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Whassup with those crappy thrillers?

I was stunned by this from Jenny Davidson about mystery writers:

The crime fiction community is smart and adult and welcoming, and so many good books are being written (Lee Child was mentioning his peer group – i.e. they were the new kids around the same tie – being Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Laura Lippman – the list speaks for itself) . . .

Why was I stunned? Because just a few days earlier I had a look at a book by Robert Crais. It just happened that Phil, when he was visiting, had finished this book (which he described as “pretty good”) and left it with me so he wouldn’t have to take it back with him. I’d never heard of Crais, but it had pretty amazing blurbs on the cover and Phil recommended it, so I took a look.

It was bad. From page 1 it was bad. It was like a bad cop show. I could see the seams where the sentences were stitched together. I could see how somebody might like this sort of book, but I certainly can’t understand the blurbs or the idea that it’s a “good book”!

I don’t think this judgment is snobbery on my part. I read A Simple Plan several years ago and liked it a lot. And I like to carry an old pocket book around that I can read while waiting on line. Right now my two pocket books are by Eric Ambler and John D. MacDonald (but not that Travis McGee stuff, which is so smug it makes me want to barf). And I’m not doing that reverse-snob, pulp fiction is the best, kind of thing either. The Robert Crais book just seemed kinda dumb to me. I’m not saying Crais is dumb–maybe he’s just not such a good writer, or maybe he’s carefully writing to the market. And there was nothing special about the plot. Perhaps Jenny or Phil can explain Crais’s literary virtues to me.

Later on Jenny writes:

I [Jenny] grudgingly have to admit that yes, I will write more novels, and no, I am still not sure what sort of novel they will be . . . Might spend some time later this summer looking back through the archive – perhaps it will tell me that I should be writing a high-concept series of thrillers with journalists, scenes set in research labs, Big Pharma scandal and genetic engineering . . .

All I can say is, I’m pretty sure she can do better than the last novel I read with that theme, a book that to me revealed a fundamental lack of understanding of science. (To be fair, I think a lot of scientists have a fundamental lack of understanding of science too…)


  1. Mike Maltz says:

    Try Dan Fesperman, who writes from the vantage point of a foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. [What is it about that paper?! Laura Lippman, David Simon, and him.] I've often thought that reporters are much smarter than the reports they write for the dailies, since they seem to have to dumb down their reportage to suit the lowest common denominator. From Fesperman I Have gottne a stronger understanding of Afghanistan and what happened in Sarajevo from reading his books — and they're good reads as well.

  2. I haven't read Crais or Connelly, but the two by Lehane I've read have been decent, and Lippman is really good. You might also enjoy Alan Furst, whose books seem to be inspired to a desire to have more Ambler novels to read.

  3. Giles Warrack says:

    I quite agree about Alan Furst. Just as good as Le Carre, and his characters don't talk in the same histrionic way (though I admire much of Le Carre)

  4. Andrew Gelman says:

    I appreciate these recommendations. But none of these answer my question, which is how someone as intelligent as Jenny Davidson could be so impressed by Robert Crais?! Maybe his books are of uneven quality and I just happened to pick a bad one? Given the abysmal quality of the book of his I looked at, tt's hard for me to believe that Crais could ever have written something good.

  5. David N says:

    +1 for Alan Furst. One of my favorites. Try "Dark Voyage" and you'll be hooked.

    In the Davidson post I read Crais mentioned as part of a respected person's list and not necessarily her vouching for each author on that list.

  6. Phil says:

    I think I characterized Crais' book "The Two-Minute Rule" as "not bad", which is one star less than "pretty good". My biggest complaint about it was the ending, which was beyond ridiculous, to the point of being almost dumb enough to make me dislike the book.

    But I certainly don't think it was bad from the first sentence. It was readable, and the characters were interesting enough. The two ex-cons with hearts of gold are right out of central casting, of course, and I also thought it was irritating that…well, it's easy enough to criticize. I thought it was a decent two-night hotel-room read, and a lot of people agree with me.

    Andrew, you say "I could see the seams where the sentences were stitched together," which, obviously, you think is a bad thing. I think this bothers you a lot more than it bothers me. It makes me wonder why you like Elmore Leonard, actually, since he really lets you see the stitching and the rivets in his work, at least as much as Crais does in this one. I still remember reading Cat Chaser on your suggestion, must have been more than 20 years ago I think, and the part where the hapless guy negotiates to rent a long-term hotel room from the hero…something like "The way I see it, you've got 40 rooms here, you rent 'em at $40 per night, but they're empty 30 percent of the time, so you're averaging maybe $1200 per day. But you've gotta expenses [give list of expenses], and you have to clean them every day. Tell you what, I'll rent one by the month, and you only have to send the maid once a month, so that saves you …" Sheesh. Leonard does this with every book; in fact, it's always a relief when I reach the point in the book where he devotes a few paragraphs to the details of how the protagonist makes a living, because once it's out of the way he usually doesn't revisit it. It certainly doesn't stop me from enjoying his books.

    I'd put most of Leonard's books one step up from that Crais book. But only one.

