It’s a Crime That I Waited This Long to Write About Crime Fiction

Why do many readers love mysteries, detective novels, and thrillers? The obvious answer is that those kinds of books are often escapist and exciting — and exercise our brains as we try to figure out “whodunnit” and/or how things will end.

Sometimes books from the three above genres are as much literary fiction as genre fiction — with examples including Donna Tartt’s compelling The Little Friend (which I’m currently reading), Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (an early detective novel), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (14th-century monk as sleuth), and even Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (more romance than mystery, yet there’s that central puzzle over who’s living in the attic). But if genre fiction is often not literary fiction, no big deal.  🙂

I have not read as many mysteries, etc., as some of the regular commenters here, but I’ve polished off more of those books during the past couple of years thanks in large part to recommendations from you. Some of my favorites, in no particular order: Sue Grafton’s A Is for Alibi, Lisa Scottoline’s The Vendetta Defense, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress and A Red Death, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison and Gaudy Night, John Grisham’s The Client and The Firm, P.D. James’ The Lighthouse, Anita Shreve’s The Weight of Water, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare, Richard Matheson’s Hunted Past Reason, and Dean Koontz’s Seize the Night.

Then there are Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, of which I’ve read eighteen in less than two years. My addiction to that series illustrates how thrillers, detective novels, and mysteries with an intriguing, recurring protagonist can get readers VERY addicted. Of course, it helps when those series offer riveting plots and “bad guys” who raise one’s blood pressure.

Also riveting is Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. Lisbeth Salander is one of the most original thriller protagonists in modern literature, and her computer skills exemplify how digital technology has greatly influenced the ways crimes are solved in novels of the past twenty years or so.

Larsson’s books, like many of the other novels mentioned in this post, also mix in all kinds of social issues — which I think can be a good thing along with the escapism. Though of course it can be nice once in a while to read genre fiction that intends to do nothing more than entertain.

Great mystery, detective, and thriller novels I’ve read less recently include several Agatha Christie novels (the iconic And Then There Were None deserves its stupendous sales), Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, Edgar Allan Poe’s groundbreaking detective tales (such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) starring amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin, Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, and other authors and titles. Plus Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace — a murder saga of a more literary sort.

Though I’m reading more of what might also be called crime fiction, I still like to mix things up with lots of literary fiction and “general-interest” novels — classic and modern — that are detective-free. It’s nice to jump from P.D. James to Henry James, from a Sue Grafton mystery to Elsa Morante’s History, and from a suspicious car wreck to something by John Steinbeck. And then jump back again.

What are some of your favorite mystery, detective, and thriller novels? Any thoughts about those genres and the attractions they hold?

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My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.