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:

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

THRILLER
A nightmare
Victim story (at top)
Protagonist must learn skills
Feeling is paramount
Action is onstage
Thrust into larger world
Surprises/twists
Cycles of mistrust
Information given to audience
Audience a step ahead
Up to four Points of View
What will happen?
Betrayers
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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