Many of us who write about murder and mayhem aren’t eager to put neat little labels on our books, and we use the all-inclusive term “crime fiction” more often than any other.
Labels are important to publishers, though, and to readers who want to know in advance what they’re getting, so the debate about the difference between mysteries and thrillers continues. Last week at the Virginia Literary Festival, I was part of a panel that tossed out some old definitions and debated new ones.
We were a diverse group: Katherine Neville (our panel moderator) and Irene Ziegler write what’s called literary thrillers; Brad Parks writes books that combine comedy and mystery with suspense elements; David Robbins writes novels with lots of action and global stakes; and I write books that have been called mysteries, suspense, and thrillers.
A lot of people cling to the old definitions: a mystery is about discovering who committed the crime; a thriller is about trying to prevent something terrible from happening; a mystery has a limited setting and cast and smaller, personal stakes, while a thriller is set on a broad stage and the stakes are national or global. But those simplistic definitions apply to very few books being published now. Yes, cozies are pure mysteries. Some books, such as David Robbins’s war-and-action novels, are pure thrillers. Most of today’s crime fiction, though, blends elements of several subgenres into a new sort of hybrid.
The term “thriller” is widely misused by the marketing people at publishing houses in the hope that it will increase the sales of any book carrying the label. (Not too long ago“A Novel of Suspense” was the favored label for any book that had a crime in it.) I’ve grown used to reading “thrillers” that turn out to be plodding, decidedly unthrilling courtroom dramas in which the story is told not through action but through endless pages of Q&A between witnesses and lawyers. I don’t think publishers are helping themselves or their authors with this kind of mislabeling.
Readers of crime fiction are more sophisticated and demanding than ever, and if they’re choosing books from the broad selection that lies between cozies and pure action thrillers, they expect enough suspense to hold their attention, and they want fully developed characters they can love and worry about. “Tension on every page” has become a mantra among crime fiction authors, whether they’re writing about police investigations or a woman trying to escape a stalker. Forget about long passages of witty dialogue or beautiful description. Keep the plot moving or you’ll lose readers who have been trained to be impatient by the brief, punchy scenes on TV shows.
My personal reading preferences don’t run to stories in which the fate of the world is at stake. I’m more readily engaged by a single compelling character whose survival – physical or psychological – is threatened. The most engrossing book I’ve read in recent memory was Before I Go to Sleep, a stunning first novel by S.J. Watson, which is told entirely through the viewpoint of a woman who has lost her memory and gradually comes to suspect that her whole life is a lie. The book is called a thriller. It’s also a mystery. It is “literary” in the sense that’s it’s beautifully written and insightful. And it’s loaded with almost unbearable suspense. Yet I’m sure readers who prefer a lot of action would find it slow and dull and would feel misled by the thriller label.
The labels won’t go away, because publishers think they need them, but I believe they’ve become useless to many readers. If you’re familiar with an author’s work, you know what to expect and will disregard the label in any case. If the writer is new to you, look at the story summary and read a few pages to get a sense of the book’s tone. Don’t avoid a book because it’s labeled a thriller and you “never read thrillers” – meaning you don’t like books about vast conspiracies or government intrigue. Chances are the jacket copy and a quick read of a few pages will reveal the novel to be a hybrid, a mystery/suspense/thriller story. In other words, crime fiction.