The Mystery, Crime, and Thriller Group discussion

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General Chat > In your opinion, what is the difference between mystery and suspense?

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message 1: by Elizabeth (Alaska) (last edited Jul 12, 2011 08:02AM) (new)

Elizabeth (Alaska) To me, the major difference is which side of the law the story is told from. Yes, suspense is often told by the "good guys", but the good guys often break every law in the book, and you also usually know who the bad guys are. But every book makes me think or I don't finish it. Literature makes you think, regardless of genre.


message 2: by Karendenice (new)

Karendenice Ken, I love your description.


message 3: by aprilla (new)

aprilla Ken wrote: "By any chance, has anyone here come across a good article in the internet differentiating the two?"

Hitchcock describes suspense well
There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise", and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these same conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it's about to explode!" In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.



message 4: by Rachel (last edited Aug 01, 2011 02:34PM) (new)

Rachel Cotterill (rachelcotterill) Mystery: something has happened, let's find out who/why/how!

Suspense: oh no, something bad is going to happen, I can't look! (but I'm morbidly fascinated and can't look away, either)

That's my 2p :) Of course, you can have both in the same novel.


message 5: by Laurin (new)

Laurin (laurinlooloo) Mystery - people are trying to find out how something happened (i.e. a murder, kidnapping, etc.)

Suspense - can happen in any type of story. You're just left hanging until more details are revealed.


message 6: by Jill (last edited Aug 01, 2011 08:08PM) (new)

Jill Hutchinson (bucs1960) Aprilla.....that was a great description by Hitchcock. He used that method in the 1936 film "Sabotage", where the young boy was carrying a bomb on a bus.....suspenseful because we knew he had the bomb.

In mystery stories, there is usually a main character that is trying to find the answer to a crime that has happened early in the story. In suspense stories, the crime or incident may not happen until late in the story but we know that it might happen. Mysteries usually have a puzzle, suspense seldom does. Does any of that make sense?


message 7: by Britney (new)

Britney (tarheels) | 125 comments Laurin wrote: "Mystery - people are trying to find out how something happened (i.e. a murder, kidnapping, etc.)

Suspense - can happen in any type of story. You're just left hanging until more details are revealed."


I agree


message 8: by Diane S ☔ (new)

Diane S ☔ | 76 comments In the library they say books are classified as mysteries if there is a dead body, someone murdered or dying in suspicious circumstances, but there must be a body. In suspense that is not neccesarily so, it can be computer crime or terrorism, anyway that's the criteria we use when cataloguing books.


message 9: by Lobstergirl (new)

Lobstergirl Yes, the importance of the dead body. Don't you hate it when you're 2/3 of the way through a mystery and there hasn't been a murder yet?


message 10: by Steve (new)

Steve Robinson (steverobinson) | 10 comments My first post in the group - apart from my introduction piece in authors corner.

It's the mystery that keeps us hooked on a story. Suspense is where we as readers can see it coming before the characters and we fear for them.


message 11: by Nick (new)

Nick Wastnage (nickwastnage) | 32 comments I agree there is a technical difference between mystery and suspense, but books can contain both elements. For example, an event occurs in mysterious, unexplained circumstances that becomes the catalyst for a narrative full of suspense. Then, as the plot develops both mystery and suspense remain. There's mystery in how it will all end and who are the guilty parties and suspense in the evil deeds that occur.


message 12: by Beth (new)

Beth | 408 comments Lobstergirl wrote: "Yes, the importance of the dead body. Don't you hate it when you're 2/3 of the way through a mystery and there hasn't been a murder yet?"

I agree! Get that body on the floor and be quick about it.


message 13: by T (new)

T (twoo) | 18420 comments How about "whodunnit?" (or "wha'happened?!") versus "uh oh, what's going to happen bext?!" as you're reading it.

Mind you, I've only had 1.5 cups of coffee so far this morning....


message 14: by Laurin (new)

Laurin (laurinlooloo) Lobstergirl wrote: "Yes, the importance of the dead body. Don't you hate it when you're 2/3 of the way through a mystery and there hasn't been a murder yet?"

Absolutely! I hate when an author spends 7/8 of the book with mindless details, then shoves the murder/investigation/resolution in the last 1/8. That drives me bonkers!


message 15: by Collin (new)

Collin Kelley | 15 comments The novel I just finished writing is being classified as mystery/suspense. For me, suspense is when there is an impending action -- a murder, an explosion, some plot-altering event -- that will change the characters and their lives.


message 16: by Toni (new)

Toni (tonidwig) | 19 comments I like to be engaged on both levels.

