August 20 – 26: “How would you blend a mystery and a thriller?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5If a mystery is a tale about solving a crime while a thriller is about stopping one, how would you write a blend of the two? That’s the question posed to this week’s all-star lineup of ITW Members: James Hilton, Linda Bennett Pennell, Nick Kolakowski, Mysti Berry, Richard Mabry, David Simms, Frank Zafiro, Dave Zeltserman, R. J. Pineiro, Martin Roy Hill, Ellison Cooper, Arthur Kerns and Alex Lettau. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician, now writing “medical mystery with heart.” His novels have garnered critical acclaim and been finalists for ACFW’s Carol Award, both the Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year and Reviewer’s Choice Awards, the Inspirational Readers Choice, and the Selah Award. He is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, the International Thriller Writers, the Christian Authors Network, and Novelists Inc.


Linda Bennett Pennell has been in love with the past for as long as she can remember. Anything with a history, whether shabby or majestic, recent or ancient, instantly draws her in. It probably comes from being part of a large extended family that spanned several generations. Long summer afternoons on her grandmother’s porch or winter evenings gathered around the fireplace were filled with stories both entertaining and poignant. Of course, being set in the American South, those stories were also peopled by some very interesting characters, some of whom have found their way into Linda’s work.


Nick Kolakowski is the author of “Boise Longpig Hunting Club” (Down & Out Books) and “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps” (Shotgun Honey). His crime fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Crime Syndicate Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns, and various anthologies. He lives and writes in New York City.


Frank Zafiro was a police officer from 1993 to 2013. He is the author of more than 20 novels, mostly crime fiction, including the River City series and the Ania series. In addition to writing, Frank hosts the crime fiction podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime. He is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. He currently lives in Redmond, Oregon.



David Simms lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with his wife, son, and animals. He works as a teacher, counselor, music therapist, ghost tour guide, book reviewer, and founding guitarist in the Killer Thriller Band/Slushpile band. FEAR THE REAPER is his second novel.



Mysti Berry has short fiction published in many anthologies including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, should be published again in 2019 in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and just published a charity anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, with stories by Catriona McPherson, James W. Ziskin and many other talented writers. She lives in San Francisco with graphic novelist Dale Berry and three black rescue cats, and she’s looking forward to ThrillerFest 2019.


James Hilton lives in the rugged but beautiful North of England. He is currently working on the next book in the ‘Gunn Brothers Thriller’ series from Titan Books and also researching material for the first book in a new YA series. James trained in the martial arts since the age of 11 and is currently ranked as a 4th dan Blackbelt. His other passions include visiting Florida and the Caribbean, reading horror, suspense and action thrillers.


R. J. Pineiro is a thirty-year veteran of the computer industry as well as the author of many internationally acclaimed novels, including The Fall, Without Mercy, and Ashes of Victory. Pineiro makes his home in central Texas with his wife, Lory.



Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. A former national award-winning investigative journalist, Martin is now a military analyst.


Dave Zeltserman’s crime and horror thrillers have been picked by NPR, the Washington Post, American Library Association, Booklist, and WBUR as best novels of the year, and his short mystery fiction has won a Shamus, Derringer and two Ellery Queen Readers Choice awards. His Morris Brick thrillers written as Jacob Stone include DERANGED, CRAZED, MALICIOUS, TWISTED. His novel SMALL CRIMES has been made into a Netflix film starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.


Ellison Cooper has a Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA, with a background in archaeology, cultural neuroscience, ancient religion, colonialism, and human rights. She has conducted fieldwork in Central America, West Africa, Micronesia, and Western Europe. She has worked as a murder investigator in Washington DC, and is a certified K9 Search and Rescue Federal Disaster Worker. She now lives in the Bay Area with her husband and son.


In March 2013 Diversion Books Inc. released the acclaimed espionage thriller The Riviera Contract, followed by the sequel, The African Contract. The Yemen Contract was released in June 2016. Arthur Kerns joined the FBI with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. On retirement, he became a consultant with a number of US agencies, including the Department of State. His lengthy assignments took him to over 65 countries.


