Susan Vaughan here. Although I’m working on shifting my genre into the mystery arena, I’ve been published in romantic suspense for a long time. When I tell non-romance readers what I write, they look at me blankly. I usually keep the explanation simple that I write romance interwoven with a mystery, and I don’t distinguish between mystery and suspense. Understanding that difference has come up in a couple of my online email groups, so I thought this might be a good time to address it here for readers. There’s certain blending and crossover, but here’s my take on the general difference.

A mystery begins with the crime, usually a murder, and the remainder of the book involves a sleuth, either police or a PI or a citizen with personal reasons for getting involved, trying to identify and apprehend the murderer.

Barbara Ross’s mystery CLAMMED UP features an amateur sleuth whose search for the murderer is tied to her need to save her family’s clambake business.

Clammed Up

In AND GOD GRANT YOU PEACE, Kate Flora continues her police-procedural mystery series with Portland Detective Joe Burgess as the sleuth.

And God Grant

A suspense novel, whether romantic or not, involves the hero (protagonist) who may be a federal agent or a police detective or an extraordinary citizen (Think Jack Reacher.), trying to stop the villain (the antagonist) from carrying out his dastardly scheme. Sometimes there are additional crimes/murders as well, and more often than not, the sleuth is in danger at the end when confronting the killer. In a suspense novel, both the hero and the reader might know the villain’s identity. The tension and “suspense” come from the rising action, often a time factor, and from keeping the reader wondering if the villain can be stopped.

My book TWICE A TARGET has elements of both but is primarily a mystery. Holt believes the car crash that killed his brother and his brother’s wife was murder and enlists the help of the heroine, Maddy, a woman he doesn’t trust (old baggage I won’t go into), to help him learn the motive for the attack and identify the killer.

TwiceATarget cover - 300

Another of my books, PRIMAL OBSESSION, is more obviously (romantic) suspense. Sam, a Maine Guide, and Annie, an investigative reporter and one of the canoeists on his wilderness trip, discover that the serial killer Annie was writing about has followed her into the woods. To save her life and the lives of others, they must evade him and eventually try to capture him.

PrimObs8 - final digital cover - 300

Whether mystery or suspense or thriller, readers have more flavors to choose from than vanilla and chocolate.

*** The ebook of TWICE A TARGET is only 99 cents Jan. 20-24 on Amazon, You can find more information about my books at

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10 Responses to MYSTERY OR SUSPENSE?

  1. Hey, Susan. Interesting post. I’m wondering why you’d consider leaving out the romance part of your stories. For me personally, a story without both is lacking. I seldom read a straight mystery (sorry y’all who write those), but I also seldom read a straight romance. They just seem blah. All this is personal preference of course. LOL
    I’ve heard the distinction made between mystery and suspense being very definitely what you say, Susan. In a mystery, the reader doesn’t know who the bad guy is. In a suspense, the reader does, and frequently we even get to hear the villain’s POV. It’s all about whether/and how the bad guy will get caught and how many people he’ll take down before that happens. I’ll share. 🙂

    • Marsha, thanks for the comments. If you mean would I leave out the romance if I wrote a suspense novel, then no I wouldn’t. I omitted too much about romance here because the forum is not about romance. I’m with you on regular contemporary romance novels; most of the time I prefer some jeopardy as leavening. I do have a couple of fave contemporary authors though.

  2. Linda Style says:

    Hi Susan. Great post and right on regarding the difference between mystery and suspense. I’ve heard mystery purists aren’t fond of romance in their books and publishers have long kept the line pure. But now, as you say, readers have more flavors to choose from. With the advent of indie publishing, there are far more options for writers and more choices for readers. Many authors are writing books that blend (or bend 😉 ) genres and readers seem to like having different types of stories from which to choose. My books, like some of yours, contain elements of mystery, suspense…and romance/relationships.To me, relationships play a part in all of our lives and I’d be hard pressed to write a book without some thread related to that element. Do they fit neatly into someone’s predefined slot…probably not, but that’s simply the kind of book I like to write. Writers and readers today have many choices and, to me, that’s a good thing. Vive la difference! 🙂

    • Linda,
      Thanks for the comments. While I’ve heard many mystery publishers and readers prefer not to have romance, I’ve read several of the newer mystery authors (Barb Ross, Vicki Doudera, Kaitlynn Dunnett on this blog) who include romance, not to the extent of totally weaving it in with the mystery but as a subplot. Some authors even add sex – *gasp*.

  3. MCWriTers says:

    Susan, my husband says my books would be better if I’d just leave out the romance, but if we change the word “romance” to relationships, then I think the challenge of characters doing their jobs and solving mysteries while trying to maintain real lives makes the stories, and our characters, more authentic.

    Kate’s two cents

  4. Barb Ross says:

    Good distinctions, Susan. I often say mysteries are driven by the question “Who did it and why?” Whereas suspense is driven by the question, “What the heck is going on here and how can we stop it before something even more awful happens?”

    I do have romance in my Maine Clambake mysteries, which is a first for me. I remember someone saying in a class I took that many mystery writers find it easier for their characters to bash someone brains in than give them a kiss. I definitely fell into that camp, so I’ve looked on the romantic aspect of the series as an opportunity to grow. LOL.

  5. Susan, I’m with you on contemporary romance (which I do enjoy): I “prefer some jeopardy as leavening.” Great phrase, btw. 🙂 Great post, too.

  6. Donnell says:

    This has always perplexed me. Writing fiction is about relationships. I think mystery concentrates more on solving a puzzle, whereas suspense is a heightening of tension. But I’ve written a mystery that had a romance so they labeled it romantic suspense. I think it has something to do with that you say tomahto, I say tomato belief. Great post, Susan.

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