Getting into Genre: Mysteries and Thrillers

Updated: Oct 24, 2018


They tingle our spines and chill our bones. They keep us guessing by creating a sense of suspense and anxiety. They can be based on real incidents, taken from things that could happen, or made up completely. They can be set in the modern day or ages ago. Mysteries and thrillers remain popular sellers because of the human thirst for knowledge and innate curiosity. They provide us with questions that need to be answered and allow us to test our own ability to solve a crime or at least solve a mystery. There is a reason why unsolved mysteries tend to attract our attention, both real and those we create.


These books have the ability to send hearts racing and pulses pounding, all from the relative safety and comfort of wherever the reader chooses to indulge in them. These books allow excitement and escapism without having to leave a comfy chair. The safe, controlled cathartic release that thrillers and mysteries give readers is one of the reasons why they have a perpetual audience and stay toward the top of the best sellers' lists. While curling up with a good mystery or racing through the pages of the latest thriller may seem like a more recent phenomena than some other genres, the concept of thrilling audiences and giving them mysteries to solve goes back centuries.


Mystery versus Thriller


Mysteries, suspense stories and thrillers all have similar characteristics and structures, so they are often considered the same genres. However, there are a few things that set these genres apart. Both mysteries and thrillers have questions that need to be solved and keep readers guessing. Both rely on suspense, human psychology and can include elements of crime, romantic entanglements, and conspiracy. So, what is the difference?

Literary critics have long debated what exactly separates mystery from thrillers and suspense. A 1962 debate between filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock over five days seemed to identify that the difference between the two is surprise. In a mystery, the reader often is just as in the dark as the protagonist about the outcome of the mystery whereas in suspense and thrillers, the reader often has information and clues the protagonist does not have. Of course, this is not always the case.


Others believe timing is the difference between the two genres. Mysteries are usually focused on a crime or event that has already happened while suspense and thrillers often focus on events that are currently happening or attempting to stop something before it happens. Additionally, the antagonist of a mystery is largely unknown until the mystery is solved whereas thrillers and suspense stories often identify the antagonist early on and focus their actions on stopping this antagonist or bringing them to justice.

The action in a story is also sometimes used to show the difference between these two genres. Mysteries are generally seen as more cerebral, focusing more on the motive and psychology behind the mystery. This is where suspense and thrillers differ somewhat as suspense stories are seen as a looming threat of danger with little to no action while thrillers are high-action, danger-fueled works. Suspense stories and mysteries both tend to built to one moment like the big reveal or the final showdown while thrillers consist of waves of rising and falling action.


While there are differences between the genres, they have a very similar history and a lot of the same characteristics, themes and plot structures. It is hard to talk about one without talking about the other since so much of them overlap. In fact, many books are categorized as mystery thrillers or suspense thrillers because of how closely these genres are related. Their subgenres also tend to overlap as well, making it hard for readers to tell the difference between mystery and suspense.


Historical Background


Both the mystery and thriller genre originate in the same place with thrillers branching off from mysteries in more modern times. One of the earliest known murder mysteries is the story “The Three Apples” from One Thousand and One Nights, a story that is believed to have originated in India or Persia sometime between 500 and 800 CE. In this story, a fisherman discovers an ornate chest in the Tigris River, which he sells to the local Caliph. When it is opened before the caliph, the body of a beautiful woman is inside. The caliph gives his adviser three days to solve the crime. The book, however, was not translated into English until the 1700s.

Scene from Judge Dee

China also had a tradition of crime fiction long before the European literary canon. The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE) had an entire genre known as gong’an fiction that included prominent novels like Bao Gong An and Di Gong An, the latter of which was eventually translated into English as the Judge Dee series. In this tradition, a judge or similar prominent official living in an earlier dynasty is the protagonist who is dealing with several unrelated cases. These works also feature an inverted detective story style of storytelling, a supernatural element, complex discussions of philosophy, and more details about the torture and execution of the criminal than the crime itself.