Alex Lettau is the pen name of Ludwig Alexander Lettau MD, a former medical epidemiologist with the CDC’s Division of Viral Diseases and current infectious disease specialist in Charleston SC where he lives with his wife Lisa, two daughters, and a Bouvier. His special interest as an author is infection-related medical thrillers. In his Indie award-winning thriller Yellow Death, the protagonist Kris Jensen becomes accidentally infected with an unknown lethal hepatitis virus and has only five days left to find answers to its origin.


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  1. To start with, I’m not certain about the definitions of “mystery” and “thriller.” Oh, I know we have to classify what we write for many reasons–conversations with an editor, entry into a contest, etc.–but that’s an artificial construction. I daresay that none of us write pure mysteries or thrillers.

    How to write a blended “mystery/thriller”? What I do is populate the story and come up with a “hook” of some sort. The details are in my answer to the last question–I’m sort of a “pantser with exceptions.” My secret, if I have one, is that I don’t really know who the villain is until I get toward the end of the novel. That takes care of the mystery, which I solve along with the reader. This may take some rewriting when I finally make up my mind, but–as Donald Westlake said when defining what he called “push fiction”–if I don’t know the ending, the reader can’t know for sure.

    As for the thriller part, that comes with several situations throughout the book where the hero/heroine is in danger of some sort–death, if you will, in either physical, emotional, or professional form, if you will. These generally come to me as I write.

    Considering the credentials of all those who’ll be contributing their answers, I think we’re going to learn some secrets, and I can hardly wait.

  2. It’s often said that a mystery is a story about solving a crime while a thriller is one about stopping a crime. I don’t necessarily agree with that definition of thrillers, though I know it is widely used. Thrillers plots are not all about stopping a crime. I think, however, there is an element of mystery in all thrillers—not necessarily a criminal act, but some mysterious initiating action that must be pursued to understand it.

    In my sci-fi thriller, EDEN, for instance, the mystery surrounds the discovery by trapped American GIs of a futuristic esophagus in the ruins of an ancient temple in war-torn Iraq. In my current sci-fi WIP, POLAR MELT, the mystery involves an anomalous energy source at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

    When it comes to mystery thrillers, however, I think the key components (mystery and thriller) can be parsed. The mystery usually—but not always—involves a crime and the attempt by the protagonist(s) to solve that mystery. The plot can be character driven as in cozies and whodunits and, to some extent, hard boiled mysteries, or it can be driven by procedure, as in police procedurals.

    Thrillers plots are driven by a need to create a suspenseful atmosphere by adding elements of action and danger. Whether they be mystery thrillers, action thrillers, political thrillers, sci-fi thrillers, it is the action or suspense that pushes the plot forward.

    David Morrell’s novel, FIRST BLOOD, is credited with creating the modern thriller genre. It is a classic action thriller. There is no crime to investigate, no politics, no sci-fi elements. It is the story of two men involved in a violent struggle against each other. An abundance of action and strong characters drive the plot forward.

    On the other hand, Lawrence Block’s A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is pure mystery. There are no gunshots, no fistfights, no car chases in the whole book. The plot is driven forward by Block’s powerful characters, particularly his protagonist, PI Matt Scudder. Any one who dies in the novel, dies offstage.

    My first novel, THE KILLING DEPTHS, a mystery thriller that takes place aboard an American submarine, has occasionally been compared to Tom Clancy’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. Both take place on submarines and both are full of undersea combat. HUNT, however, is a military thriller; the plot is driven forward by military technology and the undersea hunt for the Soviet submarine Red October.

    THE KILLING DEPTHS does have aspects of the military thriller in that two opposing submarines are in a struggle to the death. But the main plot is a murder mystery involving the slaying of a female crew member and the protagonist’s search for what turns out to be a serial killer. The submarine conflict alone would be a thriller plot. The search for the serial killer alone would just be a mystery plot. Blend the two and you have a mystery thriller.

    My latest novel, THE BUTCHER’S BILL, a sequel to THE KILLING DEPTHS, involves an NCIS agent’s investigation into $9 billion in cash that disappeared from Iraq during the American war there. That alone is a mystery plot. Make that character a rogue agent who appears to go on a killing spree, toss in some corporate mercenaries out to silence him, and you have a mystery thriller.

