Friday, January 16, 2015

Differences Between Mysteries, Suspense, and Thrillers: Part One

Mysteries, suspense, thrillers....Do you know the difference?

A mystery tale has:

1. A crime, usually discovered after the fact, that starts the story
2. An investigator or investigators (police, private investigators, amateurs) who work to solve it by examining the circumstances, evidence, facts, and witnesses
3. An investigation takes place as the reader follows along
4. A solution -- by the end of the book, the culprits are revealed

A suspense tale has:

1. Tension that is likely to be psychological, more than physical
2. A character or characters dealing with an expectation or fear of harm
3. A main character who is often innocent, swept up by confusing events or framed
A thriller tale has:

1. Plenty of action, with a strong focus on plot movement -- nothing is static
2. Physical tension because the protagonist is facing stress-inducing, uncertain circumstances; the main character and/or other characters are in grave danger
3. The protagonist is more likely to be trying to prevent a crime than solving one
4. The main character is usually a professional or semi-professional with some training and skills, who feels compelled to take action

Types of typical sleuths found in mysteries:

-- Clever amateur who has access to professional quality sources, information or intuitive skills that provide insight; this investigator often catches clues that the cops miss and recognizes the value of the information
-- Nosy amateur who snoops, trespasses, and ignores social conventions in pursuit of a presumed crime (usually comic), inviting the wrath of cops on the case
-- Bumbling detective (comic) who stumbles onto the truth fortuitously and manages to ensnare the culprit despite the obstacles
-- Tough, tenacious cop with a nose for sniffing out the trail, who is willing to do just about anything to find the perpetrator
-- Reluctant private investigator ,often in need of a case to pay the overdue bills, who only pursues the leads in order to collect the money
-- Soft-hearted private investigator forging a personal connection with a client or the subject of an investigation, who is emotionally driven to find the truth

There are subgenres that define the style of the stories even further:

Caper: often light-hearted and humorous when it’s a mystery; when it’s a thriller, it can be the tale of a con game of sorts, with the protagonist on the wrong side of the law

Crime mystery: the reader has a front-row seat to the show -- it’s the quintessential “good guy versus bad guy” tug of war, in which the criminal’s and investigator’s stories are intertwined, usually switching off by sections or chapters; sometimes only told from the point of view of the criminal, in which case the reader often gets to watch him get away with it

Cozy: Think Agatha Christie; the genre was born in Great Britain -- the crime normally takes place in a small town or village, where the characters know each other very well and there is significant motivation to uncover the culprit, because the people want to resume their normal, crime-free lives (despite current efforts in independent author circles to transform the genre, the term “cozy” has nothing to do with the bedroom --  there’s usually no graphic description of blood, violence or sex, let alone erotica! Think: "No sex, please! We're British!")

Hard-boiled: infused with realism and gritty details, it reveals the ugly side of human behavior to the reader; the author sometimes uses gallows humor as a coping mechanism for the hero

Heist: the planning of a spectacular crime takes center stage in the story and the reader is invited along for the wild ride, all the way to the finale -- will the plotter get away with it or be caught?

Historical: period details add to the storyline, giving the reader an added dimension that requires imagining what life was like “back when”, whether the story takes place in Elizabethan England, the Old West, the WWII years, or even the tumultuous Sixties

Inverted, AKA howdhecatchem/howhecatchem: Think Columbo -- the reader knows the details of the crime and the identity of the perpetrator ahead of time; the fun comes from watching the detective figure out how to catch the bad guy and put him away, where he belongs

Legal: whether the action takes place in a courtroom or in a lawyer’s office, this type of tale is heavily influenced by legal issues; the suspect might be misrepresented by counsel, framed by the bad guy, or helped by legal loopholes, but in the end, the lawyers want justice, whether it’s for or against the suspect, and the devil is in the argument’s details

Locked room: on the surface, it seems to be an impossible crime, but when the facts are revealed, there is a logical explanation; someone has managed to evade discovery, usually through trickery, and may well get away with it unless the protagonist can figure out in time how it was done

Medical: usually takes place in a medical setting and involves some kind of threat to the general public, as in the case of an infectious disease, or an individual or group; the investigator is likely to have medical training that is used to solve the crime

Noir: has the feel of a hard-boiled mystery, but in this case, the protagonist is the victim, the suspect, or the perpetrator of a lose-lose crime, political intrigue, or diabolical scheme; the main character often has self-destructive tendencies that complicate extricating himself from the situation; very often includes violence, sex, and crime, with a heap of dramatic despair

Police procedural: the crime or a series of seemingly unrelated crimes are solved by logical examination of evidence, behavioral and forensic science, and careful documentation of the case by investigators using traditional methodology; the bad guy may be known from the first page, but the good guys don’t have enough legal precedence to arrest him

Romantic suspense: this subgenre is often difficult to pin down because the mystery is secondary to the romance (does it even belong in the mystery category?); the intimate tensions between the protagonist and the object of romantic interest or the protagonist and his/her pursuer are more important than the storyline; these days, many readers often expect sex (even explicit sex) as a component of romantic suspense, and they can be disappointed when they don’t get it

Romantic mystery: unlike romantic suspense, the characters in a romantic mystery must fight their sexual tension and romantic desire in order to put their efforts towards solving a mystery; this passion-laced tug of war sometimes distracts them from their puzzle-solving and gets them off the trail of the suspect, forcing them to find their way back in order to have that happy ending

Soft-boiled: lighter in tone and spirit than hard-boiled mysteries, but tackling similar situations, often with an optimistic, wise-cracking investigator who digs in and pursues leads, but has a likable personality and a human touch that often helps the protagonist to solve the crime

Whodunit: a rather traditional/classically-plotted and logical mystery that contains a puzzle the clever reader can solve by following the clues; at the end of the tale, when the culprit is caught, it all makes sense because the pieces fit together
Next: Differences Between Mysteries, Thrillers, and Suspense, Part Two

Take the same setting (a library) and murder victim (Felicity Dawson), but apply the sub-genre treatments to it and what do you get? Fourteen very different tales -- which are your favorite styles?


Want to read one of my “cozy romantic thriller mysteries” for free? If you've got a Kindle, you can download Henry Hartman’s Crisis Management on January 16 and 17:

And as always, I offer two of my cozy Scarlet Wilson mystery novellas for free:


Miz Scarlet and the Vanishing Visitor:

Miz Scarlet and the Holiday Houseguests:

You can also find them at Barnes and Noble:

Miz Scarlet and the Vanishing Visitor:

Miz Scarlet and the Holiday Houseguests:


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