Mystery or Suspense?

Although my mystery author friends here accept me into their ranks, I write romantic suspense and have been published in that genre 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. There’s certain blending and crossover, but here’s my take on the general difference.

Of course, all novels contain suspense to one degree or another, the suspense of wondering what will happen next. All novelists want readers to keep asking questions. And mystery novels involve suspense beyond that—the tension of danger and if the sleuth will solve the mystery.  But for my purpose, a mystery typically 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. Sometimes there are additional murders.

Barbara Ross’s Maine Clambake Mysteries features an amateur sleuth, Julia Snowden, who runs her family’s clambake business but who has also been instrumental (in 8 books) in solving local murders, some of which connected to Julia’s family members. In SHUCKED APART, the upcoming February release, Julia’s reputation attracts a local oyster farmer asking for help. Mysteries featuring amateur sleuths are typically considered “cozy” mysteries.

For professional sleuths, like police officers and private detectives, the book descriptions vary from police procedural to thriller to mystery to detective novel. In Kate Flora’s Joe Burgess Mysteries, her sleuth is a Portland, Maine, police detective. Those stories are deep and portray the detective’s investigation in as well as the personal effects on Joe of dealing with death and crime. The book description calls A CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM a murder mystery thriller. It is that, but also a police procedural novel and an exposé of child trafficking.

Now for something completely different. Maggie Robinson’s Lady Adelaide Mysteries, set in the 1920’s, feature our heroine, a beautiful widow, as well as a dashing Anglo-Indian police detective and the ghost of Lady Adelaide’s husband Rupert. The book description of JUST MAKE BELIEVE calls it an amusing historical cozy mystery with touches of the paranormal and women’s fiction. Lady Adelaide is our amateur sleuth, aided by her sometimes annoying ghostly husband, and Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Devenand Hunter appears as the professional. What the book description fails to include is the touch of romance. No, not with the ghost.

A suspense novel, whether romantic or not, involves the hero (protagonist) who may be a federal agent or a police detective or other law enforcement officer 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 and murders as well, and often 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, usually a time factor, and keeping the reader wondering if/how the villain can be stopped.

My most recent release, HIDDEN OBSESSION, has elements of both mystery and suspense—and of course, romance. The hero, Maine State detective Justin Wylde (who was also the detective in PRIMAL OBSESSION) must solve murders in a coastal village, so he’s my professional sleuth. The heroine, Sheri Harte, back in her hometown to ghostwrite a woman’s memoir, gets caught up in the intrigue and involved romantically with Justin. The suspense involves tension about the killer’s identity, who might be the next victim, and as the plot enfolds, why Sheri is also being stalked by the killer.

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

About susanvaughan

Susan Vaughan loves writing romantic suspense because it throws the hero and heroine together under extraordinary circumstances and pits them against a clever villain. Her books have won the Golden Leaf, More Than Magic, and Write Touch Readers’ Award and been a finalist for the Booksellers’ Best and Daphne du Maurier awards. A former teacher, she’s a West Virginia native, but she and her husband have lived in the Mid-Coast area of Maine for many years. Her latest release is GENUINE FAKE, a stand-alone book in the Devlin Security Force series. Find her at or on Facebook as Susan H. Vaughan or on Twitter @SHVaughan.
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7 Responses to Mystery or Suspense?

  1. Great explanation of the differences.

  2. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    What a nice way to start Monday morning! Thanks so much for including me in this post!

  3. Anonymous says:

    Sometimes the mystery is how the publisher describes a book, as you noted about mine. Thanks for including me…and for such a great post!


  4. Hey, Susan. When I first began writing I struggled with what I actually write. Someone said to me the difference was with a mystery you don’t know who done it. With a suspense, you probably know who the bad guy is (though perhaps not the name) and the suspense comes from whether he/she’ll get caught and whether the H & H will survive and whether the H & H will work out their differences. So lots of questions. Of course in any romance we know there will be a HEA for the H & H. 🙂 Love your last paragraph. There’s enough variety for everyone–writer and reader.

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