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July 24, 2008 / C.T. Henry

Making Sense of the Genre

Mysteries vs Thrillers

In the U.S., we tend to use “MYSTERY” as an umbrella term for many types of crime novels. 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.  This involves sifting through clues and using logical deductions to solve the crime. A true mystery 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 reader all of the information that the detective has to solve the crime.  If the reader is smart enough, (s)he should be able to unravel the mystery.)

In Suspense, the essential question is not necessarily whodunit, but rather, will they catch the villain before (s)he strikes again?  As readers, we constantly anticipate what will happen next.  In this sub-genre, the future is more important than the past.  (Suspense novels involving in-depth analysis of character are sometimes referred to as psychological suspense. Many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films fall into this category.)

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 is 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 look for clues, while readers of suspense and thrillers expect 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 (s)he 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.

To highlight these differences, authors sometimes belong to two different organizations.  Before 2004, most crime writers were members of the Mystery Writers of America.  Now thriller authors have their own association: International Thriller Writers (consisting of mostly American writers).  Until ITW, thriller authors had never organized.  While the MWA bestows Edgar awards for the best “crime novels,” the ITW has their own set of awards for just thrillers.

If bookstores or libraries want to organize mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers into one category, it should be called “Crime Fiction,” not simply “Mystery”.

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