    So, in its simplest form, I would say the mystery thriller¬—unlike the generic mystery and generic thriller—has a plot driven forward by both the discovery of clues and the action or danger leading to their discovery.

  3. I think I’d go for what is probably the easiest answer, which is that the story starts with a whodunit or a whoisgonndowhat sort of premise, and the mystery element gets resolved part way through the story. Things then shift more to the thriller format from there, as the protagonist now focuses on stopping the crime and catching the antagonist.

    Another option to meld the two is what Thomas Harris did in RED DRAGON. The serial killer is on a lunar schedule, and has already struck twice. Will Graham and the FBI have to try to solve the first two murders (a mystery) AND stop the next killing (a thriller). Harris does a stellar job of balancing these two elements throughout, and I think it is a great model for this kind of hybrid genre.

    But I gotta say I’m with Richard Mabry on this one — I think we’re far too rigid as writers and readers in terms of classifying genre/sub-genre, and especially about the “rules” for each… but that’s probably a different discussion.

  4. To date I haven’t tried tackling a bone fide mystery per se but I do love the genre and admire its writers. If I was ever brave enough to try my hand I would likely venture into the serial killer trope. A series of murders; who is the killer? What is his motivation for committing such heinous acts? Can the killer be stopped before he kills again?
    I am also a lover of everyman heroes. My own characters fall into this mould. How will the workaday protagonist rise to deal with the impending threat? Through resilience, grit and determination.
    Switching POV’s from chapter too chapter can also work well. The switch between third person and first can be an effective technique if done correctly. A great example of this technique is displayed in my brother Matt Hilton’s 1st novel, Dead Men’s Dust. If you haven’t read this book go and do so immediately, you won’t be disappointed, it’s a thrill from start to finish.
    The novel is paced perfectly, and the tension builds like a metronome slowly increasing in tempo, thrills and sense of danger.

    Hmmm, I may just jot some outline ideas down for a new novel…a mystery-crime-thriller…

    1. Great food for thought here. I never switch POV (mystery). Do you think you need that to write a thriller?

  5. A mystery and a thriller encompasses many of the same components. Solving a crime and stopping one? If you look back at Sherlock Holmes or forward to John Connelly, Harlan Coben, or Karen Slaughter, the protagonists typically handle both roles, deciphering one mystery while trying to keep themselves, and others alive. Bigger concepts, like Steve Berry, K.J. Howe, or Jim Rollins, begin with a mystery that morphs in a universal thriller that threatens a much bigger victim.
    When I tackled FEAR THE REAPER, strongly based on true events in a town in Virginia circa 1933, I knew I had to start small before the pebble tumbled into an avalanche. My main character, a psychologist, wandered into an esteemed psychiatric hospital and quickly discovers that people from the town are disappearing, his patients in particular, possibly due to his testing.
    What he discovers is a plan that predates the Holocaust but just as deadly, right here in America,
    He simultaneously has to solve the mystery of what’s happening to his patients and townfolk while jumping into the thriller that is much bigger, and more dangerous, than anything he can handle on his own. I knew I had to combine the global aspect, which was entirely, and sadly, too true, with a mystery and suspense story that connected on a much more personal level as well.
    I believe that by intertwining the mystery and the thriller would help connect readers to a concept I’ve found many in this country couldn’t, or didn’t want to believe, happened in our own history (and still is, in some ways), the unthinkable could bring the national terror into their lives. Mysteries feel more upclose and personal to me. So can thrillers, but the stakes are much bigger in the latter.
    Many of those authors I learned from weave both seamlessly.

  6. In thrillers, the reader generally knows who the bad guys are at some point in the story, usually as they actively try to thwart the protagonist’s progress toward his/her goal.

    In both of my infectious disease thrillers, “Yellow Death” and my WIP “Night Plague”, the protagonist Dr. Kris Jensen Is confronted with a new infectious disease whose mysterious origin she must solve. In YD it’s a lethal hepatitis with the stakes greatly magnified in that she herself is infected. In NP, an insomnia-causing virus that is spreading through a small Tennessee town, is triggering an epidemic of violent behavior and suicides.

