Mystery Versus Thriller: How to Tell the Difference

Posted by September 27th, 2013

Quite often, I walk over to Nevena‘s desk at the Book Country offices to ask her what genre a certain book is, such as NIGHT WATCH by Linda Fairstein, which I’ve been reading this week. NIGHT WATCH is one of Fairstein’s Alex Cooper novels: murder mysteries starring a Manhattan District Attorney who specializes in sexual assaults. Seems like it would be pretty easy to figure that one out: Alex is investigating a case, the main characters work in law enforcement . . . it’s a police procedural, right?

Not so fast. Nevena, having fastidiously read her “genre bible” (THE READERS’ ADVISORY GUIDE TO GENRE FICTION by Joyce G. Saricks), needs to know much more information about a book before she can make her final judgment on what genre it is. Once we chat about the book for a while, Nevena deems NIGHT WATCH a legal thriller. Here are some of the major deciding factors when you are trying to decide whether a book is Mystery versus Thriller:


mystery Thrillers, even literary thrillers, tend to have short, simple titles: NIGHT FILM, GONE GIRL, THE HARD WAY, THE FINAL CUT. The titles tell us the story is fast-paced and to the point. Mysteries, on the other hand, often have more complicated or lyrical titles: THE AMERSHAM RUBIES, WHOM THE GODS LOVE, and THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY (Alexander McCall Smith has the BEST titles, IMHO!). Cozy mysteries in particular are given to very whimsical titles like DO OR DINER (of the Comfort Food series by Catherine Wenger) and MURDER AT THE PTA by Laura Alden. NIGHT WATCH–two punchy, easily articulated syllables–is a perfect title, then, for a thriller.


recent thrillers

Fairstein’s NIGHT WATCH has an orange-y red cover and thick, bold text, and this is another way that publishers communicate that a book is a thriller. Those rich colors and strong text connote a fast-paced story of danger and adrenaline. Some mysteries, particularly those books aimed for a male audience, also use these types of graphics, but many mysteries (like the cozies featured on the blog on Wednesday and last week), forgo such cover design in favor of softer tones or stylized, sophisticated artwork to enhance other elements of the book, such as literary or historical elements.

Jacket Copy

If I’d looked a little closer, I’d have found a Booklist blurb on the inside cover of NIGHT WATCH that calls author Linda Fairstein “the legal thriller master.” That right there tells me that this is a thriller, of course. Publishers are very clear about the distinction, because they want to make sure that the reader know what genre the book is. Mystery readers will often find the word “mystery” on the jacket or the spine of the book–it’s not a bad idea to be very, very clear about this. Book marketers know this. Even in genre-bending books like the historical mystery MAISIE DOBBS, you’ll find genre “clues” (pardon the pun) like “sleuth” and “private investigator” in the summary of the book on the back cover.

What’s driving the story?

The covers of thrillers have supercharged colors and bold text because thriller fiction itself needs to be supercharged and bold. The fantastic slow-burn quality in mysteries like MAISIE DOBBS and THE MAN FROM BERLIN (which we featured on the blog yesterday) is replaced in thrillers by the equally wonderful narrative drive of the protagonist running from danger. As Brandi put it: “A book about tracking a serial killer on the loose is a mystery; a book about being chased by a serial killer is a thriller.” In fact, Nevena’s “genre bible” says that Mystery is an “intellect genre”–the fun part of a mystery is figuring out the puzzle.

There is some overlap here. In NIGHT WATCH, for instance, Alex Cooper is a detective searching for a murderer, mulling over clues, and methodically going through the evidence. And in THE MAN FROM BERLIN, main character Gregor Reinhardt is certainly opening himself up to grave personal danger by pursuing a killer who may or may not be powerful in the Nazi regime.


In a thriller, the reader sometimes knows who the culprit is fairly early on in the story. Often the thriller is about the protagonist trying to stop the bad guy from doing it again. But in a mystery, you never know who the culprit is right away–the whole point of reading mystery is discovering whodunnit!


So what does this mean to the Book Country writer?

Genre-bending and genre-blending are a writer’s right, and I’d never encourage anyone to box themselves into something that didn’t feel quite right for their book. But as you work toward writing your best book–and finding an audience for that book–it’s a good idea to start thinking about your book on the bookstore shelf (whether that’s the shelf of a brick and mortar bookstore or the “digital” shelf of an online retailer). The Genre Map can help you figure out what genre your book is, and using Landmark Titles will help you see how other authors have managed to successfully package their book so that readers of that genre will be able to find it on a bookstore shelf amongst the other titles they’ve read and loved.

Readers figure out the genre of a book in the manner I describe above, starting with the title, the cover, and then delving into the story. But as writers, we move in the opposite direction: we start by analyzing the elements of our story to decide what the most reader-attractive package will be, ending with a title, a cover, and jacket copy that sends a clear message to booksellers and readers. It’s all part of a process of writing, revising, and marketing a book so that it can find an audience.

Book Country members are working through figuring this out on the Discussion Boards. Check out WIP manuscripts like THE FIFTH LEFT FOOT, BLOOD & CANDY, THE LIONESS IN WINTER, and other Book Country thrillers and mysteries to see how each is finding their genre identity. How are you doing the same for your own book?

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One thought on “Mystery Versus Thriller: How to Tell the Difference

  1. Nancy Lynn Jarvis

    Don’t forget the body in the body in the first chapter, graphic sex and violence off-page, no harsh language, and most importantly, an amateur sleuth. My Regan McHenry Real Estate Mysteries may have harder edged covers, but as a disappointed reader who doesn’t like cozies said on Amazon, “The book was a cozy!”


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