Is it a Mystery, a Thriller, or Suspense? By Matt Cost

I recently was a moderator for a panel at Crime Wave for the Romantic Suspense panel consisting of writing wonders Carla Neggars, Paul Doiron, Susan Vaughan, and Susan Stoker. This gave me pause to ponder the separation of categorization of genres that I write within. Is it a mystery, a thriller, or a suspense?

I was a at the ThrillerFest conference back before the time that will not be mentioned attending a panel that first began these questions percolating in my mind. At this panel, the question came up as what the difference between a mystery and a thriller was. Pretty simple stuff. But everybody had a different opinion and it became downright cantankerous up there on the stage.

A simple dictionary search of the word mystery is any affair, thing, or person that presents features or qualities so obscure as to arouse curiosity or speculation. The word thriller is described as an exciting, suspenseful play or story, especially a mystery story. Hm. And suspense is a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.

Untangling this box of loose translations seems to be a thrilling, suspenseful, mystery. So, it is not enough to unpack the jumble, but necessary to reduce these words to their core essence. Simplification leads me to a thriller being a cliffhanger, suspense being a state of anticipation, and a mystery being a puzzle or secret.

Two of my favorite mysteries of all time would be The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosely. My top two thrillers would have to include Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré. Suspense would then be Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Shining by Stephen King.

Of course, doing a simple internet search, I can find all of these titles on top lists for mystery, thriller, and suspense. The category placement of my most recent novel, Velma Gone Awry, then, would in the mystery, thriller, suspense section. Of course, at Sherman’s Maine Coast Bookshops, it is in the Maine Authors section.

Not to mention the breakdown into subcategories of cozy, noir, traditional, crime, hardboiled, PI, capers, medical, legal, historical, techno, psychological, domestic, spy, political, supernatural, narrative, cliffhanger, dramatic, romantic, and comedic. Whoa. It is enough to make one tired just thinking about it. Perhaps, as in a recent blog I suggested that perhaps it is enough to just write, it is also enough to just read and not worry about the labels attached.

But if push came to shove, my personal definition would thus be refined to is a mystery is something happens and must be solved, a thriller is something being raced against to prevent from happening, and suspense is something waiting to happen. All three can contain romance, but in suspense, that romance has an angst preventing it from happening until later in the book. And, of course, all these genres intertwine on a regular basis.

What thinks you?

Write on.

About the Author

Matt Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.

Cost has published four books in the Mainely Mystery series, with the fifth, Mainely Wicked, due out in August of 2023. He has also published four books in the Clay Wolfe Trap series, with the fifth, Pirate Trap, due out in December of 2023.

For historical novels, Cost has published At Every Hazard and its sequel, Love in a Time of Hate, as well as I am Cuba. In April of 2023, Cost combined his love of histories and mysteries into a historical PI mystery set in 1923 Brooklyn, Velma Gone Awry.

Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.

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4 Responses to Is it a Mystery, a Thriller, or Suspense? By Matt Cost

  1. John Clark says:

    When Holly Schindler, who oversees the blog YA Outside the Lines gave me feedback on “Don’t Say It,” a book I wrote last year, she really liked it, but wasn’t sure what category/genre it should be marketed as. Neither do I, and I think aside from my short stories which are usually written with a genre in mind, none of my stuff fits a particular category. Maybe I should start saying I write pentagonal books for a square world.

    • matthewcost says:

      Ha! That seems to be a new a new take on a square peg into a round hole only more complicated. I don’t think that writing can be ‘pegged’ into a specific genre.

  2. Shelley says:

    I’m obsessed with this topic. Used to be I was obsessed figuring out the line between literary fiction and commercial fiction. I gave up on that one. Anyway, it’s fascinating to me both as a reader and writer. I like your definitions.

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