Good news: mystery fiction department

Like most people who enjoy spy novels and crime fiction, I feel vaguely guilty about this interest. I realize that crime fiction is classy now, and has taken over part of the describing-modern-life job that high-toned novelists abdicated when they moved into the universities. My friend Patrick Anderson*, who has reviewed mysteries for years at the Washington Post, recently published a very good book to this effect: The Triumph of the Thriller. Still, you feel a little cheesy when you see a stack of lurid mystery covers sitting next to the bed.

So I've figured out a way to tell the books I can feel good about reading from the ones I should wean myself from. The test is: can I remember something from the book a month later -- or, better, six months or a year on. This is the test I apply to "real" fiction too: surprisingly often, a great book is great because it presents a character, a mood, a facet of society, a predicament that you hadn't thought of before reading the book but that stays with you afterwards. Rabbit Angstrom, Captain Ahab, and Clyde Griffiths (of An American Tragedy), to choose the first three examples that pop into my mind from American fiction.

I say that "genre" fiction, like spy and crime novels, ascends into the "real" fiction category when the world it presents can exert the same tenacious hold on your mind. (Meta point: in choosing life activities, I place a high premium on things I'm likely to remember -- new places, new activities -- because otherwise you feel you're just tearing pages off the calendar, in the way that old-time movies illustrated the passage of the years.) As I've thought about it I've been struck by how many "genre" books marvelously pass the test. For example:

- The mood of mounting, inescapable doom of Scott Smith's great thriller from the 1990s, A Simple Plan, is difficult to forget even if you wanted to. His recent book, The Ruins, was to me just another forgettable pop thriller; but with one book like Simple Plan he has topped most writers. Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent created the same memorable atmosphere of mounting dread. (The DNA test results!)

- Of many excellent books by Charles McCarry, The Tears of Autumn is similarly unforgettable, among other reasons for presenting the only interpretation of the John Kennedy assassination that makes complete psychological sense.

- Jerome Doolittle's acerbic "Tom Bethany" series created a detective I still remember clearly years after I read the latest in the five-book installment. Bethany is a private detective who is also an Olympic athlete -- or would-be, since Jimmy Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics cost him his chance to compete as a wrestler -- and a bush pilot and a political leftie and a wise guy. What I know about wrestling I know mainly through these books.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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