobol, well done.
Characters that seem real—even if they're talking animals. A question that has to be answered at all costs. Excitement, twists, false leads, solutions. Dialog that's funny because the characters speaking it are funny. Community. A rural setting with harsh winters and hot summers. That's what the Freddy books taught me to love. That's what my favorite mysteries continue to be.
That's what I write.
I wonder if I can slip a reference to Farmer Bean's pig into my next book?
For further reference: A complete bibliography of all 26 books in the series can be found at this website maintained by the Friends of Freddy.
Julia Spencer-Fleming is a bestselling author and winner of the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Dilys, Barry, Nero Wolfe, and Gumshoe Awards, also an Edgar and Romantic Times RC Award finalist. One Was a Soldier is the seventh novel in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mystery series.
Travis McGee was my first detective, but not because the covers promised anything racy. When I ran out of books to read on a rainy day and went to my father’s shelves, they were just the thinnest books there. The other ones scared me and I thought I would never be able to finish them!