Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Mystery or Thriller - what's the difference?

Waterstones Bookshop
It's probably true to say that every fiction book intended for publication needs to be slotted into a specific genre. Some of these are very broad such as 'crime fiction' or 'contemporary women's fiction' - others are sub-categories and more specific, such as 'police procedurals' or 'amateur detective'. Book genres change and mutate over the years; relatively new labels are 'cosy crime' and 'new adult fiction'. The kind of novels I write (more on this below) are listed on Amazon under 'crime fiction', with subsidiary labels of 'psychological thriller', 'suspense', 'mystery', 'thriller' and so on. But what exactly is the difference between a 'suspense' and 'mystery' novel or between a 'mystery' and 'psychological thriller'? And does it matter?

I came across a simple and enlightening chart the other day in Suspense magazine (a US publication affiliated to the Crime Readers' Association) in which Thomas B Sawyer, who used to be head script writer on Murder She Wrote in the 1990s, cites two lists he found (he couldn't remember where!). Here they are:

A puzzle
Curiosity motivates
Protagonist has skills
Thinking is paramount
Action is offstage
Small circle of acquaintances
Red herrings
Information withheld from audience
Audience a step behind
Mostly single Point of View
Ending intellectually satisfying
Closure a requirement
Series expected
Usually 300 pages

A nightmare
Victim story (at top)
Protagonist must learn skills
Feeling is paramount
Action is onstage
Thrust into larger world
Cycles of mistrust
Information given to audience
Audience a step ahead
Up to four Points of View
What will happen?
Ending emotionally satisfying
Can end ambiguously
Often stand-alone
Can be longer

These lists make complete sense to me - and I see why it is often difficult to say a book belongs in one category, but not another, because there are so many overlaps. For example, 'twists' usually occur in Mystery novels (they do in mine!) and doesn't a Mystery often involve a 'nightmare' situation? Why do the differences matter?

To a writer they matter a lot - not just for making sure the right ingredients go into the pot for the genre you're known under, but also so that everyone in the book business knows where to put you (authors who move out of their established genre usually write under a pseudonym). It's all about 'product placement' and an agent, editor and bookshop needs to know not only which shelf you will be on, but more importantly which other writers you will be in competition with and what kind of audience you might be aiming at for marketing purposes.

To a reader, I think perhaps the categories matter less, although if a reader has enjoyed a 'police procedural detective novel' by one author, they may want to try the same kind of format by another.

My first two novels have been labelled as 'psychological thrillers' - largely because that's what I suggested when I first presented them and no agent, publisher or reader has ever suggested otherwise! I am now having second thoughts, because there are so many psychological thriller novels coming out which are different from mine. These novels such as  The Book of You by Claire Kendall, Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson and Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes (all excellent books, by the way) tend to have certain characteristics; an unreliable or 'damaged' female narrator, often with shameful secrets from her past and a single theme of threat that sustains the whole book, with this threat being close to home, such as an ex-boyfriend or a husband.

In contrast and on reflection, I think that my books, The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train, are 'mysteries with a psychological element' to them. Both feature strong reliable female narrators who encounter extraordinary and dangerous circumstances, becoming embroiled in a tangle they have to unravel through wit, stealth and intrepid manoeuvres. I also like to produce a style in my writing that can be 'savoured' and this is something I have been developing in my most recent (as yet unreleased books). I love imagery and prose that allows a book to breathe, rather than one which forces the reader to turn every page as fast as possible! A brilliant example of this kind of book is A Single Breath by Lucy Clarke (see my book review); it's billed as a 'thriller', but it's so much MORE than that. The delicate, beautiful language takes the reader into the sea, the underwater world, the beach at night - it's completely transporting.

There's room in the business for all kinds of books, and books that overlap between genres, although these are often harder for editors to place. How do you choose a book to read? Do you go by genre? How important is the genre of a book to you? I'd love to hear your views.
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AJ Waines is the author of: The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
  • Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.
  • Girl on a Train also became a Number One Bestseller in the entire Kindle Store in Australia (2015)
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Friday, 10 April 2015

Two Book Reviews - Hit or Miss?

