Mystery versus Thriller
Posted by Pamela Bobker on June 30th, 2017
What is the difference between a mystery and a thriller? and what exactly is a suspense novel?
From The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Mystery,
“How does a mystery differ from suspense novels and thrillers? The easiest way to understand the difference between mysteries and suspense novels is to think of the books plot in terms of “before” and “after.” In a mystery novel, the focus of the story is on solving the crime. Almost all of the action takes place after the crime has been committed. In a suspense novel, the focus is on preventing a crime from happening. The protagonist’s whole raison d’etre in a suspense novel or thriller is on stopping the antagonist before he or she completes a crime. In a mystery, the progatonist tries to figure out who the villain is, whereas in most all suspense novels, the protagonist (or at least the reader) all too often know who the real villain is, and the plot centers on how the protagonist escapes from becoming the next victim. Thrillers are just suspense novels taken up a few levels in the scope of the plot. In a typical suspense novel, the object of the villain’s wrath is an individual or a small group of people, whereas in a thriller, the stakes are higher, as a whole city, country, or even the world is in danger.”
The genres can be further broken down in to subgenres. I like to think of mysteries as running on a continuum from cozy, with minimal violence, to forensic, which have more gruesome details. Within thrillers, there are subgenres like medical, legal or conspiracy thrillers. In Curtis library, you will generally find the thrillers and suspense novels in the fiction section, rather than mystery.
These authors tend to write cozy mysteries: Laura Childs, Joanne Fluke, and Alexander McCall Smith. In a cozy mystery, the sleuth is often an amateur and the murder takes place “off-screen” without too many gory details.
Here are some examples of authors who write historical mysteries, another popular subgenre: Rhys Bowen, Ellis Peters, Charles Todd, and Peter Tremayne. Readers enjoy these mysteries because it allows them to learn about a particular time period and place.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series and PD James’ Adam Dagleish series are both examples of the mystery subgenre police procedurals.
Patricia Cornwell writes a forensic mystery series featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta.
Robin Cook and Michael Palmer are well-known for writing medical thrillers, where modern medical technology is used to harm rather than heal.
Another subgenre is the legal thriller, in which the action involves the legal system. David Baldacci, John Grisham and Scott Turow write legal thrillers.
Yet another subgenre is the techno thriller, usually focusing on military technology. Tom Clancy’s books are examples of the techno thriller.
One of my favorite writers of psychological suspense is the late Ruth Rendell, who wrote several books featuring creepy, sinister people. Rendell also wrote the Inspector Wexford mysteries, which are located in mystery, while her other novels are in fiction. Some recent examples of the suspense genre are: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Sophie Hannah’s A Game for All in the Family, and Ruth Ware’s Woman in Cabin 10.
If you would like suggestions on mysteries, thrillers or suspense novels, ask one of the staff people — we are happy to help!