The Boy Detective: A New York Childhood Hardcover

by Roger Rosenblatt

(Ecco, $19.99, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Roger Rosenblatt knows his way around the essay. And the play. And the novel and books that are a wonderful blend of memoir and meditation. He has won many awards for his work in various media: two Polks, a Peabody and an Emmy. He has written six off-Broadway plays and 16 books, including many bestsellers. He also has taught writing at Harvard University, and is Distinguished Professor of English and Writing at Stony Brook University. Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy was 38 when she died of a heart defect no one knew she had in 2007; his New Yorker essay on the tragedy was later expanded to a best-selling book, “Making Toast.”

What is this book about?

Rosenblatt looks back with humor and tenderness at his New York City boyhood, when as a 9-year-old he liked to pretend he was a detective chasing crooks and solving mysteries. Some 60 years later, he walks the city again on a winter night after teaching a writing class and explores the same neighborhood where he lived as a boy. This leads to his musings on his life, the ways of the city and its past, writers such as Poe and Melville who also walked those streets, fictional detectives and real detective work, the great buildings of New York and much more.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s memoir, but also a meditation on how memory works and whether it can always be trusted, as well as a deep exploration of famous fictional detectives, some of whom are likely to be favorites of any reader. Rosenblatt has a wonderful writer’s voice, both funny and poetic, and I recall several compelling talks he gave at the Writers Weekends that The Courant used to present.  This book, like those talks, lets him display his supple mind and gorgeous turns of phrase.

What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “Teaching a class on memoir writing, Rosenblatt is struck by his own powerful memories of a childhood in Manhattan with fantasies of being a boy detective, focused then on clues, now on significant moments. Snatches of conversations with students are interspersed with remembrances of growing up as Rosenblatt recalls longing for but knowing he lacked what he admired in great literary detectives, “Holmes’s powers of observation, Hercule Poirot’s powers of deduction, Sam Spade’s straight talk, Miss Marple’s stick-to-itiveness, and Philip Marlowe’s courage and sense of honor.” The amateur sleuth searched for intriguing clues to a hardware store break-in but had no interest in solving the mystery of a teacher’s suicide at a local school. Rosenblatt shares poignant memories of the landscape of his childhood: the New York Public Library, Gramercy Park, Union Square, Madison Square Garden, and long-gone tenements and movie theaters. With the beautiful, lyrical writing and thoughtful reflection for which he is known, Rosenblatt offers beautifully rendered memories of childhood and ongoing curiosity about the city he so obviously loves.”

“A hallmark of memoir is the self now reflecting on the self then. This book pulls off the high wire feat of illuminating that double identity and giving readers the mental atmospheres of both narrators, the rascal back then and the reflective adult today…deliciously satisfying,“ says the New York Journal of Books.

Says Peter Hamill in the New York Times Book Review:  “To enter the world of this wonderful memoir is to leave the dull certainties of home and go wandering. The author’s destination is always the great wide world Out There, and through his sharp, compact prose, Roger Rosenblatt takes the reader with him. He is, after all, what some 19th-century Parisians called a flâneur, a stroller sauntering through anonymous crowds in the noisy, greedy, unscripted panoramas of the city…In this extended essay, at once a memoir and a meditation on the literary form itself, Rosenblatt writes the way a great jazz musician plays, moving from one emotion to another, playing some with a dose of irony, others with joy, and a few with pain and melancholy… “

Publishers Weekly says:  “In the vein of his other recent works, Rosenblatt (Making Toast) has taken memoir writing—a subject he teaches at State University of New York at Stony Brook—and turned it on its head once again. Walking the Manhattan streets of his childhood, Rosenblatt uses the city landscape to delve into eclectic ruminations on the nature of time and space, the slipperiness of reality and memory. By mixing in history, literary references, geography, philosophy, and poetry, he is somehow able to create a 14th Street where (or when) Luchow, a 19th-century restaurant, sits side by side with a modern Trader’s Joe’s store. Rosenblatt’s writing is honest, yet it produces a magical world unto itself, as when he describes his writing process (“Why do I have to produce an ocean in the morning, much less paint the sun-streaks on it, much less the plaster clouds or the goddam sun itself?”). The title refers to the author’s childhood desire to be a detective on par with Holmes and Marlow, and the idea of controlling the uncontrollable comes into play throughout the book. But Rosenblatt isn’t out to uncover the meaning of life—he is celebrating the fact that “life calls for nothing but itself.”

When is it available?

You don’t have to be a detective to find this book. It’s on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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