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August 13, 2007 / C.T. Henry

Making Sense of the Genre

Mysteries vs Thrillers

In the U.S., we tend to use MYSTERY as an umbrella term to mean a lot of things. However, there are subtle differences between a mystery, thriller, and suspense novel.

A Mystery is about an event in the past, which requires the detective to solve a puzzle, which involves sifting through clues and using logical deductions to solve the crime. It is actually the story of an event told backwards. The detective’s job is to start after the deed is done and figure out the who and the why in order to bring the criminal to justice. Some of the best mystery stories are those which make available to the audience all of the information that the detective has.

In Suspense, the essential question is not necessarily whodunit, but rather, will they catch the villain before (s)he strikes again? Suspense novels involving in-depth analysis of character are sometimes referred to as psychological suspense.

With a Thriller, the deed hasn’t happened yet. (Mad assassins, for example, plan to kill the President, and everyone follows clues to find out who, when, and how to stop them before they succeed.) Thrillers are fast-moving and propelled by action. The main focus of a thriller stays on the increasing peril the characters are in and what they have to do to stay alive.

In a mystery, thinking is paramount. Mysteries appeal primarily to the mind and emphasize the logical solution to a puzzle. In contrast, thrillers strive for heightened emotions and excite the reader. Readers of mysteries are looking for clues, while readers of suspense and thrillers are expecting surprises. The ideal reader of mysteries remains one step behind the hero or heroine. Those who read suspense should be one step ahead of the protagonist, knowing things he/she doesn’t know. Mystery endings must be intellectually satisfying; Suspense and Thriller endings must provide emotional satisfaction.

So what’s the difference between a Thriller and a Suspense novel? A thriller is all action and has a faster pace; suspense is all about tension and has a slower pace.


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