Finding out whodunit--and there should be plenty of twists to keep me trying to figure it out.

Finding out why it matters--I need to care about the people, and worry about what's going to happen to them, which I guess qualifies as suspense.

So Hitchcock's bomb under the table should (ideally, for me) set up the mystery of who planted it and why, and the suspense of is there going to be another bomb, or worse, and who is at risk.


message 17: by T (new)

T (twoo) | 18420 comments Laurin wrote: "Lobstergirl wrote: "Yes, the importance of the dead body. Don't you hate it when you're 2/3 of the way through a mystery and there hasn't been a murder yet?"

Absolutely! I hate when an author spe..."


Ah, the "dead body" test....If there isn't a body in x amount of time, how good can it be?


message 18: by M. (new)

M. Myers (mruth) | 100 comments I'll come at it from a different angle. In a suspense novel the reader may know early on who the "villain" is and the challenge is to stop him or catch him. In a mystery, the reader doesn't know who did the evil deed (murder or otherwise, though stakes of course escalate) until a final confrontation.


message 19: by Gerrie (new)

Gerrie Finger (goodreadscomgerrieferrisfinger) | 11 comments A mystery is who, what, when, where why. Suspense is all of that but there's an element of fear overlaying the action. The hero/heroine is investigating the murder; the murderer doesn't want them to find out, so he's stalking, planning to stop them. I don't Miss Marple ever felt in fear of her life for seeking the murderer.


message 20: by M. (new)

M. Myers (mruth) | 100 comments I think a mystery is often more more cerebral, and may delve into the human condition. A thriller tends toward pulse-pounding pace. Of course I love it when a mystery incorporates some of that chew-the-nails pace as well!


message 21: by Elli (new)

Elli | 228 comments Does there really have to be a categorized difference from the reading and interest standpoint. Somehow I think the balance of the elements in the story makeup count for more. Mystery is a category to me and it can interrelate with most any other major category. Suspense is more of an emotion or a feeling brought out within a larger category for me. It could be in "what is that murderous stalker going to do next, and when Will they find...?" Or "Queen Mary has really gone overboard now, and just what is she going to push next to get everyone to follow her overbearing religious dictates..."


message 22: by Marja (new)

Marja McGraw (marja1) | 107 comments Ah, the "dead body" test....If there isn't a body in x amount of time, how good can it be?

Sometimes it can be pretty good. I've read books that built up to the murder. The story either made you hate or love the victim, but I have to admit the crime took place before the halfway point of the book.

And here's another thought. I've read mysteries where there was no murder at all.



message 23: by Walter (new)

Walter Ramsay | 4 comments A good writer can make things suspenseful even when you know where he's headed. A mystery is just that, a mystery. You never know


message 24: by Toby (last edited Sep 13, 2011 06:35AM) (new)

Toby | 20 comments For me a mystery is where something has already happened, a suspense where the reader believes something bad is going to happen.


message 25: by Sandra (new)

Sandra | 234 comments Lots of really greats here! All I know is that I love mystery & suspense!


message 26: by Nick (new)

Nick Wastnage (nickwastnage) | 32 comments Good thread this.
Read the comment about no dead body after three quarters of the book has been read. If that's so, I get the feeling that when the murder happens it's going to be either very dramatic and gruesome or it's going to happen to someone I hadn't expected it too. In situations like that, I'd call it a suspense and mystery story.


message 27: by Susan (new)

Susan | 69 comments Mystery has to have something to figure out or solve while suspense doesn't necessarily have to contain a mystery. Suspense just needs to have action or keep you on the edge of your seat.


message 28: by Priya (new)

Priya (priyavasudevan) | 25 comments Beth wrote: "Lobstergirl wrote: "Yes, the importance of the dead body. Don't you hate it when you're 2/3 of the way through a mystery and there hasn't been a murder yet?"

I agree! Get that body on the floor a..."


I agree- I believe that all mysteries should have suspense but there can be thrillers without the mystery Middle Time by Priya vasudevan


message 29: by Brian (new)

Brian January (brianjanuary) | 40 comments That's a good article--it pretty much sums things up!


message 30: by Charles (new)

Charles NYKen wrote: "I came across this great article online. I just thought I'd share it with everyone here, as it pertains to the topic:

http://www.mysterynet.com/books/testi..."