For the Western literary tradition, it would take a bit longer for the mystery or thriller as fiction genre to catch on. With the rise of newspapers in the 1600s, publishers soon learned that readers had a taste for gory stories. If it bleeds, it leads became the motto and soon, tales of crime, persecution and execution were among the most popular stories in the pamphlets, leaflets and newsletters published in Europe and abroad. However, these salacious stories were considered fodder for the lower classes and generally avoided by the rich. Novels with mysteries elements, however, would not be far off.

Scene from Things as They Are

In 1794, William Godwin published Things as They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which is considered the predecessor to the crime novels of today. The three volume novel was more about calling out abuse of power by the government, showing how the rich and their institutions take advantage of the poor. The novel revolves around Caleb Williams, a self-educated orphan who is taken in my a local squire. When the local squire is murdered, two of the local tenants are blamed but Williams uncovers another wealthy squire was the true murderer. Having discovered this knowledge, Williams has to flee before he becomes the next victim. The novel had a published ending that fit in more with the morality tales of the day and another, more controversial original ending that is now often included with the text.


Other early crime stories often had overlaps with what we would consider the more modern horror or ghost story genres. Thomas Skinner Sturr’s Richmond, or Stories in the Life of a Bow Street Officer was published in 1827, and though its authorship is disputed, it is believed the stories were taken from the Bow Street Runners, the early forerunners of the London Police and Scotland Yard. Steen Steensen Blicher's The Rector of Veilbye was a Danish novel published in 1829 that retold the story of the 1626 trial Pastor Søren Jensen Quist of Vejlby. Philip Meadows Taylor's Confessions of a Thug published in 1839 took the opposite approach, showing crime from the criminals' perspective.

Francois Eugene Vidocq

French criminal Francois Eugene Vidocq’s memoirs of his exploits proved to be a bestseller in 1828. The first modern mystery generally considered to be Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Published in 1841, this work is considered the first piece of detective fiction and was the first of several stories centered around French detective Auguste C. Dupin. Both Vidocq's true crime tales and translations of Poe's works influenced French writers like Honore de Balzac. and Victor Hugo, who himself was responsible for a large portion of the translation of Poe's works into French. The works of French mystery and crime writers soon became widely popular across America and Europe, prompting Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Anna Katherine Green, and others to author similar detective stories of their own.


Of course, Sherlock Holmes was perhaps the most famous and prolific fictional detective of the Victorian age. By the 1920s, Agatha Christie was pleasing crowds, producing more than 80 novels in 50 years. She was soon joined by Dorothy L. Sayers, Ellery Queen, Dashiell Hammett, and Earl Derr Bigger to create what became known as the Golden Age of Mystery. Less literary mystery works were also published rapidly, become fixtures in pulp fiction and on the shelves of dime stores across the world. This golden era gave birth to the hard-boiled detective, film noir, and legal drama. It also made mysteries accessible to children with the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series.

Radio brought mystery to life with programs such as “The Shadow” and soon the emerging fields of television and film were producing mysteries at a rapid pace. Mystery films such as The Maltese Falcon, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and series like Charlie Chan and The Thin Man keep patrons in theaters. With the rise of television, detective and mystery focused TV shows like “Columbo,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and “The Saint" became popular as did legal shows like “Law and Order,” “Perry Mason” and “Dragnet."


Film is also credited with giving birth to the thriller genre, though thrillers have roots in older stories. Ancient epic poems like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and Mahabharata rely on suspense and encounters with villains like modern day thrillers while Little Red Riding Hood can be seen as the precursor to the stalker thriller. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844 and involved daring escapes and a revenge-motivated plot. Two novels published in 1903 are also given credit with creating the modern thriller. The first is The Riddle of the Sands about a group of Englishmen who have to thwart a German armada while the second is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is sometimes considered the first psychological thriller.

