Five “Killer” Genres Unpacked: The Difference Between a Mystery, Detective, Crime, Thriller, and Suspense Novel

Five “Killer” Genres Unpacked: The Difference Between a Mystery, Detective, Crime, Thriller, and Suspense Novel

Someone is killed in the book, therefore it’s a thriller. Or is it a mystery? A killer left a string of clues, so it’s a suspense. No, it must be a mystery. Right and wrong. Now you get why this can be so darn confusing!

The “Killer Genres” are one of those tricky, sticky, picky subjects that plagues the writer, industry professional, and reader, often because there is some serious crossover in today’s publishing market. For example:

  • I’ve seen the same book shelved in two different genres in the same bookstore, not to mention housed under a completely different category in another bookstore.
  • I’ve seen the same for online book sites using “Mystery/Thriller” for one category and “Suspense” as a stand-alone.
  • I’ve personally witnessed book pitches in the wrong genre.
  • There are hundreds of articles on the subject educating the writer and reader to the various distinctions. It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone.
  • Do an Internet search on any of the above-mentioned categories and you’ll find a plethora of mixed mentions: for example, “Crime novels: Great classic thrillers.” Huh?
  • I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who have mixed and morphed the genres. It’s not an exact science, until it really matters. And if you’re a reader, publisher, author, or industry professional…yup, it matters.

Trust me, these are just a few reasons the novice writer, industry expert, and avid reader gets confused. Of course, I’m just speaking for a slice of the population. But for me as an author and a book ambassador, not to mention having a paying gig in the industry, jumbling the genres is a big “no, no.” So, I did a little digging, research, and of course, asked experts in the industry.

The unpacked results of my examination of the killer genres, followed by insights from authors and experts:

Suspense: Chocked full of anticipation, a good suspense will keep the reader uncertain about what will happen, until it does. The ending of each chapter typically has a great hook that entices you to turn the page. A suspense novel heightens a cacophony of emotions in the reading, including but not limited to anxiety, fear, and, when they’re really well written, you’ll experience a visceral response as you read. There’s danger, massive character arcs, and unexpected plot turns that keep you on the edge of your seat.

Thriller: Buckle up and get ready for an adventure, because a thriller promises a nasty villain, a gutsy protagonist, and plenty of action. While the villain, or antagonist, may be a human, a group, an animal, a force of nature, disaster, fantastic creature, or even a fish (Jaws), the author unleashes it hot on the heels of the hero or heroine. Experts describe a thriller as having a “push and pull” between the protagonist and the antagonist throughout, and though that is true, a fast-paced plot (with a few moments to breath) is what truly gives readers their thriller fix! Of course, they also want to read page-turning cliff hangers at the end of each chapter and, like any good book, character growth throughout. 

Crime: Often based on true crimes, or “ripped from the headlines” plots, crime novels share a common thread with detective and mystery books—a crime has been committed and it needs to be resolved (note I said “resolved,” not solved). There are several character suspects in a crime genre, but unlike a detective or mystery, the crime doesn’t necessarily need to be solved by the end of the book. Often crime novel is used to describe a category of subgenres including detective, mystery, organized, serial, noire, or western, but not always.

Detective: There are a lot of experts on the fence as to whether “detective” is a legitimate genre. You may agree. However, there are plenty of booksellers and publishers that use the category to describe the protagonist formally employed to solve a crime. Whether they are with the police, in another formal professional capacity, or going rogue, they are experts in the field of criminal investigations.

Mystery: The protagonist, often, but not always, is a representative of justice. This cop, detective, federal agent, private investigator, bookshop owner, amateur sleuth, archeologist (you name it) will unearth suspects and solve the crime. Expect red-herrings, hidden killer (or culprit), cover up, and clues, but as for the protagonist, antagonist, and setting—anything goes. Also, a mystery main character may or may not be a professional investigator. In many a good mystery, especially the cozy ones like those you see unfold on the Hallmark Channel, a layperson is the lead and solves the crime.

Now it’s time to turn to the professionals. I’ve asked some Books Uplift experts and friends to help unpack the “Killer Genrespuzzle.

“I think of crime as the umbrella the rest are under. Mystery is about solving the crime, the who and why of which are unknown to the solver and the reader. Detective is a subset of mystery in which the solver is either a professional – usually a cop or private eye (as in my Chet and Bernie novels) – or an amateur sleuth. In thrillers and suspense, the bad guy is often known from the start and the POVs tend to be multiple. They’re more forward looking whereas detective novels look back. Thrillers and suspense are closely related. I think of thrillers as suspense’s louder bro buddy. These two are easier to plot, in my opinion. But the boundary lines I’ve just outlined are breached all the time. And why not?” ~ Peter Abrahams, aka Spencer Quinn, author of many mysteries including the bestselling Chet and Bernie series.