I notice the author of this good piece uses "thriller" and "suspense thriller" interchangeably. This doesn't seem quite right to me. Nor does the conflation of Hitchock's idea of suspense, which it seem to me could apply to stories which I would be reluctant to call thrillers. Likewise "action thriller" -- a sort of story which frequently lacks suspense of any but the simplest sort, but depends on other conventions, like the previously noted requirement that there be a confrontation between the secondary hero and villain, and then the primary pair. We wait for this, but I wouldn't call it suspense. As for the difference between thrillers (of any type) and mysteries, I think the writer has hit on most of the points. All the significant differences revolve around the detective, usually not present in a thriller. (There are thrillers involving detection, of course, but the person doing the investigating will pretty quickly into the plot be working for himself to protect himself -- an action hero.)


message 31: by Charles (new)

Charles Toby wrote: "For me a mystery is where something has already happened, a suspense where the reader believes something bad is going to happen."

This is a really important point. The detective is a shaman, a person with dangerous knowledge, who is not lightly invoked. In order to do so, there must be a disruptive event, usually a murder, which requires to be neutralized, something only the shaman can do. The crime creates the detective, in effect. (In some stories this is literally true -- Robbe-Grillet's The Erasers is a famous example) When the murder occurs in the first chapter, as in a Poirot novel, we don't get any time to develop a bond with the victim. To the contemporary reader this rather reduces the shock of the crime, and thus the seriousness of the invocation of the detective. (When it's really spun out I think what is going on is that a secondary suspense plot is being created inside the mystery -- a curious hybrid.)


message 32: by Richard (last edited Jun 10, 2012 01:24AM) (new)

Richard (richard-snow) | 18 comments The difference was explained to me by an experienced author (Gene Riehl) who read the first 50 pages my first attempt at novel writing. He said, "This novel cannot work as you have it. In a mystery the evil action (e.g. a murder) has usually taken place when the book opens, and the good guys spend the book figuring out who did it. In a thriller (suspense) , you meet the bad guys early, see how truly bad they are and what they're planning. The good guys often know the bad guys are planning something but don't know exactly what, where, when or how. But they have to figure out what it is, and prevent it, preferably with a few minutes to spare before the end of the book." He told me my book had two separate plot strands - one mystery and one thriller, and it couldn't be both. He said "decide which one you want and rip the other one out." I stuck with the thriller plot line. It hurt, but was one of the best bits of advice I ever got. I classify most of John le Carre's writing as thrillers (even though the bad guys often get to carry out the bad deed) because you generally don't know what they are going to do until close to the end (e.g. Absolute Friends). An exception might be le Carre's The Constant Gardener, because the murder of Tessa Quail has occurred before the book began.


message 33: by Charles (new)

Charles Richard wrote: "The difference was explained to me by an experience author (Gene Riehl) who read the first 50 pages my first attempt at novel writing. He said, "This novel cannot work as you have it. In a mystery ..."

Sounds like you got good advice. My only qualification is that the opening murder is a convention of the English Classic and a sometime practice of the contemporary Neo-Classic, but not by any means required. Of course, you can't just hang readers out to wait.


message 34: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Maya (mayaswords) | 0 comments When I looked at my recommended books at GRs I found out that the ones I thought were pychological mysteries where really suspense thrillers. Does anyone have any idea what catorgory my faves, the pychological authors such as Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, Frances Fyfield and Jonathon Kellerman fall into. thanks aloha


message 35: by [deleted user] (new)

I think we're talking about formulaic difference now, mostly. I like a bit of suspense in my mystery, and a bit of mystery in my suspense. There are stock ways of doing these things: the hunter becomes the hunted, say, or the hapless amateur caught up in the thriller plot has to solve a puzzle in order to save himself. I don't know that it's worth making a hard, fast distinction, really--but I've always liked a hybrid.


message 36: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Maya (mayaswords) | 0 comments Yes, a hybrid is good, but what matters to me is what Toni and M said. If the characters are important to me and the author writes well and has a good plot I am happy. If I don't like the victim or the detective, I can't get into it no matter what. I recently got into The Brutal Telling (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #5) by Louise Penny and Penny's other books which feature unusual minor and major characters and a lot of good food. I like that. The plot aint bad either


message 37: by Charles (last edited Jun 23, 2012 12:03PM) (new)