In 1915, John Buchan published The Thirty-Nine Steps about an innocent man falsely accused of a crime. It would later inspire a radio play, an Alfred Hitchcock film released in 1935, a parody play spoofing Hitchcock films, plus three more film remakes. Thrillers were gaining popularity in literature just as they were gaining popular on film as well. The first thriller movie is generally considered to be Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 silent film The Lodger, which was based on the true crime story Jack the Ripper and one of the theories about his identity. In 1928, Fritz Lang produced the film called Spies, which influenced Ian Fleming to pen the James Bond spy series in 1953.

Other influential thriller novels include 1959’s The Manchurian Candidate and 1963’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, both of which played on Cold War paranoia. The 1980 series The Bourne Identity is credited with influencing the thriller style commonly written in more modern times, though elements of the original thrillers and mysteries still provide the backbones for both genres. Conspiracies, crimes, politics, psychology and even supernatural or technological elements have further helped create unique stories in both of these genres.


Characteristics

There are several elements that come together to make a successful mystery or thriller novel. Some of these deal with building action and suspense while others deal with the story, setting and characters needed to create the worlds where these mysteries take place. Others deal with anticipating human reactions to certain events or knowledge. By knowing these elements and how and why they work, stories in this genre can be more easily and more effectively crafted.


In order to understand how to write both a mystery and a thriller, the writer has to understand the process of catharsis. Based on Greek philosophy, catharsis is a process by which human beings release stress and fear in a controlled environment - such as by reading a book or watching a movie - resulting in a pleasurable feeling afterwards. Catharsis is one of the reasons people enjoy this genre as it allows them to vicariously experience danger and suspense without being in any real threat.

Suspense and foreshadowing are two of the most vital elements to both genres. The suspense begins in both of these genres with the “inciting incident,” which is the catalyst for the story and creates the initial sense of suspense. In a mystery, the inciting incident is the discovery of a crime pushing the characters to solve it while in a thriller, the inciting incident is the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen and must be prevented. Suspense is further created by raising the stakes in the story. This can be done by creating additional conflict, cutting the amount of time the protagonist has to solve the issue and by foreshadowing.


Motive is another important element of mysteries especially. The person who has spurned the mystery must have a motive for whatever they have done whether it is killing the butler or stealing a valuable antique. It is this motive that can help create the clues for the protagonist to deduce. While they can be used in thrillers, they are not necessarily essential. A villain may take time explaining why he is building a death ray to blow up the moon, but motive is not always a driving force for why the protagonist wants to final a solution in a thriller.

Other elements can help complicate the story and create more suspense. Agatha Christie was known for the “red herrings” in her works, which is a logical fallacy or literary device that misleads or distracts the readers and often the protagonist from the solution or relevant evidence needed to solve a crime. Similarly, some writers employ plot twists where the outcome or situation changes suddenly in a way no one saw coming. Plot twists can both make a mystery harder to solve and keep the reader entertained.


Alfred Hitchcock was known popularizing the term Macguffin in reference to his thrillers. A MacGuffin is some sort of desired object, goal or motive that helps push the protagonist further though it doesn’t have much background information. Examples include the eponymous Maltese Falcon or the meaning of “rosebud” in Citizen Kane. Conspiracy can also be useful in both mysteries and thrillers. In a mystery, a conspiracy might be surrounding an attempted cover-up of a crime whereas a conspiracy might be the thing a protagonist in a thriller has to unravel.

The structure of the plots for mysteries and thrillers may seem very different, but they are actually fairly similar. The majority of both stories are rising action with an intense climax or high point in the drama toward the end followed by a quick falling action and resolution where all of the loose ends are tied off. Looking deeper into this rising action will be various smaller pieces of rising action and climax with the stakes getting higher and higher each time. For example, the discovery of the first clue will create suspense but not as much as the discovery of clue two and three. The point of highest suspense and drama is right before the killer is revealed.


