Mysteries Vs Thrillers Vs Crime Fiction

When I came to reorganise my thoughts on my previous Elements of a Psychological Thriller post, I hit the whole debate over the differences between the mystery genre and that of crime fiction / suspense and thrillers.

I believe that my own stories cross many of these genres (and sub-genres) but it’s important to get that understanding to allow the correct placement of my books in virtual (or real) bookstores, and to find the right readers.

Mystery, Suspense and Thrillers

I believe Jodie Renner provides the most helpful explanation of the differences between a mystery and a thriller. In an ebook she’s collected together the best of her blog posts on the craft of writing thrillers, and in the first chapter she quotes from various other authors on the differences between mystery and thriller. Here, I quote from Chapter One of  Jodie Renner’s “Writing a Killer Thriller (An Editor’s Guide to Writing Powerful Fiction)” book –

David Morrell http://, author of 28 thrillers, explored the difference between mysteries and thrillers several years ago. His detailed description included this: “Traditional mysteries appeal primarily to the mind and emphasize the logical solution to a puzzle. In contrast, thrillers strive for heightened emotions and emphasize the sensations of what might be called an obstacle race and a scavenger hunt.” (David Morrell,

James N. Frey, author of How to Write a Damn Good Thriller and How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, among other “damn good” books on writing, says, “In the United States, mysteries are not considered to be thrillers, though they share some common elements.” Frey describes the differences like this: “In a mystery, the hero has a mission to find a killer. In a thriller, the hero has a mission to foil evil.”

Frey goes on to elaborate, “a thriller is a story of a hero who has a mission to foil evil. Not just a hero— a clever hero. Not just a mission— an ‘impossible’ mission. An ‘impossible’ mission that will put our hero into terrible trouble.” According to International Thriller Writers, a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.”

According to International Thriller Writers, a thriller is characterized by “the sudden rush of emotions, the excitement, sense of suspense, apprehension, and exhilaration that drive the narrative, sometimes subtly with peaks and lulls, sometimes at a constant, breakneck pace.”

ITW defines thrillers as a genre in which “tough, resourceful, but essentially ordinary heroes are pitted against villains determined to destroy them, their country, or the stability of the free world.” Part of the allure of thrillers, they say, comes from not only what their stories are about, but also how they are told. “High stakes, nonstop action plot twists that both surprise and excite, settings that are both vibrant and exotic, and an intense pace that never lets up until the adrenaline-packed climax.”

(Portions of the above quotes are also available in the original blog post of March 2011 on Jodie Renner’s blog).

Wow, given ITW’s definition, especially that part about exotic locations, and I’m never going to meet the criteria to apply for membership. But anyways…

Jodie Renner also supplies some more definitions, including her own, paraphrased here:-

  1. In a mystery, neither the reader nor the protagonist knows who the killer is.It’s a who-dunnit, to find the bad-guy.
  2. In a thriller, the reader often knows who the villain is early on, and sometimes the hero does too. The object is for the hero to outwit and stop the killer before he kills others, including the hero, or endangers the world.
  3. The second difference is towards how the story is delivered – mysteries (Jodie says) are more cerebral, whilst thrillers are action-paced.

And when she asked for definitions from some author friends we have these: –

Thriller writer Allan Leverone, “The definition I like best is this: In a mystery, the crime has already been committed, but the hero and the reader must figure out by whom. In a thriller, the crime (at least the biggie) hasn’t been committed yet, but the reader knows who the bad guy is; the question is whether he can be stopped.”

Mystery and romance writer Terry Odell says, “The best definition I’ve heard is that in a mystery, you’re one step behind the detective, since you don’t know anything until he does. In suspense, you’re one step ahead, because you know things that the detective [or hero] can’t know.”

Suspense-mystery and thriller writer, LJ Sellers, tells me she recently read that “in a thriller, the villain drives the story, versus mystery, in which the protagonist drives the story”.

In Chapter One of Killer Thrillers, Renner goes on to suggest there are a lot of cross-genre types where there are fast-paced mysteries, or mysterious suspense fiction, or something along those lines. As you may see above, some of the quoted authors also change tact in trying to define a suspense rather than a thriller also.  At this stage in my career, I’m not sure if suspense is another name for thrillers, or something again a little different. Both the mystery and the thriller require suspense.

And when I get into thrillers that also have a large crime fiction element to the story, or  a whodunnit where the hero is chasing down a serial killer, I  hit further cross-genre definitions.

The more I read into this, the more confused I can allow myself to become, regarding trying to catergorise what main genre my own Blue Rayne series should fit into. I have a sinking feeling that all this time where I thought I was writing a thriller, I might have been creating a mystery. Ah, well…um. Get over it.

Most of that comes from the fact that my main character is a forensic psychologist – psychological thrillers have a different set of “rules” also, breaking away from other sub-genres of the thriller. Many thrillers are defined by their format being set on plot (action, pace, stakes raised etc) with less emphasis on character. However, psychological thrillers require the story to centre around the mind, and the protagonist must beat the antagonist using their wits, not physical skills. This emphasis on the mind leads to more characterisation, and of course a slightly more cerebral quality with more holistic themes to the stories.

Does this take psychological thrillers (aside from the huge differences in pacing) closer to the mystery genre than the more action-packed cousins of spy, action, medical or techno thrillers?