Charles Here's a link to a You-tube commentary by Alfred Hitchcock on mystery and suspense. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Xs111... (aprilla covered this ground early on.) Hitch says they are completely unrelated. Mystery is an intellectual process. Suspense is emotional. (NYKen, first post.) They can co-exist, of course. What do you think of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes? Does the one enhance the other? Or do they operate separately? Could we have the one without the other? Personally, I greatly dislike suspense, and usually begin at the end to destroy it. The one interferes with the other. Nabokov felt the same way.


message 38: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Maya (mayaswords) | 0 comments Charles wrote: "Here's a link to a You-tube commentary by Alfred Hitchcock on mystery and suspense. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Xs111... (aprilla covered this ground early on.) Hitch says they a..."
interesting comment, I have to ruminate on this question. I will check out the link Thanks


message 39: by Alexandra (new)

Alexandra Sokoloff (alexandrasokoloff) | 7 comments For me, the difference is that mystery is a more intellectual experience and suspense is a more visceral/sensual one. Mystery invites the intellectual pleasure of solving a puzzle. Suspense gives you the adrenaline rush of fear (and often the sexual rush that goes with that). I love both experiences, and actually prefer to have both in a book. (And I find mystery writers often think they're writing suspense when they're really not - there's no physical rush involved at all.)


message 40: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Maya (mayaswords) | 0 comments Diane wrote: "In the library they say books are classified as mysteries if there is a dead body, someone murdered or dying in suspicious circumstances, but there must be a body. In suspense that is not neccesari..."
Love libraries and librarians but I'm reading a Dorothy Sayers and there isn't a body yet half way through. Could her books be called suspense? Thanks


message 41: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Maya (mayaswords) | 0 comments Cliff wrote: "Very nice discussion here - so good I am left with nothing to add other than that I am enjoying it!"
Me too. People who love mysteries and thrillers and thrilling Aloha


message 42: by Charles (new)

Charles To turn the discussion a wee bit -- if a mystery is cerebral and a thriller is emotional, this goes a way to explaining why mysteries seem more complete or subtle as books and why the ideal medium for the thriller is the movies. We've kind of talked about suspense in books, but what exactly is a print thriller? Where is that kick in the stomach you get in the movies? Is this when you stay up all night with a book because have to know whether Harry Potter will be able to kill Voldemort? Can anyone name a book which is both a mystery and a thriller?


message 43: by Anjuthan (last edited Jun 27, 2012 09:56PM) (new)

Anjuthan (anjuthanm) NYKen wrote: "By any chance, has anyone here come across a good article in the internet differentiating the two?"

I think the definition given in the article at this link is perfect
excerpt from the article "In suspense novels the reader knows things the protagonist does not.
In mystery novels the reader is only given information and clues as the protagonist learns them."


Do read for a better idea. It differentiate "mytery, thriller and suspence" :)
http://www.nadinelapierre.com/blog/?p=26


message 44: by Joan (new)

Joan | 94 comments Sometimes in a suspense the protagonist may know who the bad guy is, for example if he's pursuing her with nothing good in mind. But in a mystery, the identity of the bad guy, the killer or whatever, is a mystery to the protagonist and sometimes to the reader. That usually holds true for me. In the book I just published, The Hierophant, I wasn't even sure who the killer was until I got near the end of the writing. I kept changing my mind. Then, of course, I had to go back and make sure all the clues, red herrings fit in. A daunting task.

Joan K. Maze, writing as J. K. Maze

Joan


message 45: by Bernie (new)

Bernie Dowling (beedeed) | 82 comments If you closely watch an Alfred Hitchcock movie you will know what the essence of suspense is. It is when the reader/ viewer and the villain know what is going on but the hero/ intended victim does not. In structure it is close to children's pantomime where the children know the hero is in danger from the villain but, every time the hero turns around at the children's exhortation, the villain has disappeared. It is hard to marry mystery and suspense because mystery relies on not knowing who the villain is and suspense relies on knowing. The late Reginald Hill, creator of Dalziel and Pascoe, was able to successfully marry the two forms. I believe few crime thrillers contain suspense. It is replaced by a series of puzzles solved before the ultimate puzzle is solved at the end.
Of course, I could be wrong.


message 46: by VickiLee (new)

VickiLee | 483 comments I simply swim in a befuddled pool of confusion, recognizing that I love them all while not really taking the time to define each one. Give me a splop of mystery and a swish of suspense, and I will be content. To me, no matter what the genre description, a good book is cerebral and emotional, and if we're lucky, intelligent enough to keep us enthralled.


message 47: by David (new)

David Freas (quillracer) | 2310 comments At a writers' conference a few years ago, one of the presenters defined the three as follows:

Mystery: What did happen in the past.