As always, both genres need a solution or resolution to their plot. This is usually the part of the story where the bad guy is put away, James Bond defeats the cleverly named nemesis and the detective explains what minute detail helped him identify the killer. It is at this point that the reader feels the catharsis the entire plot was building to, seeing justice served and the victim vindicated.


Stock Characters

It seems certain stereotypes and stock characters appear in all genres of literature, but perhaps no genre is more chock full of stock characters than mysteries and thrillers. While most writers put their own twists on these character archetypes, many of them have become essential parts of the conventions we associate with both the mystery and horror genres. Some have become so well-known that they have become ingrained in our culture.


The protagonists often featured in these genres include people in a variety of occupations including detectives, private investigators, lawyers and spies. Of course, occupation is not the only thing that defines the stock characters featured in mysteries and thrillers. In the case of both, sometimes the protagonist is an “everyman” or a regular person who is forced into extraordinary circumstances, such as a person who unwittingly becomes involved in a conspiracy or spy thriller. Other times, the protagonist is an anti-hero, a person who isn’t looking to be heroic or has flaws preventing them from being a traditional hero.


Detectives, private eyes and cops are predominant in mystery fiction, but there are several different types of detective archetypes writers can work with. A genre itself, the hard-boiled detective is the gritty anti-hero of the noir genres including Sam Spade, Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe. This type of detective is a man of action and was popular during the height of pulp fiction. The contrast is the Holmesian detective, named for Sherlock Holmes. This detective uses his wit and intense powers of deduction to solve cases, often seeing clues no one else can. A third type is the occult detective, such as a psychic or medium who communicates with the supernatural to get information needed to solve a case.

It could be said the thriller genre brings together the characteristics of both the hard-boiled detective and the Holmesian detective into the superspy archetype. The super spy is the character who is capable of the intense action of the hard-boiled detective but also has to have the cerebral abilities of the Holmesian detective. Thrillers are also occasionally known for having an unreliable narrator, a lead character or first-person narrator whose information can’t be trusted one hundred percent.


A villain or suspect is also necessary for both of these genres, though the type of villain can vary depending on the type of story. Sometimes the villain can be the gentleman thief or a likable villain. Other times there is the supervillain or mad scientist, the character who has gone mad with power or their desire for evil. There can also be supporting characters with villainous intentions, such as the crooked cop, the henchman/minion or the rogues gallery. The rogues gallery was originally the room where all of the mugshots of wanted criminals were kept in a police department, but in literature often refers to the “usual subjects” who have to be rounded up.

Three main types of female characters are often featured in mystery and suspense novels. The first is the damsel in distress, the woman who the protagonist has to save or protect because of whatever is happening in the plot. The second is almost the exact opposite, the femme fatale. This is the exotic and seductive woman who typically brings ruin upon those around her, especially those who love her. Somewhere in between is the Hawskian woman, which is attributed to the films of Howard Hawks. This character is a tough-talking woman who can go toe-to-toe with a man, similar to the characters often portrayed by Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck.


There are other characters that have become important and easily recognizable to most fans of both genres. For both there is often a victim, the person or people who will suffer the most from whatever illicit action has been committed as part of the plot. Often times, the main character or protagonist also has a sidekick such as Dr. Watson. Sometimes there is also a fall guy or scapegoat who is innocent but ends up blamed for the crime that has been committed. Other less common stereotypes include the bungling cop who makes the case more difficult or the authority figure - such as the D.A. or chief of police - who gets in the way of the protagonist right before they are ready to solve the case for added suspense. Characters can also be important plot devices, such as the secret identity or alias of a person or the nosy neighbor who just happens to see the right thing at the right moment.


Subgrenes


Caper/Heist: A story involved a theft, swindle, kidnapping or other intricate crime which chronicles the planning, execution and aftermath of the planned crime, these works follow the work of the criminals, the victims and those attempting to solve the case. Many caper stories incorporate elements of humor and play off the audacity of the crime being committed. Often times, a member turns against the group to create further intrigue. Notable examples include O. Henry’s Ransom of Red Chief, W.R. Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle and John Godey’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

Crime: These stories are fictional tales of crimes with myriad further sub-genres ranging from historical to contemporary. These stories sometimes focus on retracing a crime, the commission of a crime, or how a crime was solved. Sometimes they focus on the motivations that led to the committing of a crime. They can focus on details like forensics or criminal psychology or have characters including detectives, reporters and ordinary citizens searching for the truth.


Courtroom/Legal: Focusing on law work, civil litigation, and the prosecution of crimes or alleged criminals, these stories focus on figures including lawyers, judges, prosecutors, defenders, defendants and juries. Sometimes the case involves a lawyer attempting to prove the innocence of a client who is being railroaded or the guilt of a defendant in danger of getting off. The works of John Grisham, Michael Connelly, and Jodi Picoult often fall into this category.


Disaster: A novel usually focusing on the aftermath or an escape from an earthquake, tornado, tsunami, mudslide, volcanic explosion and various other disasters, though occasionally they focus on the scientists and researchers who have predicted the disaster attempting to warn others of an impending event.


Detective: A type of crime or mystery fiction that revolves around an investigator or detective, both professional and amatauer. While it is common in Western literature, detective fiction also appears in early Arabic literature as well as in Chinese gong’an fiction. Some of the most well-known figures in mystery and thriller fiction have fit into this genre from Auguste C. Dupin to Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade to Miss Marple and Inspector Poirot.

Ecothriller: A subgenre of the thriller genre focusing on nature and natural forces. Usually these books involve the planet or animals fighting back against humanity or humans being pitted against natural forces, sometimes with supernatural characteristics attributed to these natural forces. Examples include Jurassic Park, The Lost World and The Birds.


Espionage: A combination of mystery, thriller and adventure novel, the spy fiction genre dates back to The Prisoner of Zenda in 1894 and The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1905. Somewhat of a political-military thriller as well, these novels often involve secret agents involved in thwarting enemies of the state. Many are set around World War I, World War II or the Cold War. Characters such as James Bond, Jason Bourne and Lisbeth Salander originate from this genre.


Financial : A subgenre of the thriller genre in which the financial system or the economy plays a major role, these novels often entail unveiling incidents of financial crimes or fraud. Often used as morality plays to illustrate the evils of greed, these books have become increasingly popular in the 2000s. The first is often credited as being Theodore Dreiser’s 1912 novel The Financier, though it was Paul Erdman’s 1973 publication The BillIon Dollar Sure Thing that really started off the modern incarnation of the genre.


Government/Conspiracy: A type of thriller often involving the coverup or unveiling of a government crime or conspiracy, this genre is also known as a paranoid thriller because the main character is often the only one or one of few who believes the conspiracy is real. John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps from 1915 is often seen as one of the first examples of this genre though The Manchurian Candidate and Graham Greene’s Ministry of Fear are among the best-known examples. While often involving government cover-ups, conspiracy thrillers can also involve big businesses, religious cults and other organizations.

Hardboiled/Noir: Often featuring detectives, these books deviate from the traditional detective story because of their often cynical nature, anti-heroes and status as a pulp icon. This genre is typically thought of as being set in the 1940s and 1950s, but neo-noir novels can be set in any period of time as long as they obey the genre’s conventions. Notable examples include the work of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler.


Howdunit: While the typical mystery focuses on who committed a crime or act, the howdunit flips the script. These books focus on how a crime was committed or solved, either from the perspective of the criminal or from the perspective of the person trying to unravel the cause behind the crime. Instead of working up to a big reveal of who did the crime, the big reveal in this subgenre is how the crime was committed or how the criminal became a criminal.


Locked Room: This type of detective fiction involves a crime - usually a murder - that happens in a confined space and where all the suspects are confined in this space until the murderer is revealed. Sometimes these involve a puzzle of clues and pit the various characters against each other to solve the case. The “locked room” doesn’t have to be a single room but can be a setting like the mansion in the game “Clue” or a train such as Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.