    In both cases, I have left the new infectious disease as an epidemiologic mystery that she must solve with her medical detective skills. Also in both stories, there is a criminal element behind the infection. As she figures it out, the perps are identified to the reader as they become desperate to stop her investigation. Things then go from bad to worse before the final confrontation.

    I think it is key to maintain the plausibility of Kris Jensen investigating in relative isolation. That makes it easier for the perps to target her specifically adding to the suspense and personal danger.

    I agree with the others that most thrillers have an element of mystery at least to begin with and then morph into the more standard thriller construct. This is true of thrillers whether historical, medical, etc.

  7. I think there’s a faint and shifting line between “mystery” and “thriller.” Yes, most mysteries feature characters probing something that happened in the past, just as most thriller protagonists are trying to stop (or facilitate, in the case of heist narratives) something happening in the present. But many examples of one genre usually include at least some elements of the other; for example, Arthur Conan Doyle often had Sherlock Holmes not only solve the central mystery, but also subdue the suspect (“The Final Problem” is the example of this that springs instantly to mind).

    The narrative of my latest book, “Boise Longpig Hunting Club,” features that same kind of shift. The initial portion is a murder mystery; then it becomes a race-against-time thriller, once the protagonists find themselves targeted by the killer(s). If I’ve done my job, the book is thus fueled by two big questions simultaneously: Who Killed [X], and Will They Survive?

    In theory, you could also invert this formula: start off with a conventional thriller, and let it evolve into a mystery of some sort. But if executed inexpertly, all the momentum you built up during the thriller portion would come crashing to a halt once the mystery portion began. I’m sure, however, that someone’s pulled that model off…

    1. Great food for thought. Now I’m on the hunt for something with a thriller beginning and a mystery ending.

  8. What a succinct definition and comparison of the two genres. The thriller moves before the fact, the crime: the mystery is post facto, after the crime has been committed. The main engine being, who done it? For the most part thrillers are my field and thinking about it, I intentionally slip in a mystery or two to keep things interesting. Perhaps more accurately, I sprinkle puzzles here and there to be solved. In the beginning of The African Contract, my protagonist, Hayden Stone is the target of assassination: A black mamba is placed under his sheets. The mystery is to find out who is trying to kill him—and stopping them. Then follows a series of other unknowns. What has a renegade Afrikaner got to do with it? Moreover, what’s this about a missing atomic bomb and where did it come from? In addition, the seductive and mysterious women we’re introduced to, are they foes or friends? So, although at first the only crimes per se are an attempted killing or two, a stolen nuclear weapon, and a couple of actual murders, we still have in essence a thriller. Namely, to prevent a catastrophic event—a bomb exploding in the harbour of New York City.

  9. I always think of a mystery as a tale told through the eyes of the protagonist, typically in the first-person present-tense, so the reader experiences the unfolding events at the same time as the protagonist, and it usually involves solving a crime or unraveling a “mystery” of some sort. A thriller, at least for me, is usually written in the third-person past-tense through the points of view of one or more protagonists fighting one or more antagonists to prevent a crime or disaster from taking place. I also call this type of thriller, which I used in the majority of my books, an “Epic,” with multiple storylines colliding into a climatic ending.

    Taking elements from the two, a possible blend could be writing a story in the first person through the eyes of one protagonist and one antagonist in alternating chapters. That way the unknown aspect of the mystery is preserved for the protagonist, who still must unravel either a crime in progress or perhaps a plot to commit a crime, but the reader is also exposed to the evil plans of the antagonist, as is the case in a thriller. But perhaps the latter could be done in a way that doesn’t quite reveal everything at once, thus preserving some level of mystery until a climatic ending. Maybe I’ll try something like that in my next project . . .

  10. When thinking of film noir, you can think of “noir” as a genre with certain story structure expectations: the world is out of balance, that balance tends not to be restored, the protagonist doesn’t wear a white hat, and story elements often revolve around the gap between who we are and who we say we are. But noir is also a style: light filtered through smoke or fog or Venetian blinds, camera framing and props that “cage” the principle, high key light, low angles, mise en scene that implies a deteriorating world.