The Missing One - Lucy Atkins
My rating: 5 of 5

The loss of her mother has left Kali McKenzie with too many unanswered questions. But while clearing out Elena's art studio, she finds a drawer packed with postcards, each bearing an identical one-line message a Canadian gallery owner called Susannah Gillespie: thinking of you. Who is this woman and what does she know about Elena's hidden past? 

Desperate to find out, Kali travels with her toddler, Finn, to Susannah's isolated home on a remote British Columbian island, a place of killer whales and storms. But as bad weather closes in, Kali quickly realises she has made a big mistake. The handsome and enigmatic Susannah refuses to talk about the past, and as Kali struggles to piece together what happened back in the 1970s, Susannah's behaviour grows more and more erratic. Most worrying of all, Susannah is becoming increasingly preoccupied with little Finn . . .

I read the opening of this novel online and loved the quality of the writing; it is beautifully atmospheric and the kind of book that wraps itself around you completely. The story was immediately compelling; following a rocky patch with her husband and getting nowhere when she questions her impassive father, Kali takes off across the world in search of her mother's past, with her two year old son.

The narrative is mostly from Kali's first person point of view in the present tense, taking us through her experiences as the B&B she booked, on a tiny remote island near Vancouver, is closed and she turns up on the doorstep of Susannah, the woman who has been sending her mother annual postcards. While Susannah is unforthcoming and verging on hostile, she insists the two of them stay - the turbulent weather reflecting the mounting uncertainty within the cottage. The writing lets us live every detail alongside Kali, as she comes across more and more mysterious layers in her own past.

The book is long, 569 pages, and my only gripe is that some aspects could have been pared down without losing the impact. For example, there are sections from Kali's mother's point of view, recounting her research into the sounds made by whales to communicate. It goes into considerable detail and whilst it reinforces the themes of 'a mother doing anything to protect her infant' - it pulled my interest away. Essentially, Kali puts herself and her child in grave danger and the book captures the jeopardy and mounting suspense extremely well. Highly recommended.

Falling - Emma Kavanagh
My rating 3 of 5

A plane falls out of the sky. A woman is murdered. Four people all have something to hide.

Jim is a retired police officer, and worried father. His beloved daughter has disappeared and he knows something is wrong.

Tom has woken up to discover that his wife was on the plane and must break the news to their only son.

Cecilia had packed up and left her family. Now she has survived a tragedy, and sees no way out.

Freya is struggling to cope with the loss of her father. But as she delves into his past, she may not like what she finds.

Four main characters and the complexities of their lives - I wanted to like this book more. There was a good consistent pace about it, short chapters with changing viewpoints, meaning it was always pushing forwards as tiny aspects of the disparate stories gradually and inevitably came together. There are some lovely touches in imagery, but it felt slightly overwritten, as if the author was trying a bit too hard. As a result, I became aware of reading the clipped writing style rather than being swept along by the story itself. The narrative also jumps around a lot, with timeframes skipping about, so it's not a smooth read.

There was an awful lot of snow - I don't know how many times this word is used, but it is many, many times! Snow, more snow...then it started to feel like it got a mention on every page.

Overall, I found it a quick read, but it had a strain of misery to it - it didn't leave me feeling in any way uplifted or moved  - just given snapshots of people with sad and lonely, difficult lives. I didn't feel an attachment to anyone, maybe that was part of the problem - lots of characters, but no real pull to any of them, for me.
If you enjoyed this post, PLEASE SHARE it. Thank you! 

AJ Waines is the author of: The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train.
  • Both books went to Number One in 'Murder' and 'Psychological Thrillers' in the UK Kindle charts.
  • Girl on a Train also became a Number One Bestseller in the entire Kindle Store in Australia (2015)
SIGN UP HERE for AJ's Newsletter with Competitions and Giveaways in 2015! Plus up- to-the-minute info on her new novels, sneak peeks and exclusive insider content.