Jodie Renner has recently brought out a second ebook in the An Editor’s Guide to Writing Fiction series – Style that Sizzles & Pacing for Power. It is currently (temporarily) available on amazon as a 99c ebook.

Crime Fiction

Whereas some of the above may lead me to think that crime fiction sits within the thriller field, many might refute this and say that surely a mystery involves crime? In this guest post, Elizabeth Craig writes 15 tips for writing a murder mystery.  The crime is in the word ‘murder’ in the title, obviously.

Writer’s Digest’s own list of genres and sub-genres puts thrillers and suspense together as the same genre, but lists under the genre, a sub of “forensic thriller” which is defined as a thriller featuring forensic experts. Other types of thrillers listed at WD include – Legal Thrillers, Crime thrillers, and police procedurals.

Forensics literally means “pertaining to or used in courts of law” but is more liberally used nowadays for physical evidence from scenes of crimes (although there are all sorts of forensics experts out there who never go close to the scene or investigation). Forensic psychology – the career for my own main character, can range across the board of criminology, from working in prisons, to dealing with tort and family law aspects. Some of which could provide a thriller or two.

Under the same Writer’s Digest genres page, there is the Mystery/Crime genre – which includes the Court Room mystery, the police procedural, and just to muddy my waters even more, the psychological suspense. Or would that be the psychological thriller?

Writer’s Digest attempts to clarify some of this definition problem by inserting the following quote at the top of the Mystery / Crime section –

“The difference between thrillers and mysteries that there’s a puzzle in the mystery. If you can disentangle it, it will lead you to the answer.”
–Jean V. Naggar, agent

However, the mystery listing also includes the technothriller and the thriller as a sub-genre to it.  It’s the more classic sub-genres (cosy, detective, whodunnits, hard-b0iled) that make mysteries clearer for me, certainly not the thriller aspects.

The elements of what makes good crime fiction (mystery fiction) are well documented across the blogosphere, despite the bloggers often running into the same debates over genre as I have.  Here are a few good posts –

Rules for Crime Fiction

  1. There is a crime at the centre of the plot
  2. There’s an investigation
  3. There is suspense
  4. The story makes sense ie. no contrived coincidences.

Others mention the necessary red herrings and hidden clues to allow the reader the capability to solve the mystery or crime alongside (or before) the investigator. Crime fiction needs many twists and turns, so that the whole story is NOT a no-brainer.

When I consider this, I ponder again what genre my own writing belongs in, and I must throw away that question, because it appears I’m writing all of them. Erk.

Silence of the Lambs

Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, and the movie based on it, are often listed as an all time top ten best psychological thriller. Yet on a basic level, it has plenty of ingredients to make it a crime mystery / police (or rather, FBI) procedural. There are two serial killers involved, one known, the other being searched for. There are red herrings aplenty, and it’s not until the end of the movie that we truly meet Buffalo Bill. We start off with a crime, and must race to solve the killer before another innocent victim is murdered.

Yet, it still holds true as a thriller also, and certainly a psychological thriller given the wits-matching we have between Clarice and Hannibal. Whereas Buffalo Bill provides the crime mystery and ticking time bomb elements with an insane monster antagonist who must be stopped, Hannibal Lector provides the added psychological aspects of the sane psychopath using mental and emotional nuances with the lead character, which make it into a thriller.

Both monsters, although almost polar opposites, provide enough fodder to make a good case for Lambs to also be considered a modern-day horror.

Regarding the story’s protaganist, FBI agent Clarice Starling, I found what I always have wanted in my reading – and writing – a truly independent and resourceful female hero.

When I look at that story above many others, I understand the cross-overs, suspense, pacing and action required.

Where to from here?

Because of the huge cross-elements to all these genres / sub-genres, when it came to putting together my own Thriller Writing Resources post, I chose to include several helpful mystery-orientated resources, and several other crime-fiction blogs.  Forensics, crime scene science  and medical writing references were included into this resource list also.

Regarding my later post on Psychological Thiller Elements, I am going to continue to include elements from the mystery genre, as my stories do have some whodunnit aspects, and certainly have the crime fiction and police procedural elements that sit in both the mystery or thriller genres.

That post is about to be catergorised and updated in Part II published soon.

3 thoughts on “Mysteries Vs Thrillers Vs Crime Fiction

  1. This is one of the most in-depth and balanced round-up of the genre definitions I’ve read. Thanks, Hunter.

    I think the books I’ve read classified as “suspense” tend to differ slightly from thrillers in the sense that the action is not as intense throughout the story, yet there is always that underlying dread that something big is about to go down, hence keeping readers in suspense, so to speak, as to when and how the big thing is going to happen.

    The Crime Writers’ Association has a rather broad definition of what constitutes crime fiction: any story that centres on a crime, be it a murder, robbery, assassination. terrorism, etc. With that in mind, many thrillers can fall into the crime genre, and certainly the CWA has a large stable of thriller writers as members. Some more literary and general fiction, even, can be considered crime novels, if the main plot is centred on a crime of some sort.

    Having said that, not all mysteries are crime fiction. I remember the books I read as a child, about disappearing ponies or missing socks, that are mysteries not centred on a crime. Even some of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures do not involve a crime, like The Adventure of the Yellow Face, placing them firmly in the mysteries-that-are-not-crime-fiction category.

    Have I further muddied the waters? 🙂

  2. Such an informative post. I thought I was writing a mystery first time around, because it’s mysterious. 😉 Talk about a learning curve!

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