Monday, January 7, 2013

Is it Mystery or Suspense?

“I knew who the killer was from the start.”

That's fine, especially if the author meant for you to know.

I’ve read that and similar comments on Amazon reviews or on Goodreads often enough I thought it might be good to talk about the mystery and suspense genres here. 

I’m sure my suspense sisters will agree that while the two genres can be clearly defined, often one will cross into the other and the lines are blurred.

The Camera Never Lies is a cozy mystery that I wrote in 2009. I’d never written a cozy mystery so I had to make sure I knew exactly what the editor was looking for, and what defined a cozy mystery. Of course, mysteries and cozy mysteries have differences as well, but for the purpose of this article, I’m going to keep this all very general.

A cozy mystery usually includes a murder at the beginning of the story, and we follow the clues along with the main character who is an amateur sleuth. Almost everyone in the story is a suspect. I had a lot of fun writing Camera, as I call it, because often cozies are a little quirky, and in this case the editor was looking for just that.

In general, mysteries are often called a whodunit because the focus of the story is discovering who committed the crime, be it a murder or some other offense. In the case of a whodunit, we don’t know who the villain is until the end of the story.

In Camera, the murder was committed at the end of chapter one. We don’t see the murder, but we help Polly follow the clues to find the killer.

Now, onto suspense. Let’s be clear, a suspense novel can and will certainly include mystery elements. But we can also know who the killer is or where the threat is coming from, and the story is about stopping the event or threat from happening.

Mystery is after the event.

Suspense is before.

See the difference?

Take Camera for instance. If I had written Camera as a suspense instead of a mystery, Polly’s life would be threatened, and the rest of the story would be about her and Spencer (her romantic interest) trying to keep her safe, stop the threat or killer, or even discover who exactly the killer is before he takes her life. Yes, we can have that mystery element in the story, but in a suspense it’s OKAY to know who our villain is from the start. In that case, it might be the author’s intention that the reader know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

That is the case in my romantic suspense Treacherous Skies. We know very near the beginning who the bad guy is because the story isn't about solving a mystery, it's about trying to stay alive.  

You night wonder what’s the point in reading the story if you already know who the villain is. The tension comes in reading how the protagonist makes his way through the obstacles and saves the day.

Take James Bond. You might not have read the novels, but you’re familiar with the movies. We know who the villain is from the start, or very near the start, and the story is full of tension and action and our emotional experience derives from seeing how Bond brings the villain down.

Again, this is a general summary, because there are many other nuances and overlapping genres like historical suspense and in the case of Suspense Sisters: ROMANTIC SUSPENSE. 

I hope this helps!


Elizabeth Goddard


  1. Great post, Beth! :)

    It's nice to hear terms and genres cleared up like this. Much appreciated!


  2. Thanks Morgan! I look forward to seeing you SOON.


  3. Beth: great summary. "Mystery is after the event, suspense is before." And, in my mind, a thriller is one that raises an occasional goose bump. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Richard,

    Of course thriller is also a kind of suspense depending on who's definition you're reading, but I hesitated getting into all the complicated possibilities in this post. :)

    I've sometimes seen books lose points on their ratings because someone knew who the killer was in the beginning and that stinks when they were actually SUPPOSED to know.

    Clarification is always good.

  5. I liked your concise definitions! I KNEW them but I didn't "know" them - you know what I mean????!!!! I'm been reading both types of books for years and it's nice to know the difference! I like both kinds of books equally. They are different yet equally good! Thanks for the "lesson"!

  6. I actually didn't know there was a difference. Thanks for this tip. Now I can read and know that I'm supposed to know who the bad guy is. I was getting discouraged because I thought it was too "easy" to figure out the bad guy, when all along I was supposed to! Thanks again!

  7. What a great post, Elizabeth. I think a lot of people are confused by these differences, and you made it very clear!

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  9. I'm really glad you shared this. I read both genres and blurred the lines. I often wondered what the difference would be. Blessings, Susan Fryman