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.