    In this same way, I’d pick mystery as the spine of the story and thriller as the style. In some thrillers, we see through the antagonist’s eyes, but we don’t know who she or he is until near the end, just like a mystery. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if a mystery is revealed at the end of the second act or third, as long as there is still a dramatic question to be answered.

    I don’t love “gear,” so there are some kinds of thrillers that wouldn’t work for me. But the best elements of any thriller–fast pace, ‘global’ stakes, a strong interest in the How (in the world will she pull it off), physicl jeopardy–these are all things that play well in both worlds.

    Here’s a question for you. Thinking about Dennis Lehane’s mystery series–aren’t those a blend of thriller & mystery, and with Mystic River, also a bit of Lit Fic thrown in for good measure? I never noticed that when reading. I just knew they were a wonderful read, and I wasn’t ever disappointed.

  11. Accepting the definitional difference here between mystery and thriller, I think this might really be a question about tension and stakes. Mysteries are quite often smaller scale, more personal stakes where the author keep the reader engaged with intricately twisting plots and lovable and/or intensely interesting characters. Thrillers usually involve much larger stakes about saving a city or even the world and the reader keeps reading because of the tension of impending harm. While I appreciate the distinction made here, I actually think it is very common for books to combine these different forms of tension. For example, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books do a fantastic job of throwing Reacher into a mysterious situation where someone is doing Something Very Bad (the mystery to be solved), but there’s also always the threat of impending harm to Reacher and those around him as he bullishly butts his nose into the bad guy’s business (the impending harm that usually boils over into violence).

    I love books that utilize these elements and, in my debut novel Caged, I really wanted to make sure that readers got both by combining some of the more traditional elements of a police procedural, while also adding elements of a suspense thriller that makes it clear that lives are at stake. Specifically, Caged starts off with a murder victim found in very unusual circumstances that suggest ritual elements to the killing. But then my protagonist (FBI neuroscientist Sayer Altair) realizes that there is another victim out there and that she only has a few days to save the new victim before it’s too late.

  12. If a mystery is a tale about solving a crime while a thriller is about stopping one, how would you write a blend of the two? There have already been many sage comments, some even questioning whether there is really much difference between a mystery and a thriller. While I tend to lean toward the “why worry about the difference” side of things, addressing the question as posed holds some interest.

    Solution vs prevention is the crux of the question. The most obvious way to blend the two is writing a novel that features a series of crimes or events. When I first read the question, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and its sequel, Angel of Darkness, leapt immediately to mind. The protagonists chased a serial killer, trying both to solve the mystery of who he was while trying to prevent additional murders.

    In Al Capone at the Blanche Hotel, my first dual timeline novel featuring History of American Crime professor, Liz Reams, the protagonists of the historical chapters basically did the same thing. They wanted to solve the mystery of who was killing off local madams, bootleggers, moonshiners, and gambling operators in hopes of preventing additional murders of the remaining vice purveyors, witnesses, and an innocent child. In the follow up, Miami Days Havana Nights, the protagonist of the historical chapters races against time to rescue individuals in danger while the protagonist of the contemporary chapters, Liz Reams, tries to solve the mystery of the identity of the protagonist of the historical chapters.

    While I did not consider the difference between thriller and mystery when I wrote my novels, it now seems that I used two different methods of answering our prime question. Neat how that worked out!

  13. I’ve written both ends of the spectrum. My Julius Katz stories that I write for Ellery Queen are pure mysteries–there’s no way they categorized in any sense as thrillers. I’ve also written pure crime thrillers where the object isn’t to solve a mystery but to see whether the criminals get away with the crime. And I’ve also written mystery thrillers–novels that have the thriller-pacing and the escalating danger, but at the heart there’s a mystery to be solved. My 4th Morris Brick thriller CRUEL, which will be out next month, is certainly thriller, but it’s also interwoven with several cascading mysteries that need to be solved.

    In John Lutz’s terrific Quinn serial killer series, some of the books in the series are pure thrillers–we know who the killer is but what drives the story is whether the killer can be stopped. Others int he series are mystery thrillers in that we (and Quinn) are trying to solve the mystery as to who the killer is.

    Anyway, that’s how I see blending thrillers and mysteries–a thriller that has at it’s core a mystery that needs to be solved.

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