“In my mind, Crime is the overarching category. Within Crime you have different subcategories: mystery, thriller, and suspense. Mysteries are puzzle-focused and contain clues that the reader can follow. A fairly clued mystery allows the reader to solve the puzzle. The emphasis is on the detective (either amateur or professional) figuring out whodunit. It’s an intellectual challenge. Mystery stories often have a small stage with a closed circle of suspects, and the story question is: who committed the crime? The identity of the villain is a secret that the protagonist reveals at the end of the book.

A thriller is more focused on providing a thrilling ride for the reader instead of an intellectual puzzle. A thriller often has a ticking clock and something large is at stake, sometimes the existence of humanity itself. Thrillers often have a broader stage with the action taking place around a country or even internationally. The audience often knows who the villain is in a thriller, and the story question is: can the protagonist catch or stop the villain(s)? I think the detective novel can be either a mystery or a thriller, depending on how it’s written. If it’s more focused on the puzzle like Death in the Nile by Agatha Christie, it’s a mystery. If it’s more focused on the cat-and-mouse game between the detective and the villain like Da Vinci Cody by Dan Brown, then it’s a thriller.

You can get even more fine-grained about categories as you drill down, depending on the tone and/or protagonist. Subcategories of mysteries include cozy, amateur sleuth, police procedural, historical, etc. Some thriller subcategories include psychological, vigilante justice, and espionage, etc. Suspense ratchets up the tension, but that’s not really my area of expertise, so I can’t add much more.” ~ Sara Rossett, USA Today Bestselling mystery author and podcast host. 

“There are many different forms of the genre to enjoy: legal thrillers, classic crime, hard-boiled detective, and cozy, to name a few. The incredible diversity of the mystery genre provides readers with an endless supply of voices and puzzles to solve. However, it’s up to the author to deliver the puzzle, and there’s the rub. Red herrings, rabbit trails, and unreliable narrators or characters are arguably more of a common denominator than anything in the genre, and it’s up to the author to write them with vigor, squeezing every bit of reader delight out of them. Whatever form of mystery one enjoys, may the story be well-written, intriguing, and deliver a satisfying ending. If paradise is some kind of library, as Jorge Luis Borges said, then mystery writers certainly will forever exist in a haunted one.” ~ TK Sheffield writes books for readers who want to laugh and escape. Model Suspect, a comic cozy mystery, was released in November. Model Wave, its sequel, will be released in June 2024. She is a member of Blackbird Writers, Wisconsin Writers Association, and the co-host of the WisMissus Writer Podcast.

“Mystery, Detective, Crime, Thriller, and Suspense may sound interchangeable, but they indubitably are distinctive personalities. Mystery is a character unknown, and its charm is that it takes its sweet time to step fully into the bright spotlight for the big reveal. Detective is an inquisitive being that follows trails of breadcrumbs, often mingling with Mystery as it uncovers a gnarly truth while navigating through the gritty perils of those parts of the Detective’s often noir-themed world. Crime is chaotic and glum with an emphasis on a protagonist who sets off with noble inspirations only to slip down the slope of violence into an abyss from which return exacts a precious cost. Thriller is fast-paced and twisty laced with bouts of cool and gritty action and a solid pumping of adrenaline. Last but certainly not the least, Suspense is that one friend who is always on the edge with one-too-many doses of caffeine and never dials down on the sheer nail-biting anxiety of what will happen the next moment.” ~ Kashif Hussain, Best Thriller Books reviewer.

“The differences between the Mystery sub-genres hit me when I realized that my Madeline Dawkins Mystery Series encompasses all five of them. I guess I could say that most books that label themselves as one genre will almost always have a blend of these five sub-genres. They go hand in hand. Having all those elements together is what makes those books so compelling.” ~ Cynthia Hamilton, Author of Detective/Mystery/Suspense books.

Can you handle the truth? Cause here it is. Hybrids happen. From Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (or any of his works) to more modern mixes like The Fugitive by J.M. Dillard or The Firm by John Grisham, there are loads of crossover. That’s part of the confusion. With so much crossbreeding from mystery to thriller and their subjective interpretations, it feels like splitting hairs. Yes, the “Killer Genres” will always have their tried-and-true elements, but with the ever-advancing, savvy reader, creatively ingenious author, and growing demands and expectations, these genres may look very different a year or two from now.

One thing is for certain. They always make for a “killer” read!

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