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Writing

Mystery, Thriller, and Crime Novels: What’s the Difference?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

When it comes to twenty-first century Americans’ tastes in fiction, few genres sell better than crime, mystery, and thriller. The best books in these genres are gripping, suspenseful, and full of intrigue until the very end. They routinely top New York Times bestseller lists, and many spawn larger series, leaving enthralled readers eager for each new book.

While closely related, crime novels, mystery novels, and thrillers are not synonymous genres. Each has its own idiomatic characteristics and attracts a specific audience.

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What Are the Elements of a Crime Novel?

Crime novels typically focus on a criminal who must be apprehended—often by law enforcement, the military, or a self-deputized agent of justice. Thematically, the best crime books often circle the theme of good vs. evil and the notion that wrong deeds must be avenged.

Sometimes crime fiction does not end with a happy ending. Unhappy endings often serve as social commentary. Just as society is not always just, the outcomes of crime suspense novels do not always involve righteous justice. Famous crime novelists include Michael Connelly, known for his novels concerning LAPD detective Harry Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.

3 Popular Crime Subgenres

Within the broader confines of the crime genre, there exist several subgenres. These include:

  1. Noir: Noir crime novels and film noir often project an anti-humanist view of society. A detective (or protagonist functioning as some sort of sleuth) often confronts the dark underbelly of human society and may have to choose between a bad outcome and a worse one. Noirs often take place in cities. The works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are among the best crime books that incorporate elements of noir.
  2. Military: These novels superimpose many of the tropes of crime fiction onto a military setting. Tom Clancy novels, while fitting into a broader category of suspense novels, often contain a criminal element. In filmed entertainment, A Few Good Men and the JAG TV series exemplify the genre.
  3. True crime: These crimes stories, which cross-pollinate with the historical fiction genre, tell tales of crimes that actually happened at some point in history. The real-life non-fiction origins of these crime thrillers heighten the stakes and grip readers.
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The 6 Elements of a Mystery Novel

Unlike crime novels, mystery novels concern themselves less with a struggle between good and evil and more with the question of who committed a particular crime. While crime writers often reveal their villain early in the story, mystery writers devote most of their real estate to cracking unsolved cases. Elements of these novels include:

  1. A crime: Typically, the crime is a murder, if not multiple murders
  2. An unknown criminal: This villain is typically revealed in the end. Note that some mysteries feature more than one bad guy.
  3. A protagonist playing the role of detective: Be it Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, the protagonist must use their powers of deduction to crack the case.
  4. One or more cover-ups: These narrative layers spur various plot twists.
  5. A trail of suspects: Most of them will prove to be innocent, but they each have a motive.
  6. The pursuit of the criminal: This chase generally resolves in the criminal’s apprehension.

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5 Popular Mystery Subgenres

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Mystery fiction has proven to be enduringly popular among literary audiences, and as such, the genre has spawned multiple subgenres. These include:

  1. Police procedurals: These mysteries cast police officers as protagonists and emphasize the mechanics of police sleuthing and the lives of the officers themselves. