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The Curious Case of the Appeal of Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense

...Or how knowing the difference between seemingly similar genres can matter greatly

by Becky Spratford

*This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of RA News.*

Many readers love all types of crime fiction. The genre label doesn't matter to many, as long as there is an interesting crime that needs resolution. For others, however, there are some key, but subtle differences in how genre conventions allow a crime-centered plot to unfold. Some crave the intellectual pursuit of solving the puzzle, which a mystery provides. Others like being caught up in the cat-and-mouse game between the hero and the villains in a thriller.  While still others want a fast-paced crime story where the dread of following the protagonist through dangerous situations is what keeps them glued to the page -- the hallmark of suspense.

These nuances need to be addressed because, for some readers, these differences are the key to the RA interaction. However, we also need to be cognizant of how similar these genres are. As a member of the team who put together The ARRT Popular Fiction List, 4th Edition [available in NoveList], I advocated for a big change in the updated version.  Previously, each genre was tackled alphabetically, but I argued for the creation of "umbrella" categories where similar genres would be grouped. This way, we could be more helpful to librarians as they work to familiarize themselves with the most popular authors by both acknowledging how similar some genres can be, while at the same time noting that there are distinctions to consider.

Different 'Umbrellas'

One of these new umbrellas is the Crime Fiction category under which mystery, thriller, and suspense all now appear. The authors filed here may technically fall in one genre or another, but they all write novels that feature a crime, an investigation of some kind, and a resolution, where the reader (at the very least) knows "whodunnit." However, how the author chooses to tell this crime story can vary greatly, and that variation can be wide enough that some readers may only be comfortable reading one of the crime genres and not the others.

This situation is further complicated by the fact that publishers toss around the words "mystery," "suspense," and "thriller" without a thought to whether the terms accurately describe the story.  At times, it is as if these words have become nothing more than a marketing tool.  We need to balance the terms our patrons are encountering with what we, the trained readers' advisors know are the tropes one can expect within the actual genre.

Two recent interactions with patrons illustrate how difficult the situation is becoming. First, a man asked me for "more mysteries just like Lee Child's Jack Reacher series." Those books are technically suspense, and are not even filed in our mystery section. Second, a woman came a few days later wanting a "thriller" similar to the Michael Connelly Harry Bosch books, which are mysteries, housed in our dedicated mystery section. Even with the stickers and a special location, she still used the word "thriller."

There really are true differences among the mystery, thriller, and suspense genres, and authors not only understand this, but they purposely employ the tropes of a specific genre as they craft their crime-centered stories. Readers may not know the differences among these genres but it is not our job to correct them. It is more important that we understand the small, but critical differences among mystery, thriller, and suspense so that we can help match our readers with the right books.

Finer Distinctions

First, we start by defining the basic differences among the three genres so that we can understand why readers may enjoy one more than the others. This is something we took very seriously when we updated The ARRT Popular Fiction List; therefore, I will use some of the wording from that document to help explain.

A mystery is a story in which a crime is committed and the "whodunnit" and why is unknown until the very end. The story introduces an investigator who investigates, gathers clues, and solves the case. Readers require that a mystery contain all of the clues for solving the puzzle within the pages of the story. Mystery fans expect to solve the puzzle along with the investigator.

A thriller centers on a particular profession such as espionage, law, or medicine. Solving the crime and the puzzle it presents takes a back seat to the jargon of the profession, the potential dangers faced by those involved in it, and the fast-paced, cinematic action of these stories. Thrillers often feature a loner hero who operates under his or her own moral code and the storylines are marked by the cat-and-mouse chase between the hero and villain.

Suspense is differentiated from the other two crime genres because the story is not only about the events that occur, but is also about everything that might happen. It is a story about protagonists who end up in harm's way as they try to stop the evil-doers. This overhanging dread takes the spotlight away from the puzzle (mystery's focus) and the cat-and-mouse chase (the purview of the thriller). Above all else, suspense emphasizes the building of tension as the hero tries to stop the villain and stay alive in the process. Suspense regularly uses compressed time frames, prologues, and especially, the inclusion of the villain's point of view to add to this atmosphere of mounting threat.

Talking with Readers

Now that we've laid out some basic distinctions, it is time for the second step: having the RA conversation with readers. Patrons will probably not come into the library saying, "I like a crime story that is focused on what might happen." Or, "I want a loner lawyer who uses all the legal jargon as he fights the villains." But, if we listen to what they are saying and don't get caught up on their word choices, we can ask the Jack Reacher fan who wants more "mysteries" if he enjoys that Child includes the villain's point of view in his novels. If the answer is yes, we realize that he likes suspense (even though he said mystery), and can now start looking for suggestions in the correct genre.  Similarly, the Harry Bosch fan looking for more thrillers might actually be looking for a loner who sometimes works outside of the law, but in the end investigates and solves the puzzle.  In my example, the patron did confirm this, so I looked for more mysteries, keeping an eye out for those with a loner hero.

Keep Some Flexibility

Now for the third and final step.  Forget everything I said above and be willing to move people between the genres, even if they have a stated preference. Just as I do, you probably have patrons who read mostly mysteries but love Child, while we have plenty of thriller fans who can't get enough Bosch. That is because these authors, like many others, are regularly pushing the genre boundaries in their works. Publishers are also taking advantage of this blending by using the terms mystery, thriller, and suspense interchangeably to draw in a wider range of readers. This leaves us a big open area within which we can guide readers to the perfect books. We too should not be bound by genre confines.  Yes, we need to understand the subtle differences so that we can help individual readers as they come to the desk, but we also need to be able to direct them to the right book, no matter its genre.

This truly is a curious case, but one that gives us, with just a little bit of awareness, an opportunity to really help our leisure readers and guide them through the morass that crime fiction is becoming and to get the best books into their hands. And that will be success for everyone involved, author, publisher, reader, and librarian alike. Funny how a crime can bring us all together.


You can access The ARRT Popular Fiction List in NoveList.

Just click on "Readers' Advisory" in the Professional Toolbox drop-down located in the orange bar at the top of the home page. The ARRT Popular Fiction List is the first item in the "Becoming a Better Readers' Advisor" section.

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Becky Spratford is a Readers' Advisor in Illinois specializing in serving patrons ages 13 and up.  She trains library staff all over the world on how to match books with readers through the local public library.  She runs the critically acclaimed RA training blog RA for All, and is on the Steering Committee of the Adult Reading Round Table.  Becky is also known for her work with horror readers and is a proud member of the Horror Writers Association. Tell Becky about your favorite crime genre on Twitter @RAforAll