Meacham: Mysteries and Thrillers We Love

A friend I thought I knew well startled me the other evening with a sweeping literary judgment that led me, for the first time, to question how much I truly understand him. The subject was mysteries and thrillers. “Oh, I can’t stand books like that,” he said, flatly, leaving no room for argument.

My failure to detect such a colossal character flaw before that moment bothered me, but then—reminding myself that we are always to look outward, toward others, focusing not on the devices and desires of our own hearts—I realized that I should reach out constructively rather than simmer silently.

And since argument from example is often the most effective means of persuasion, I thought I would offer a summertime defense of the mystery-thriller genre. This is our annual books issue, but my friend’s inadvertent confession of his failure of imagination was coincidental to the magazine’s editorial plan for this week. It was, however, a fortuitous coincidence, and as Rahm Emanuel reminded us 18 months ago, you should never pass up a chance to turn crisis into opportunity.

Mysteries and thrillers are not the same things, though they are literary siblings. Roughly put, I would say the distinction is that mysteries emphasize motive and psychology whereas thrillers rely more heavily on action and plot. Some mysteries are thrillers and some thrillers are mysteries, but not all mysteries are thrillers, nor are all thrillers mysteries.

It has long been intellectually fashionable to dismiss such books as inconsequential. Thomas Jefferson once joked that he defeated insomnia by trying to write such a tale.

The appeal of both genres for me is precisely the appeal of any other piece of fiction, from Jane Austen to Peter Taylor, or George Eliot to John Cheever. The narratives give us a glimpse, however fleeting, of what William Faulkner called the “old verities and truths of the heart…?love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Nero Wolfe is no Elizabeth Bennet, nor is Miss Marple another Dorothea Brooke. But Wolfe and Marple—and James Bond and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher—are characters at work in a dark and confusing and fallen world, a world in which murder and betrayal and treason are constant threats and frequent foes. One would like to think of such novels as fantasy, but the fundamental forces with which they deal are all too real.

As dangerous and arbitrary as lists are, here is what I am going to suggest that my agnostic friend (note I forbore referring to him as heretical, or faithless) explore: Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series (Archie Goodwin, who is forever “hot-footing” it up or downtown, is worth the price of admission); anything by P. D. James (her poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh is a model for all repressed men). I am indebted to my friend and colleague Anna Quindlen for recently putting me onto Denise Mina, who writes tough novels about Glasgow; next door in the British Isles, Benjamin Black, a pseudonym of John Banville’s, writes about a compelling 1950s Dublin pathologist with—surprise!—a problem with the drink. Tana French has written three novels, and the first two (In the Woods and The Likeness) are, to me, quite superior to the newest one that is now out, Faithful Place.

In this summer of Lisbeth Salander, no discussion of such books would be complete without a stop in the colder European climes. I like Henning Mankell and just lately began to read Arnaldur Indriðason, whose fictional universe is set in Reykjavík, Iceland.

On the thriller front, my taste runs to the provincial. Daniel Silva’s first novel, The Unlikely Spy, is a masterpiece, and I love his series about Gabriel Allon, an Israeli assassin with a passion for art restoration. The aforementioned Jack Reacher collection, by Lee Child, is great fun. David Ignatius writes brilliant novels about the CIA, and I am an admirer of Charles McCarry’s, especially his Shelley’s Heart. In recent years I have become a fan of Alex Berenson’s nascent CIA series about the post-9/11 world.

Many of you will have your own; write us at for nominations for my hapless friend, and others like him. And feel no shame if Jefferson looked askance at such things. Other great men have loved them: Franklin Roosevelt was reading a Punch and Judy mystery the week he died. FDR understood that ambiguities and anxieties and appetites are quintessentially human—and no one who thinks of himself as a student of human nature can, in my view, dismiss some of the most vivid (and fun!) literature about the things that make us who we are, for better and surely for worse.

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