I loved plenty of crime novels — Devotion of Suspect X, Journey under the Midnight Sun, In the Woods by Tana French, and several Agatha Christie stories as well as Lee Child, some Stephen King — and I’m now reading The Chestnut Man.
The main thing I noticed, though, is that even when I absolutely love reading a thriller, is that they kinda make me feel empty later. I remember I loved reading I am Pilgrim, but two years on, I don’t remember the story itself anymore. It is a similar pattern, thrillers and detectives rarely teach me anything new.
Yeah, I could think of Tom Clancy as inspiring because he predicted several real-life events (e.g. terrorist attacks with planes). Or maybe The Day of the Jackal (A professional does not act out of anger and is less likely to make errors). But still, they all feel kinda void of bigger meaning.
Maybe a better example is Libra from Don Delillo. I think he wrote that whole book just to get one paragraph:
“After Oswald, men in America were no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs, and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.”
But is Libra a thriller? Wikipedia describes it as historical fiction. Maybe that’s why I also loved The Plot Against America so much. The meaning is bigger than the book itself, it grabs life themes (global politics, identity, antisemitism, media) and mingles it all.
I’ve read short stories (e.g. The Egg by Andie Weir or Folding Beijing from Jingfan Hao) or even read aloud children’s books to kids that are more “life inspiring” if that is a word (Ida, Always). I remember reading The Vegetarian by Han Kang and I didn’t really grasp it (I didn’t even write a review at the time). But now four years later, I do feel it left an impression as I vividly remember some passages.
I had the same with How to be Both by Ali Smith. When I finished it, I felt glad it was over, but now looking back, I so much sympathize with the main characters Francescho and George. I love them.
All more inspiring than crime and thrillers, although not as enjoyable.
They all beg the question: why do I read books? Do I want enjoyment, relaxing down and wind down the day? Or should books teach me something new, let me live a life I do not have. Or perhaps they should teach me something new. Maybe there’s no answer to this and ideally, a book is a mixture.
But thrillers and detectives rarely are a mixture. It’s usually about catching the bad guy, with some observations on life as a whole. That is not literature, a piece of writing that serves or addresses a larger need or part of humanity. About cultural and societal problems, and the basic tendencies that lead to the downfall of men and women.
Maybe there’s no answer. And literature vs fiction is a pedantic debate. Plus my friend Gerhard remarked:
“I think the crime genre illustrates the best and worst in people. And the writing is often fabulous: witty, ironic, fast-paced, or leisurely. And I think another reason for its popularity is that we all love a good story, with a beginning, middle and end, where everything is tied up and neat – so different from life where endings are often messy.”
Even if I personally think, crime books rarely tough on a more ethereal topic of why crimes are committed — their Heart of Darkness — it’s a good point.
And even if books don’t mix themes, I can mix books: I can read a thriller, followed by a classic, and modern literature — depending on my mood. A parallel would be to eat. It is also partly for nutrition, enjoyment, and other reasons such as a social gathering. But to order the same dish all the time, is also ill-advised.