What is the difference between mystery, suspense and suspense novels?

Broken by James Patterson

Nothing could tear Detective Michael Bennett away from his new wife except the murder of his best friend. NYPD lead homicide investigator Michael Bennett and FBI kidnapping specialist Emily Parker have a story. When not reporting to FBI headquarters in Washington, DC, Bennett ventures outside of its jurisdiction. The investigation he undertakes is the most brilliant detective work of his career…and the most intensely personal. A portrait begins to emerge of a woman as adept at keeping secrets as she is at forging powerful bonds. A woman whose enemies had the means and motives to silence her—and her protectors.

The mystery genre is full of different ways to seek out the truth – or at least the facts – about a crime. During the COVID pandemic, I’ve discovered a love of crime novels, especially on audio, and especially the “comfortable” variety. As I became a connoisseur, I often wondered what separates the three major categories of “mystery” from each other. I did some research and, not being the only person asking this question, I found answers! Whether they are satisfactory or not is another matter, of course. For the purposes of this discussion, I break down the overall mystery genre into three main categories: mystery, suspense, and thriller.


A traditional detective story follows any detective, amateur or professional, as he attempts to solve a crime. The reader generally follows the detective, uncovering clues with the characters. Detectives themselves are usually in no real danger from the antagonist and are often completely out of touch with the crime. The most famous detective in Western literature is, of course, Sherlock Holmes, who made his debut in Beeton’s “Christmas Annual” in 1887 as the protagonist of A study in scarlet. Other great examples include The red queen dies by Frankie Y. Bailey, The Worried Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan, and A spy at home by YS Lee.


Thrillers take the basic tenets of a detective novel and add an element of danger for the protagonist, who may or may not be a detective in the traditional sense. Often the heroes of this subgenre are not trained detectives but have specialist knowledge; here are your Brennan Temperances (from both series of novels, beginning with Already deadand Bones celebrity), your Dexters Morgan (starting with the novel Dark Dreamer Dexter and also the tv show Dexter). One of the neat things about books labeled as “thrillers” is that they seem to get made into TV shows or movies more often than the other two genres. Maybe it’s because people prefer to be “excited” rather than “in suspense?” Whatever the reason, if you’re an author considering writing in the mystery genre, looking into the description of “thriller” (if not the definition given here) might help you get that options money.


Thrillers are a bit rarer as a standalone subgenre, but still popular. While mysteries and thrillers are usually told from the point of view or perspective of the protagonist (first person present/past or third person present/past with a single focus, respectively), storytelling in thriller stories is less defined. . Indeed, suspense implies that the reader knows more than the protagonist, which we can only do if the narration is omniscient or multi-perspective, that is to say told from the point of view of more than one character. Thriller novels also use time skipping in storytelling; they often start either in the media or at the end, but with crucial details left out. An excellent example is that of Liane Moriarty big little lies, a book that begins with a character’s death, then travels back in time to figure out how it happened, bringing together the experiences of all the key characters. You probably already know big little lies is also a TV show, with Season 1 covering the events of the novel.

In reality, more often than not the three subgenres all converge, sometimes in a single novel, and sometimes in a series. Sherlock Homes is not in danger in A study in scarlet, but as his story continues, told from the sole perspective of Dr. John Watson, the danger to Holmes becomes clear with the introduction of his nemesis, Moriarty. Likewise, Dexter Morgan’s real drama begins when he encounters a killer who takes inspiration from his work to get closer to him; his work as a “detective” character all predates his story. And of course, there is no official definition of any of these, just as there is no real definition of any genre of fiction. We come to a genre with an expectation: mysteries will eventually be solved, romances will tantalizingly evolve into a realization of love, and so on. And while those expectations are entirely justified, readers tend to make a book popular when it subverts its genre a bit. .

One of the subversions we’re seeing is in the cozy mystery subgenre, where the crimes happen off-screen and there’s a lore without swearing and sex. Readers express more interest in cozies which, while following a comfortable formula, allow for more adult themes.

When it comes to defining whether a book is a mystery, a thriller or a suspense, the real question is: what will readers gravitate toward? And the answer seems to be that books labeled “thriller” or “exciting” tend to do better than books labeled as “mystery” or “suspense.” So while it’s helpful to know the categories, ultimately it’s up to you as the reader to read freely through the genres and tropes and then decide what you prefer.

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