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.
- The early Easy Rawlins books were for me rich, evocative, and memorable about Los Angeles of the WW II era. I remember the early Henning Mankell novels, about a depressive Swedish policeman. And the early Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo "Laughing Policeman" novels about another downbeat Swedish cop. And the early Ian Rankin, about a downcast cop in Edinburgh. And the early Grijpstra and de Gier novels, by Janwillem van de Wettering, about how depressing Amsterdam can be for cops. Boy, if someone ever sets a mystery in Prague... With all of these, I felt I got the point after a few books, but I'm glad I read those few. (Similarly: Tony Hillerman, with Navajo-reservation life.)
- Death of a Nationalist, by Rebecca Pawel, is a wonderful presentation of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. Inspector Imanishi Investigates is a wonderful evocation of the precision and oddity of post-WW II Japan. (So is everything Yukio Mishima wrote, but that doesn't count because it's Quality Lit.)
- George Pelecanos! As soon as I think of his name I remember a dozen characters and scenes from his crime novels set in the non-K-Street parts of Washington DC.
I could go on -- for instance, the wonderful Peter Robinson, with In a Dry Season and other Inspector Banks books. The banter in Nero Wolfe novellas, taken sparingly. The Moscow of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park -- and the Chernobyl of his Wolves Eat Dogs. My stated point, again, is that these genre books are impressive because they do what fancy books do: give you a new way of thinking about the world. My implicit point is that many bigger-name mystery and spy novelists, to me, don't make the list. There's no point in inviting trouble by naming them, but here is one: I have read and enjoyed many books by Alan Furst, but I can't tell you now what happened in any of them.
And now the payoff: a new entry in this series. A year ago, a former intelligence official writing under the pen name James Church published a novel set in... .Pyongyang, North Korea! It was called The Corpse in the Koryo, and its protagonist was the Pyongyang police detective Inspector O. Now Church has a second O book out, Hidden Moon. I've bought it but have not yet read it, and am hoping it continues the work Koryo did in adding human figures and daily-life details to what for me had been the utterly blank canvas of.. Pyongyang!
* Patrick Anderson was my predecessor as Jimmy Carter's head speechwriter, back in the days of yore. Jerry Doolittle was one of my colleagues on the staff.