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Beach Books

“Summers are for reading,” my parents told me and my sister as soon as we could read on our own. Cultured and educated, my refugee parents insisted on providing a list of “important” books to finish before the start of school in the fall. (This was before schools assigned summer reading.) I usually managed about one a week in between day camp, a round of soft ball after dinner, and a bit of television. My parents were strict and they wanted a report when I was done with each book. And it was summer; all I wanted to do was have fun. Dickens wasn’t fun. A biography of Albert Einstein wasn’t fun. A discussion about the definitions of words I didn’t understand wasn’t fun. I was expected to be serious, astute at a young age, and to excel in every subject.

I was serious but I was also an athlete, good at hitting the ball as hard as the boys and riding my bike down a steep hill as fast as the boys. None of the boys I hung out with had to read important books during the summer, nor did the girls for that matter, and I never let on that in private, late at night in bed or early in the morning, I was reading. That wouldn’t have been cool.

So I grew up with highbrow tastes and a judging distaste for low class genre fiction and for idleness and games, unless they were educational. But my mother was holding a secret: she liked murder mysteries, a fact she only admitted to me later in her life. They had to be Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, or P.D. James. Only the British knew how to write murder mysteries, she explained. Only their language was expressive enough. She took them out of the library but was never seen reading them anywhere, not even on the beach where every woman was lying on her stomach lathered with oil and reading fat, pulpy, sentimental paperback books, trashy books, according to my mother. What did my mother bring to the beach? The New York Times. If it was too windy to flip the pages, she folded it down and tackled the crossword puzzle, thus differentiating herself, her nose upturned, from the hoi polloi.

And then, one day, far beyond my childhood summers, I decided to try writing a murder mystery—an effort I have written about here—and it seemed to make sense to try reading one or two. Which is what I did. And to my great surprise, most were very well written as well as entertaining. And I liked the detectives, especially if they were women, because, on the sly, like so many girls of my generation, I had read Nancy Drew murder mysteries, and adored them, adored her. But when I was done, my agent said a very strange thing to me: “You haven’t written a murder mystery, you have written a thriller. And there aren’t many women thriller writers so how are we going to market this?”

“They can only be written by men?”

“No, of course not. But will men read your book if they know a woman has written it? That’s the question.”

Interesting. I’d written a suspense novel, a thriller. So I decided to read one or two to understand what I’d done. And because there are so many to choose from, I decided to move backwards from movies I’ve liked to the books they are based on: Jack Reacher for example. It surprised me what a good script that was, and how much I had enjoyed the story and liked—actually liked—the vigilante protagonist. The movie, starring Tom Cruise, is based on a book by Lee Child, a pseudonym for Jim Grant, a former British television director. The books have tinsel covers, embossed with evocative images. My parents would have called them tacky. They would have said they were beach books. They would have said that anything available on a drug store rack can’t be any good. And they would have been wrong. Jim Grant aka Lee Child, classically educated and a trained lawyer, can write:

“She looked preoccupied and a little confused. But she showed a measure of vitality, too. A measure of authority. There as still vigor there. She looked like the part of Texas she owned, rangy and powerful, but temporarily laid low, with most of her good days behind her.”

Simple evocative prose by a master of genre fiction.
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