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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:

Titles

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.

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