January 12 – 18: “Have the lines blurred too much between thrillers and mysteries?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Have the lines blurred too much between thrillers and mysteries? This week ITW Members Bill Loehfelm, Jeanne Matthews, Thomas Perry, L. T. Graham, Lisa Von Biela, Jerry Hatchett and Jean Heller share their insights into this important distinction between two of literature’s most popular genres.


Where the Bones cover revealJeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mystery series including BONES OF CONTENTION, BET YOUR BONES, BONEREAPERS, and HER BOYFRIEND’S BONES. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, the author currently lives in Renton, Washington.



hellerMost of Jean Heller’s career was as an investigative and projects reporter and editor in New York City, Washington, D.C. and St. Petersburg Florida. Her career as a novelist began in the 1990s with the publication of the thrillers, “Maximum Impact” and “Handyman” by St. Martin’s Press. Then life intervened and postponed her new book, “The Someday File,” to publication in late 2014. Jean has won the Worth Bingham Prize, the Polk Award, and is an eight-time Pulitzer Prize nominee.

devils workBill Loehfelm is the author of five novels, including The Devil in Her Way, and The Devil She Knows, the first two books in the Maureen Coughlin crime fiction series, as well as the stand-alones, Bloodroot, and Fresh Kills. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, the writer AC Lambeth, and plays drums in a rock-and-roll cover band. Look for Doing the Devil’s Work, the newest Maureen Coughlin novel, in January 2015.


stringThomas Perry is the bestselling author of twenty-two novels. His books have won a number of awards, including the Edgar, the Barry, and the Gumshoe. His METZGER’S DOG, STRIP, and THE INFORMANT were all New York Times Notable Crime Books.



Blockbuster coverLisa von Biela worked in Information Technology for 25 years, then dropped out to attend the University of Minnesota Law School, graduating magna cum laude in 2009. She now practices law in Seattle, Washington. Lisa began writing short, dark fiction just after the turn of the century. Her first publication appeared in The Edge in 2002. She went on to publish a number of short works in various small press venues, including Gothic.net, Twilight Times, Dark Animus, AfterburnSF, and more. She is the author of the novels The Genesis Code and The Janus Legacy, as well as the novella Ash and Bone.

SPACE-1MB-COVERJerry Hatchett grew up in the creatively fertile Mississippi Delta, and loves to craft thrilling tales that the reader can’t put down. He writes from near Houston, Texas.



Blue Journal_coverL. T. Graham is the pen name of a New England-based suspense writer who is the author of several novels. Graham is currently at work on the next Detective Anthony Walker novel.




  1. Labels are dangerous almost anywhere, at any time. When it comes to marketing novels, however, publishers and booksellers want to identity genres for marketing purposes. The real issue is confronted by the people charged with the responsibility of selling the books when they have to explain which shelf they should occupy. As for me, I have no issue when those boundaries are crossed, but it is a difficult game to play. Lee Child, best-selling author of the Jack Reacher series, once gave a wonderful explanation of the distinction between suspense and mystery, which I will paraphrase here—1) If a book begins with someone planting a bomb under a seat in a room, then leaves, we have suspense. We know who planted the explosive, but tension builds as the reader wonders when the device will ignite and who, if anyone, will be injured or killed. 2) If, on the other hand, the story begins with the explosion of the device, followed by police procedurals and an investigation into the event to determine who planted the mechanism, we have a mystery. The way the lines become blurred is if we take version 1, but do not disclose the identity of the villain, then follow with version 2, which leads us from suspense to mystery-solving. The real trick, then, is to blend in the elements of a thriller by adding other layers of suspense and action, rather than limit the story to the uncovering of the identity of the antagonist. Any number of talented writers manage to successfully combine the fun of mystery-solving with the excitement of a suspenseful thriller, and I am all for it!

  2. I like what L.T. Graham has said. It clarifies what we’re talking about. Genre designations like “thriller” or “mystery” are not intended to teach us anything about writing. They’re descriptive terms made up for the convenience of people who sell books. They allow agents, publishers, and bookstore employees a one-word way to give buyers a general idea of what’s for sale. The bookseller can put many books in the same section of the store and refer a customer to a trove of books he’ll probably like. That’s fine. It helps us all make a living. But inclusion in one category or another is not a badge of honor. It implies that all of the authors in that group are offering more or less the same product, with minor variations.

    A real compliment would be to say that a work is so original and unexpected that it doesn’t fit neatly into any existing category. If any living writer is going to be remembered in the future, it will be for those portions of his work that are really his–the ideas and inventions that wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t thought of them. Everything else is simply rewriting something we’ve seen before, and the one who wrote it first probably did it better.

    What a writer ought to be doing is telling the best original story he can in a way that reveals it most clearly and elegantly. After he’s finished, he may want to describe his book as a mystery or a thriller (As Graham says, much of the time the book is not one or the other, but has elements of both), or a crime novel, or a novel of suspense, or simply a novel. Or he may leave the labels to the people who find them useful. The author’s real business is to tell us a good story we haven’t heard before.

    Altering a story in order to make it fit more neatly into one genre or another is a misguided effort. All it accomplishes is to make a new book more like the ones already on the shelf.

  3. Excellent points made already! Personally, I especially enjoy books that are well-written but don’t necessarily fit cleanly under a single label. “Snow Falling on Cedars” comes to mind. What the heck is it? I can’t give it a single label–and that is what makes it great. It’s a crime story, a mystery, a courtroom drama, a love story, a historical novel, and more. It’s loaded with atmosphere and beautifully described setting. It really does it all–and does it well.

