Read C. S. Farrelly's exclusive guest post about how Choose Your Own Adventure novels helped prepare her for life, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win her debut novel, The Shepherd's Calculus!
In 1987 in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, there were certain incontrovertible truths:
- Being a Penn State football fan was a core part of your identity.
- If it wasn’t, then you were probably from an alien species.
Into this framework entered the Farrelly family and their four unruly children, fresh off a move from Wyoming (who the hell lives in Wyoming?), confusingly not Mormon (that’s who lives in Wyoming), and perhaps most confusing of all, not cable television subscribers—by choice.
By the time I showed up for Halloween at my elementary school as Sherlock Holmes—even without our complete disinterest in Penn State football—our status as an alien species was almost permanently established.
Enter Seth McEvoy, the hero of this tale. His name doesn’t exactly sound like a superhero, and as an author of mysteries, he doesn’t rank with John Grisham or Raymond Chandler. In fact, up until about two years ago, I couldn’t have told you his name—only the titles of some books he’d written, stories that stuck with me more than his name did. That’s the thing about good writing. It’s not just the words and phrases alone; it’s the time in your life when you read them and the feelings they evoke in you both then and for years to come.
And for an awkward 10-year-old girl who taught herself to pick locks after reading Harriett the Spy, who routinely cross-dressed for Halloween, and who played FBI agent alone in her backyard while the other, “normal” girls were invited to slumber parties, Seth McEvoy was proof that there were other people like me out there. Seth McEvoy was a hero.
As the primary author of Bantam Books’ Be an Interplanetary Spy series, McEvoy and his collaborators produced a clever collection of books that each opened with a crime of some kind and made you, as the reader, take on a role in the story as an active participant in solving the mystery by looking for clues and figuring out various puzzles and riddles scattered throughout the pages.
My love of thrillers and mysteries began with a copy of The Adventure of the Speckled Band. But if asked to pinpoint when I crossed into obsession, I’d have to say it was in 1987 when my brother brought home a copy of Find the Kirillian, part of McEvoy’s series in which the reader assumes the identity of an investigator charged with tracking down an escaped criminal named Phatax and rescuing a kidnapped prince. I loved the Interplanetary Spy books and not just because of how much fun it was to help solve the crime in a first-person scenario.
It was as much because age 10 is one of the first times you really start having the independence to express your growing personality. It’s an age when you start to realize not everyone will love who you are, including the people who are supposed to. It’s an age, too, when you begin to fully understand concepts like permanence and their impact: death, crime, accidents, and loss. And while these are heady, scary topics for any child to grasp, fiction was and remains a gentle teacher.
In the manufactured worlds of mysteries and thrillers, murder and injustice are often par for the course. But this is balanced by the prospect of prevention if we follow our hero through the ups and downs of finding the culprit. Sherlock Holmes could prevent Helen Stoner from being killed by a snake. Phatax could be captured before harming the prince. But what was perhaps most special about the Interplanetary Spy series and other “Choose Your Own Adventure” series like it, was that you could make a mistake at any point along the way and, through the magic of fiction, almost always get a second chance to make it right.
Adulthood and hard lessons about the real world—murder, abuse, sin, or even simply disappointments beyond your control—would come to me soon enough. Back then, as it continues to now, a good mystery provided just the right amount of escapism I needed and the comfort that maybe every single one of us who loves a good thriller is a little bit alien.
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C. S. Farrelly was raised in Wyoming and Pennsylvania. A graduate of Fordham University (BA, English), her eclectic career has spanned a Manhattan investment bank, the NYC Department of Education and, most recently, the British Government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She was a 2015 Presidential Leadership Scholar and obtained a master’s degree from Trinity College Dublin, where she was a George J. Mitchell scholar. The Shepherd’s Calculus is her first novel.