Author of Southern Stories



Mysteries vs. Thrillers

Suspense novelists have gotten a bad rap.  As an author of what I hope are intelligent mystery novels, one of the questions I’m most commonly asked is, "What kind of books do you write?" It’s not unusual to hear, "Oh, I don’t read those kinds of things," as if doing so might reveal a certain perversity in the minds of readers who enjoy them.  After all, they are often tales of murder, intrigue, deception and immortality.


The concept of mysteries as low-brow fiction is not a new one. In my library, I have a 1964 compendium of the works of Raymond Chandler.   The preface laments, "As a genre, mystery novels are not usually regarded by critics as literature, and are often reviewed together in a special department."  But consider for a moment that many of history’s greatest classical works are, in their most basic form, tales of murder, intrigue, deception and immorality.  Is Phillip Marlowe any less of a hero than those of Melville or Hemingway?


I believe part of the problem is oftentimes the failure of readers to understand the basic nature of mysteries or thrillers and the fact that these works, like other genres, often share universal themes with more "proper" fiction.  So in defense of my chosen genre, and with the goal of setting the record straight, let me define the basics of mystery novels, and their close related cousins, thrillers, or novels of suspense.  To be perfectly fair, it is rare that a single work falls clearly into one category or the other.  A basic understanding of their construction, however, often makes for more enjoyable reading. 


First is the problem of semantics.  Although the terms are often (mis)used interchangeably, pure mysteries are quite different from suspense novels, or "thrillers" as they are commonly known in Great Britain.  In its most basic form, a mystery novel deals with the solving of a complex puzzle, while a thriller often represents the struggle of a protagonist against powerful and life-threatening forces, frequently of an evil or capricious nature.  


On some levels, there are many common themes.  Conflict must be at the heart of the plot, along with action, strong characters, surprise, and the seeming lack of any possible good outcome.  There is often murder, greed, lust, and sundry other transgressions that violate the Ten Commandments or Seven Deadly Sins. The more complex the web the author weaves, the better.  Unpredictability keeps the reader guessing, and is the heart of a good "page-turner."  But each genre has its own special elements.


The core of a mystery is the solving of an insoluble puzzle.  The reader’s emotional satisfaction derives from his or her marveling at the skill of the protagonist.  Because of this, mysteries are the prime realm of recurrent characters—tough, intelligent folk whose lives bring them in daily contact with the dark side.  Hence the crime-solving detective, the private investigator, or the "salvage consultant," as in John McDonald’s Travis McGee.


The evil that these characters confront and conquer is not simple meanness, it is that of guile, intelligence and complexity.  They solve problems through their own unique skills, not by luck.  Witness Sherlock Holmes’s amazing ability find the culprit based on the thinnest and seemingly most inconsequential scraps of evidence.  In end, the lessons the character learns are added to those he or she already knows, making him or her ready to face future challenges that are sure to come.

In a thriller, the primary element is the very survival of the main character, often an ordinary Joe to whom bad things happen.  He is the guy whose wife is kidnapped, or who goes on vacation and is held hostage by terrorists.  On some level he (or she) becomes the quintessential literary "everyman" who is just walking down the street when the sky collapses on his head.  He is faced with the dilemma of giving in and dying, or rising to the occasion to overcome the dire fate that surely awaits him.  The emotional satisfaction realized by the reader is less intellectual and more that of gut-driven fear, granted in the end when the hero perseveres despite all. 


The evil confronted in a thriller is often less intellectual and more pure meanness:  terrorists, nature run amok, serial killers, etc.  Unlike classical mystery plots, reason alone is insufficient to confront it.   In overcoming the challenge, the hero must rise to extraordinary levels of skill and daring, just as he (or she) might in a mystery novel.  Yet, in a thriller, the character often acquires these skills or they emerge as a result of the ordeal he must face, rather than using some skill he already possesses.  In the end, his life is forever changed in some major way.


Many writers are of the opinion that it is nearly impossible to have a recurrent character in a pure thriller.  Because of the nature of the challenge the hero faces, subsequent plots would need to defy the adage of "lightening not striking twice in the same spot."  Believable characters don’t lead lives that interesting. 


With these common and unique elements, novels of mystery and suspense make for great summertime reading.  They are written to entertain, nothing more and nothing less.  Within their pages are classical and universal themes, each reset in a distinctive format made more or less real by the skill of the author.