Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When is a Mystery a Thriller?

I've recently run across two instances of individuals saying a particular novel wasn't a thriller, but was a mystery. While I realize not all mysteries would fall into the category of thriller, I am wondering what constitutes a mystery that is also a thriller.

The first time I came across this, it was from a reviewer who stated my novel wasn't a thriller, and that most people not as well read as he claimed to be would not know the difference. I tended to categorize the book as a mystery/thriller, just to differentiate it from a whodunnit, a cozy, or any other number of sub-genres I don't think it fits into.

When I think thriller, I think of chases, scenes that are full of suspense, maybe an explosion or shooting or two. Well, first I think of Michael Jackson's zombie video, then I think of these other things. But now I'm thinking there may be an entirely different definition of thriller of which I am unaware, being not as well-read as the person who reviewed my book and all.

So I went to one of my favorite sites,, to see what a dictionary definition of thriller might be. The definitions were pretty basic: (1) a person or thing that thrills; and (2) an exciting, suspenseful play or story, esp. a mystery story.

So now I'm left with the conclusion that apparently my book didn't thrill the reviewer, and/or apparently was not exciting or suspenseful.

More recently, I saw on Lesa Holstine's website, a guest blog by author Gerrie Ferris Finger, rebutting a comment Lesa had previously made about something unrelated to my problem. Ms. Finger mentioned that while her novel The End Game was a mystery, it was not a thriller, but had thriller aspects. Although I shamefully admit I have not yet read her book, which won St. Martin's /Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, her description of it certainly sounded like a thriller to me.

But it did start me on a new train of thought. Aha, I'm thinking now. Perhaps my novel was also not a thriller, but had thriller aspects. I can picture that. But what, then, is necessary for a book to be categorized as a thriller, and who decides these classifications anyway?

I have perused websites discussing the differences, and am not convinced, as some suggest, that a mystery involving something that has already happened can not also be a suspense thriller, where the reader is in fact on the edge of his or her seat waiting for the killer to be stopped. Or waiting to see who the killer is going to kill next.

I don't like the analogy often provided that trying to figure out who put the bomb on the bus is a mystery, but watching while someone puts the bomb on the bus and waiting to see if the bus is going to blow up before the hero gets there is a thriller. Wouldn't it be a mystery/thriller if you combined the two?

Ultimately I guess it doesn't matter whether a book is a thriller, a cozy, hardboiled, or even, (gasp) un-label-able, as long as the people who read it like it. My only problem is trying to describe a book accurately enough to make sure the audience who will probably enjoy it will know it's something they will probably enjoy.

So what is a thriller?


Barbara said...

I'm afraid this is that marketing tool of putting everything in a box. We now have dozens of genres/subgenres/crossgenres and marketers (for both movies and books) want everything to fit inside a category. Now some categories have acquired meanings of their own, like "thriller" (for me it's the, btw ;-)). Others are still blurry. I don't know how to categorize mine - fantasy, but? Still people need those categories to put books on shelves. Sigh. I'm guessing the book blurb should give an idea of the genre/subgenre/crossgenre and then let the reader decide if he's interested or not...

Lesa said...

It's getting really difficult to classify these books, Holli. No wonder I don't know how to pick sub-genres for the chapter I'm writing for genreflecting. I'll be interested to see what you say about The End Game after you read it.

Lesa -

Holli said...

Barbara and Lesa, thanks for the input. I hate classifying, labeling, and categorizing, mainly because it strikes me as limiting, but as far as marketing goes, it may serve a purpose.

Then again, how many readers do we lose if we put our books into subgenres, and perhaps a reader may have bought the book and enjoyed it if we hadn't?

Lesa, I'll definitely let you know what I think after I read The End Game.