Not to run the topic into the ground, but: following this and this on what makes fiction remember-able (subtly different from memorable) and which "genre" books achieve that goal, a little more.
- I recognize that what I'm about to say slightly undercuts my point that powerful fiction, of any sort, gets into your mind and won't get out. Still I will confess that I (ahem) forgot to mention unforgettable genre books like Ken Bruen's The Guards and related novels, from the cop-and-criminal world of Ireland. Or, Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen mysteries, set in Venice. Dibdin's unrelated but remarkably creepy (and funny) The Dying of the Light is very much worth finding. Or, The Whispering Wall, by the Australian writer Patricia Carlon. (Premise: a rich old woman has had a stroke and can't talk or move, but she can hear and understand every detail of the plot being hatched by her relatives to do her in.) Or, three Japanese murder mysteries that have nothing in common except that each believably creates a sociopathic monster as the central character: Honeymoon to Nowhere, by Akimitsu Takagi; Out, by Natsuo Kirino; and the recently-released The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada. Or, for a monster of a different sort, the "Ripley" books by Patricia Highsmith.
- On remember-ability in general: I am not sure how I feel about the fact that on average I can remember movies more completely and clearly than I can remember books. Take some oddball feature I saw on a Saturday afternoon as a kid --The Cardinal, let's say, an Otto Preminger potboiler from the 1960s about a Boston boy who becomes a prince of the Church.
I can still see Tom Tryon* in that movie putting on his crimson robes or resisting temptations of the flesh (in the appropriately fleshy form of a young Romy Schneider), even though I might not remember some novel I read last spring. I think it's more than childhood imprinting or adult addle-brainedness: I bet that anyone who saw everyone's favorite noir film, The Usual Suspects, will long remember Kevin Spacey changing from a limp to a stride at the end of the movie (and all that's involved in that shift.) Or: the look of the balloon-thigh bicyclists in The Triplets of Belleville. Or, the giant sandstorm in the otherwise forgettable Viggo Mortensen oater of a few years back, Hidalgo.
Maybe this is how human memory works. Maybe it's just me. The point I'm getting to is that while movies, with their rich appeals to the eye and ear, generally imprint themselves on the (my) brain quite effectively, the record is mixed about books vs. movies as vehicles for suspense narrative. The movie version of A Simple Plan was OK, but it was not remotely as chilling or doom-laden as the book itself. I am sorry I ever saw the Matt Damon / Jude Law film of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Even those actors, plus Gwyneth Paltrow and the most compelling actor of the group, Philip Seymour Hoffman, couldn't make the movie as powerful as Patricia Highsmith's book.
On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that some of the truly memorable noir movies could have been as strong strictly as books. I'm thinking of four movies that, in a way, are all the same movie: the great China Moon and Body Heat, and the somewhat lesser Black Widow and Derailed. (If you've seen them, you understand how they're all the same movie. If you haven't, a non-spoiler hint: they all illustrate the wisdom of the Seventh Commandment). Of those four, the only one on which I've tried a compare-and-contrast is Derailed, which I first read as a novel. The movie sticks in the mind more -- thanks mainly to the acting of Clive Owen, whose breakthrough role nearly ten years ago in Croupier is more memorable still.
So I guess where we end up is understanding the justice of actors getting the big bucks. China Moon imprints itself on the mind with every scene because of the way Ed Harris and Madeleine Stowe are together -- with a post-Jewel in the Crown Charles Dance and a pre-Usual Suspects Benicio del Toro keeping right up with them. Same with Body Heat, thanks to William Hurt and Kathleen Turner -- and Mickey Rourke, and Richard Crenna. Or Black Widow, thanks to Theresa Russell and Deborah Winger. All three of these movies were set in the drippingly humid deep South in summertime. The summer sounds of wind and thunderstorms and insects, along with the musical score, intensify what the actors do. So maybe we see that either a great on-the-page narrative, or great actors in an evocative setting, can earn a place in long-term memory.
What point was I going to make to close off this discussion? I'll write it down, once it comes back to me.
* Typo'ed on first round as Tyron, arrgh.