  7. Mark Palko says:

    We are talking here about a point estimate based on a subjective process. Worse yet, it's a process without consistent weighting. Take Elmore Leonard. I stopped reading him after about a half dozen books (admittedly a small sample) when I realized three of them had been built around a doomed-young-lover plot. Life's too short to read doomed-young-lovers plots.

    All six of those books had extraordinary dialogue and minor characters who read like something out of a hard-boiled Dickens novel (there almost seemed to be an inverse relationship: the smaller the part, the better the character). Under a different weighting system, I would score Leonard ahead of writers like Westlake, Block, Gores, even the MacDonald boys. Now I don't even read him.

    Davidson may be using a different weighting system than you. There might also be an issue with sampling error (you do have n=1). And there are couple of interesting biases that might be at work.

    If we like something we tend to find additional reasons to support that opinion. This means that our quality estimates of different books from the same author aren't independent. If Davidson's first encounter with Crais was positive that could easily bias her opinion of the author.

    Add to that the fact that Davidson is a novelist and is writing about peers. The list seems to come from Lee Child. Even if she wasn't that enthused about Crais, was she likely to dispute Child's assessment and go out of her way to put down a colleague who had sold a hell of a lot more books than she had?

    There's an answer to your specific question. As for the decline of thrillers, I've got a couple of long posts on the topic here:

    p.s. If I were making recommendations I'd probably say something about Ira Levin's Kiss Before Dying. [do not look it up online — everything's a spoiler]

  8. Andrew Gelman says:


    Jenny wrote that "the list speaks for itself," which seemed to me to be an endorsement of Crais, but maybe you're right, for example maybe Jenny has never read Crais and just assumed he was good because she liked the others on the list.


    Elmore Leonard is not perfect but I think his books have many compensating advantages that I didn't see in Crais. I have to admit, though, I haven't read anything by Leonard in about 20 years.


    We should collaborate on an article on the topic. If we can just figure out how to include some statistical content.

  9. Mark Palko says:


    If we could come up with the right angle, that would be great.

  10. Jenny says:

    Weighing in belatedly – have had limited internet access over last few days! The list did indeed come from Lee Child, but it is a coherent list – i.e. my personal preference is for the slicker and more formulaic on that list (Crais rather than Lehane – I find the latter's PI novels not as engaging as Lippman's and his others a tad melodramatic, though I know they are much admired). None of these writers is achieving at the level of, say, Peter Temple, an Australian author of crime fiction whose books I judge truly exceptional (Andrew, read _The Broken Shore_ and _Truth_ and tell me what you think!). But part of what I seek in crime fiction is pure escapism. Interestingly just a couple days ago I read Robert Crais's new book (I like the Joe Pike ones that he's been writing recently very much). Had a death in the family, have had a truly insane week and a half including a marathon day of plane travel (Cayman-Tampa, Tampa-Philadelphia, Philadelphia-Ottawa – about 16 hours door to door). The Crais book was not a cost-effective purchase, I read it in about 2 hours – but those 2 hours passed as if they were nothing, and I would look back and say that they were the 2 easiest and most enjoyable hours I have spent in the past ten days – the soothing effects of this sort of fiction on me are incomparable!

  11. Andrew Gelman says:


    I can definitely see the value in escapism. In many ways, I think I'd be better off if I spend less "escapism" time on the internet and more reading books or watching TV. (The trouble is that the computer is right there for me when I'm working!)

    I still don't get the Crais thing–to me, the book was not fun enough to be escapist; I'd get about as much enjoyment out of reading the manual to my washing machine. What interests me is not just that some people (including you) like him–after all, each of us has a range of tastes (as Stephen King put it, sometimes you want a steak, sometimes you just want a Big Mac and fries)–but rather that he's so respected, considered to be a top talent. From my perspective, his book had nothing to offer at all. But maybe, as you indicate, the books are of varying quality.

    Personally, I have a soft spot for old-style 200-page paperbacks that fit in my pocket, books from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Often these are pretty bad–a few months ago, I read a pretty pointless suspense-style book by A. Alvarez–but sometimes the fun is in catching the unexamined assumptions. What makes a book such as Deliverance so amazing to me is that it was written about the same time but has so much more integrity. I feel like there's no way one could've really picked up on all this at the time; it's only through the passage of decades that we can get such perspective.

    Regarding Crais etc., I guess the analogy would be to John D. MacDonald and other veteran pulpsters. And MacDonald was certainly uneven.

  12. Scott Butki says:

    Are you judging Crais based on one book? Because two of his – the ones focusing on Joe Pike instead of Elvis Cole – are quite different and in my opinion not nearly as good

  13. DaveG says:

    I love this thread – not because I read any of these books but because it makes me smile.

    I remember my father telling me his mother (in 20's Lancashire) would send him out to play football because 'you read so much you'll overheat your brain'.*/**

    There is always a lot of now stuff that will not float, but being in the moment is good.

    Bad cop – Good cop shows – my wife loves these (and she is so gentle) but trying to understand them in dubbed German adds a whole new dimension of, something. My English fails me…

    * given last Saturday perhaps it would be better after all.
    ** Google makes us dumb?

  14. Jenny says:

    It's funny – I agree the Pike books are quite different from the Cole, but I much prefer the Pike – I think it is gendered!