A character in Elmore Leonard’s 1976 novel Swag devises and swears by “ten rules for success and happiness.” He carries them on his person, scrawled “in blue ink on ten different cocktail napkins from the Club Bouzouki, the Lafayette Bar, Edjo’s, and a place called The Lindell AC.” This budding Dale Carnegie is keen on success and happiness in a very specific context: armed robbery. Is his system foolproof? We wouldn’t have much of a story if it were. We sure as hell wouldn’t have a Leonard novel, with poor choices and their nasty results piling up faster than a Detroit snowfall.
Twenty-five years after Swag’s publication, and perhaps in homage to that book, Leonard offered 10 rules of his own—for writing, that is, not knocking over liquor stores—to the New York Times. Most were standard fare about avoiding adverbs and exclamation points, but the final rule is interesting: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Makes sense, but it also raises the question: Who skips ahead? Most grown-up readers either slog through a book’s slower sections, like the sewer history in Les Misérables, or take their impatience or boredom as a cue to read something else.
Who skips ahead? Kids do.
They do this, I suspect, in two situations. One is when they are tasked with reading a grown-up book that they find utterly unendurable. I recall the anguish with which my high school self read Ethan Frome before having the bright idea that I could still pass the quiz if I just read every third page. (It didn’t work.) The other situation is when kids are reading for plot in a book whose language is not captivating enough to keep their eyes from dancing ahead over tone-deaf dialogue, adverbs proliferating like some invasive species, and long passages of unnecessary description.
You know what I mean: a young adult (YA) novel.
I have no desire to enter the perennial and presumably click-driven debate over whether adults should read YA. Adults should read whatever they want, whether that means YA or Dummies manuals or Tijuana Bibles or even Thomas L. Friedman. But kids are a different story. The literature they are exposed to will influence not only their adult reading habits but their personalities and inner lives. Today’s parents are likely correct to assume that little Jason or Chloe will not be taught to love reading by Ethan Frome. But there is plenty on the spectrum between Edith Wharton and Divergent, and it is going unnoticed.
Crime fiction—noir, detective novels, police procedurals, and madcap adventures in the Carl Hiaasen vein—may be the perfect thing to whet a young person’s appetite for reading. At first glance, it is an odd candidate for this task: Isn’t it violent, frightening, and perhaps even a corrupting influence? Isn’t it laced with profanity and, in some cases, sexually explicit?
Yes, but the same is true of so much of the music, television, film, and even network news that parents are helpless to keep from their children. The same is true, for that matter, of many YA novels with far less literary merit than the best crime writing.
Parents have always fretted about the moral content of what their kids read. Andrew Levy’s Huck Finn’s America (2014) details the 19th-century panic over dime novels about pirates and banditry. David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague (2008) details the furor over horror comic books in the 1950s. However one is inclined to regard the sensitivities of those eras, the fact remains that their scandalous productions are seldom revered as art. Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and Elmore Leonard have, by contrast, all been enshrined in the Library of America.
These men wrote violent, lurid trash, yet they are now as canonical as Irving, Hawthorne, and Twain. And you can give said trash to your kids without a pang of conscience, knowing that they will encounter in it something of the American literary tradition. That is not, on its own, reason enough to choose crime fiction over either classic literature or YA, and a balanced diet should probably include all of the above. Still, crime fiction combines the best of both the classics and modern YA, while adding some nourishing ingredients of its own.