Mysteries, Thrillers, and the Verities of the Heart

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, August 9, 2010 | Go to article overview

Mysteries, Thrillers, and the Verities of the Heart


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

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.

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