By Charles Finch
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: Summer Reading
Even the most modest mystery novel has the dignity of its lineage. It runs from an echt genius, Edgar Allan Poe, through Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, downriver in time to Kate Atkinson and Tana French. In the permanent war that all genre fiction wages for respect, it can claim partial but persuasive ownership even of Dickens, of Voltaire. But the thriller is new money. Where did it come from? It has indistinct antecedents in the adventure novel, the spy novel and the hybrid midcentury experimentations of Elmore Leonard, but realistically, the answer isn’t pretty: Its pure form was the invention of Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth, who set their lone heroes loose against immense forces in the 1970s and haven’t come back for them yet. The genre spread fast and hard — America had all that unmelting, isolate, stoic toughness, and, with the west at last wholly settled, nowhere to put it, fictionally. Eventually an Englishman came up with Jack Reacher. Now a non-trivial percentage of us is convinced that biology teachers should carry guns.