Defining the Genre
by Jenna Victoria
Recently, my husband and I visited a local Italian restaurant that features a popular, extensive gelato bar. I was amazed at the variety of flavors – more than 62 in all, bearing names such as Artic White, Batter Blast and Stracciatella (similar to chocolate chip). I had never tried gelato before – and when I queried the waitress about the taste, she shrugged and said “it’s like ice cream, but the flavor is different, more intense.”
What does this have to do with a blog post about mysteries? Well, it’s elementary, my dear Watson. We could offer the waitress’s exact same response in answer to the question, what is the difference between suspense and mystery? A suspense novel is like a mystery – but with a more intense, emotionally-driven flavor.
Famous filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock had the following explanation:
One of the simplest rules of thumb for describing the difference is -- a mystery novel (whodunit) elaborates on something that has already occurred in the past – e.g. a murder – and the author provides clues as to the identity of the perpetrator. In a suspense novel, there may be a murder in the past, but the emphasis is on the crime – the danger – the anticipation of something new happening to the hero or heroine, keeping the reader/viewer on the edge of their seats. I’ve also seen the term, “killer thrillers” apply to suspense.
I’ll paraphrase a succinct example from Hitchcock. Let’s say you show a scene where people are sitting at a table, having a conversation, and then a bomb placed under the table explodes. That’s fine - what results is fifteen seconds of surprise. The mystery unfolds with people trying to discover “whodunit.” However, if you show the reader/viewer the placement of the bomb ahead of time, and show the bomb’s timer set for 1 p.m., and then show the clock on the wall indicating it is 12:30 p.m. – well you now have a half hour of suspense for the reader/viewer as those people converse, versus fifteen seconds of surprise.
Who are top authors in each genre? I could equate the number of top mystery authors with those gelato varieties – too many to list! However, there are some worthy of special mention – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, anything by Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Ross MacDonald and Dorothy L. Sayers. More on the contemporary side, we have Rita Mae Brown, John Grisham, Sue Grafton, and Tom Clancy.
On the suspense side, there are authors who consistently deliver – Lawrence Block, Stephen Hunter, Ken Follett, Scott Turow, and James Rollins. My two favorite suspense authors are part of a team – Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Their series featuring FBI special agent Aloysius Xingu L. Pendergast is first rate.
In Christian fiction, over the past few years, the suspense genre has seen an explosion of grittier, more suspense-driven books on the shelves. Here is an excellent resource to find Christian suspense books: http://www.thesuspensezone.com
I have followed authors such as Kate Charles and PD James, who feature Anglican/Episcopal themes (I recall The Snares of Death, A Drink of Deadly Wine, and Appointed to Die were very good). Here is a link for these types of mysteries:
In the end, it is said that a great mystery stimulates our minds, while a great suspense story stimulates our emotions. Both have their place in the world of mystery genres – which is why my to be read pile contains an equal number of both.
Jenna Victoria is an East-Coast based aspiring novelist whose articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers. She is currently writing an inspirational romantic suspense series, and serves as President of Faith, Hope and Love, the inspirational romance chapter of Romance Writers of America. She is also a member of ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) and My Book Therapy.