For years I felt I had a clear handle on the differences between mystery, suspense and thriller. While there is certainly some overlapping of elements, in their purest forms these genres are distinct.
The classic mystery is about solving the puzzle. The protagonist is usually trained in some way – a police detective, private eye, forensic expert, medical examiner, profiler, etc – and is the one who ultimately solves the crime.
Even the amateur sleuth possesses qualities that elevate his crime-solving abilities above other characters as well as the reader.
Whatever his training, the protagonist in the mystery is the one in charge, and is usually one step ahead of the reader, showing the way and uncovering clues with his superior knowledge and intuition.
In contrast, the suspense novel is an emotional ride. The protagonist generally has no special training and is not prepared for the dangers they must face. In fact part of their journey in the story is that they must reach deep inside themselves to find strengths they never knew they possessed in order to survive and defeat the bad guys.
In suspense the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t which helps to generate the suspense. (What gets the reader to the edge of their seat is knowing the killer is hiding in the closet when the hapless protagonist goes to open it.)
Thriller is a term loosely used these days but to my mind a true thriller is suspense on steroids, meaning some element of the plot is beefed up in some way.
Rapid pacing is sometimes enough to earn a novel the label ‘thriller’ but more often it’s the story’s stakes that are heightened.
In a suspense the protagonist and his loved ones are usually the only ones at risk whereas in a thriller the threat is to a wider community – cities, whole countries, possibly the entire world. (Which is why Hunt For Red October, with it’s threat of nuclear war, is a techno thriller and Cape Fear is a suspense.)
International Thriller Writers based in NY, groups mystery, suspense and thriller novels together under the heading ‘thriller’. American bookstores have the same three genres shelved together in their ‘mystery’ section. Australian bookstores group them under the umbrella of ‘crime’. Whereever I go these three genres have always been lumped together.
Yet when I attended the Adelaide Crime Writers Festival a few weeks ago, all the panelists and attendees seemed to be talking about was fiction involving an investigation.
This pretty much leaves ‘suspense’ out in the cold as suspense novels don’t always have an investigation, and if they do it’s not the main focus of the story. So does that mean suspense isn’t classed as crime?
Australian groups like Sisters In Crime seem to hold to this investigation criteria as well. In fact I once heard an Australian agent say, when asked to define the crime genre, ‘There’s a body on the first page and the rest of the story is about finding the killer.’
All of which leads me to wonder whether ‘crime’ has emerged, at least in Australia, as a completely separate genre, containing elements of mystery and suspense but distinct from both.