Thriller: What is happening now.

Suspense: What will happen in the future.


message 48: by [deleted user] (new)

Thanks Anuthan. That was a helpful article.

I've been thinking about this for quite some time before I posted here. How about this. In a good novel, mystery and suspense are married together. However, mystery is more a sense of links or clues, a need to discover a definite end result, while suspense is more like the atmosphere. You can be held in suspense in the circus while watching a tight rope walker, but it is no hidden agenda to work out. Suspense is the building of emotion, and it can be in any genre.


message 49: by Feliks (last edited Aug 22, 2015 10:34PM) (new)

Feliks (dzerzhinsky) A 'thriller' invokes excitement by dangerously upsetting something which we typically take for granted in our world as 'stable'. Thrillers are about our 'systems breaking down'. Safety, law, military defenses, health, religion, what-have-you. They amaze us by the brief depiction of events 'outside the system'. The narrative makes us sweat and itch until rule&order is 'put-back-in-place'.

This is easy to do when the fictional 'disruption' is about some chaos which can hypothetically reach out to us no matter where we are in the world (a plague? a missile?), so that even when we put the book down, that prospect continues to 'keep us on edge'. We need that 'outside-the-system' hero to save us.

Now, if the thriller has 'small scope' (say, a kidnapped child, something that is happening in someone else's household, not ours) then, the author must simply make us empathize so fully with the family so-as-to-make-this-domestic-crisis-'matter-to-us-as-well'.

A 'mystery' (as Raymond Chandler once described) is also a 'disruption of order', but in a different way.

Some 'morally wrong' deed (like a murder or theft) has occurred but this is a more 'placid' annoyance. It is over, it is done. Like a houseguest who has secretly left their tea-cup ring on your best table, it is something unsightly and ugly; but not dangerous (it doesn't threaten us...not unless more deaths continue occurring as the story moves forward).

What is happening in a mystery is that there is an interval between the foul deed and the natural expectation that the legal system will apprehend the murderer and hand down justice. One must follow the other, order must return. That's what we crave.

Delay creates an almost unbearable tension while we wait for the watchdogs of society to act. In that gap, is where 'the detective' enters. He must clear up all obfuscating information about how, where, when the deed occurred.

Chandler points out that young Adolf Hitler despised mystery stories. Why? Because he didn't believe in the automatic restoration of order by the forces of authority. He wanted a state of continuous national 'Walpurgisnacht'.

'People who don't like mysteries,' thus, Chandler observes, 'are anarchists!'

Now, here's where this all leads:

Thrillers are growing less powerful as the world grows more naturally chaotic. In a high-tech society which offers millions-of-ways-to-die-every-day, thrillers are losing their 'oooomph'.

Mysteries are growing less powerful as we lose faith in our legal system to deliver fair and swift justice. It becomes a 'parlor exercise'--unless the detective tracks down the culprit with the certainty that fearsome retribution is in his power.

Crime stories are growing less dramatic as society becomes less moral, less severe, less condemnatory; more 'vague' and 'ambivalent' as to right/wrong. Stirring crime tales don't have any impact when the characters appear to take retribution lightly.

What suspense can there be when characters take their crimes glibly, without genuine dread at the grave, inevitable, consequences they flout? The *tension* in characters as they weigh the possible hazards/consequences of their prospective misdeeds..this is what made Warner Bros studios 'top dog' in American cinema, for the crime/gangster genre.

In the 1930s-1950s--when justice in the USA was swift and terrible-- we had a 'golden age of crime drama'. Taboos make great storytelling. Bring back the electric chair if you want awesome suspense!


message 50: by Georgia (new)

Georgia | 536 comments Felix, you always do a good job of explaining things. Had to copy your answer here and will read it to my
Mystery and Mayhem book club. Thanks!


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