    I completely understand why novels need labels for marketing. At least in a bricks and mortar store, you have to put the product somewhere (electronically, you could classify a novel under multiple labels). But it is a dangerous thing. If a reader who really wants a pure thriller picks up a thriller/mystery hybrid, she may not like what she gets (not that it is badly written, just not her cup o’ tea). This can invite a less-than-stellar review online, not because the book is poorly written, but because it didn’t find its true target reader.

  4. The lines have blurred as writers stretch the limits and expectations of these categories. But one of the differences between a thriller and a traditional mystery is timing. The thriller’s antagonist has a plan — something that hasn’t yet been carried out, and will cause horror or disaster if it isn’t stopped. Adrenalin fuels the story as the sense of impending doom grows. The reader is kept in suspense, waiting to see what happens. The mystery usually begins with something that has already happened — a murder. The story unfolds as the detective seeks to identify the murderer and clues are revealed. The traditional mystery is less suspenseful and more like a puzzle. It relies on the tension that arises from the unresolved conflicts between and among the characters.

  5. In my mind, mysteries and thrillers are still pretty well separated. While some will disagree, I believe a distinguishing characteristic of the best thrillers is the fact that the reader knows more about the threat than does the protagonist. There need to be moments when the reader knows that the protagonist is entering a danger zone unaware. To be clichéd, the reader knows someone is waiting behind the door. The protagonist does not. This involves the reader, maybe even raises the heart rate a bit as the reader wants to warn the protagonist, “Hey, don’t go in there!”

    I don’t see mysteries as requiring elements like this. It’s fine for the protagonist and the reader to learn the salient facts and solve the puzzle together.

  6. Glad to be back for another week. Last week was fun.

    Some time ago, I heard a mystery set apart from a thriller this way: a mystery creates a character paid for his or her involvement in the plot, i.e., a police officer or a private detective, whose job it is to solve cases and whose training helps reach that goal. A thriller, on the other hand, drags an unsuspecting character into an adventure, and that character must use his or her wits, strength, and sometimes money, to resolve the situation. The thriller character is often in much more danger than the mystery character because the thriller character often has no real training for what’s to come and no organization for backup.

    As I write that, it sounds to me like a simplistic response to this week’s question. And yet, most of the mysteries and thrillers that come to mind do fit into those envelopes. One exception is the entertaining Reacher series by Lee Child. Yes, Reacher gets dragged into situations he doesn’t expect, but as a former military policeman, does have training for what’s to come. However, the Reacher books still fall more comfortably into my thriller envelope.

    A mystery exception would be the TV series, “Murder, She Wrote,” starring Angela Landsbury as Jessica Fletcher, a mystery writer and amateur detective. She was asked for help every week, but she was by no means a professional cop or PI.

    So there are exceptions, and probably a whole lot of them.

    While this is a very interesting topic to discuss, I wonder, really, how much difference does it make? To some people, I think, it means a lot.

    I have had potential buyers for my books ask me, “Mystery or thriller?” When I tell them it’s a thriller, they occasionally reply, “I only read mysteries.”

    So at a book signing some years ago, I asked a reader why she felt that way. She said mysteries were easier on her nerves, that thrillers were too tense for her.

    So I pointed her to the bookstore stacks where Agatha Christie and Robert B. Parker lived. I lost a sale, but she went away happy.

    I don’t consider the easing of barriers between mysteries and thrillers – if it’s happening at all – to be a problem of monumental proportions. As long as people are buying books, readers can call me a cookbook author if they want to.

  7. This is a tough distinction to make, and I thought I had good definitions of both until Jean and Jerry gave me more to think about. I guess for me a mystery is “who did it?” or “what really happened?” and a thriller is “what are you going to do about it?” But I’m not sure those definitions hold up to any test.

    Off the cuff, when I think thriller, I think Steve Berry, Dan Brown, or Daniel Silva type books – international conspiracy and intrigue. When I think mystery, I think Sue Grafton or other detective series like Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series. Thriller to me has a larger scale – but I don’t really have a basis for that thought!

    I agree that both terms are worth more as marketing terms then they are as terms for writers to define their books. I wouldn’t change my subject matter or content to suit one category or another. What shelf my books go on is a decision I’m comfortable letting booksellers make for me.

  8. Good point, Bill. Thanks.
    I would love to hear from some avid mystery & thriller readers as to how they would differentiate the two genres. What draws you to one over the other? It doesn’t have to be an either/or choice, I’d love to hear about it even if you make the slightest distinction.

  9. I had a conversation in the Seattle Mystery Bookshop just yesterday and the consensus was that a book can have elements of both a thriller and a mystery. In thrillers the menace may be more foreboding and the reality more stark. But mysteries can be atmospheric and suspenseful. The “blurred line” between the genres may only be a matter of intensity and degree.

  10. Jeanne, I should have known that someone with such an elegant first name would have an insightful thought. And I rather agree with you.

    I also think a lot of the fun in mysteries is trying to figure out, along with the detective, PI, whatever, who done it, why and how. The crime has happened, and the mystery is solving it.

    In thrillers, there is more suspense and danger, and the crime/plot is unfolding in the present. The suspense could emanate from the need to stop the crime from occurring, or at least stop it from happening again.

    All fun stuff to contemplate.

    Thanks for your input.

  11. Jean — Thanks for appreciating the “elegance” of those extra two letters at the end of my name, but I’m pronounced the same as you. And thanks to Bill, Thomas, L.T., Lisa and Jerry for expanding my ideas of what a thriller is. The question of who reads “only thrillers” and who reads “only mysteries” probably boils down to brain chemistry. Some people enjoy being scared, some don’t. Most of us authors stake out our own territory somewhere in between.

  12. I agree with Bill. I think another thing thrillers have in common is the scope of the menace. Mysteries seem to be more about whodunit, noting the singular there. The menace–and stakes–generally seem to be writ much larger in thrillers.

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