What’s the difference between a mystery (or whodunit), and a thriller or a novel of suspense?

A dear old friend of mine recently read THE CUTTING and commented that he loved the book, loved the characters, and loved the suspense. Said it kept him on the edge of the seat and couldn’t wait for McCabe#2 (THE CHILL OF NIGHT-which comes out June 22nd…more about that later). However, he said, he had one problem.  He knew who the bad guy was pretty early on in the game. Why did I give it way?

I responded that my reason was that THE CUTTING was more of a suspense thriller than a mystery or whodunit.  “What’s the difference?” he asked, “I thought they were pretty much the same thing.”

Looking at emails I’ve received since THE CUTTING came out last summer, I discovered there’s a fair amount of confusion on this issue.  While there’s no official answer, here’s an unofficial answer or at least my own personal opinion.

A mystery, according to Hayman, depends on the hero solving an intellectual puzzle that leads him to discover “Whodunit.”  Action is often minimal.  The sleuth is seldom, if ever, in physical danger and the reader is kept guessing until the end.  Reader satisfaction is derived from guessing the answer before the sleuth does or, failing that, enjoying the unraveling of the mystery and going back to look over the subtle clues the author sprinkled in along the way. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is, of course, the progenitor of many of the best sleuths out there. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are also among the earliest and most famous.

A thriller or novel of suspense keeps the readers interest by ratcheting up the action and putting someone’s life in imminent danger.  Sometimes it’s the hero. Sometimes it’s an innocent by stander or potential victim.  What’s kept so many readers glued to THE CUTTING  is the awful suspense of the ticking clock, not knowing whether McCabe can save poor Lucinda Cassidy from a horrible death before time runs out.  That kind of tension definitely makes THE CUTTING much more of a thriller than a mystery.

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and John Sandford’s Prey novels are examples of other books that are thrillers much more than mysteries.

Needless to say there’s a lot of overlap and many books blend a little of both.  Mine do.  But, going forward, readers can expect most of the books in the Mike McCabe series, like THE CUTTING and the upcoming THE CHILL OF NIGHT,  will fall firmly into the thriller camp.

Hope that helps to clear up the issue.

One Response to “What’s the difference between a mystery (or whodunit), and a thriller or a novel of suspense?”

  1. Prem Rao Says:

    Thanks, Mr. Hayman, for the explanation. I was relieved to hear you say that there is a lot of overlap. My soon to be published debut novel “It Can’t Be You” has a very interesting proposition. It has elements of mystery but is really a psychological thriller. The various characters battle each other more by emotion than by action triggering a spiral of vengeance.

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