Medical: A thriller set in a medical situation, these novels sometimes include trying to find the source of a disease, find a cure for an outbreak, the results of some medical experiment, or some intense situation at a medical clinic or hospital. Often times these novels include themes such as man playing god. Writers of the genre include Robin Cook, Judith Lucci and Michael Crichton.


Military: Like spy thrillers, these books revolve around military personnel and soldiers or those with a military background. They often involve political or military cover ups, conspiracies or special assignments. Mercenaries and soldiers for hire can often feature as characters in this genre as well.

Paranormal: Sometimes a crossover with horror novels, these stories involve solving crimes or cases through contacting the supernatural or solving cases that involve supernatural cases. These stories can also involve witch hunters, vampire hunters and the like. These novels embody the traditional characteristics of other mysteries and thrillers with a supernatural twist.


Person in Peril: This type of thriller or mystery pits the protagonist often against time to save a person, people or even entire community from some impending peril or danger. The drama of this story focuses on the rescue of the person in danger.

Psychological:: This type of thriller relies heavily on the use of human psychology, playing off the mind of the reader and the characters within it. This story often features characters in unstable emotional states who are experiencing a dissolving state of reality. These novels deal with reality and perception. They often feature plot twists and unreliable narrators.


Survivalist: This type of thriller novel involves a person or persons plunged into adverse conditions and needed to survive, whether that is an icy wasteland, a desert island, the depths of the rainforest or a post-apocalyptic city. These characters often have to use their wits to survive and return to society.


Techno-Thriller: A thriller that focuses on technology, this genre can range from humans being pitted against robots to computer hackers to cyber crime. Technology used in these thrillers can run the gamut from computers to advanced weapons and military to robots and other machines. This subgenre often draws from elements of science-fiction. Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy are well-known writers from this subgenre.

Whodunit: While all mysteries involve an element of this subgenre, a whodunit is any mystery focused on finding the perpetrator of a crime or action. This plot flourished during the Golden Age of detective fiction between 1920 and 1950 when pulp fiction characterized the genre. However, the style of writing for a whodunit can vary best on when the story is set and the culture the writer comes from. Whodunits largely revolve around trying to solve murders with the climax being the dramatic reveal of the antagonist.

Further Reading

Crime Writers’ Association - The CWA was founded in 1953 by John Creasey – that’s over sixty years of support, promotion and celebration of this most durable, adaptable and successful of genres. We run the prestigious Dagger Awards, which celebrate the best in crime writing, and which we award every autumn in a glittering ceremony, and we’re proud to be a thriving, growing community with a membership encompassing authors of all ages and at all stages of their careers. We are UK-based yet attract many members from overseas.


International Thriller Writers - The International Thriller Writers is an honorary society of authors, both fiction and nonfiction, who write books broadly classified as “thrillers.” This would include (but isn’t limited to) such subjects as murder mystery, detective, suspense, horror, supernatural, action, espionage, true crime, war, adventure, and myriad similar subject areas.Publishers of The Big Thrill Online.


Mystery Writers of America - Mystery Writers of America is the premier organization for mystery writers, professionals allied to the crime writing field, aspiring crime writers, and those who are devoted to the genre. MWA is dedicated to promoting higher regard for crime writing and recognition and respect for those who write within the genre. We provide scholarships for writers, sponsor MWA Literacy programs, sponsor symposia and conferences, present the Edgar® Awards, and conduct other activities to further a better appreciation and higher regard for crime writing.


Sisters in Crime - We are 3600 members in 51 chapters world-wide, offering networking, advice and support to mystery authors. We are authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by our affection for the mystery genre and our support of women who write mysteries. Sisters in Crime was founded by Sara Paretsky and a group of women at the 1986 Bouchercon in Baltimore.

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