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.
I’ve never loved crime fiction but respect the best of it. The idea of genre fiction has always seemed suspect to me, as my fundamental test of a novel regardless of the section of the bookstore in which it sits is, “Does it move me?” The definition of “move” has many entries, but if it achieves this fundamental task I don’t care what’s on its cover.
Fallows is depressingly accurate with his barb about “high-toned novelists abdicated when they moved into the universities,” although I’m well aware of exceptions to this comment, which echoes some the issues raised by A Reader’s Manifesto. He goes on to list a number of his favorites, none of which I’ve read except for A Simple Plan, an excellent novel I highly recommend. It spawned the eponymous movie, which is also excellent and forgotten.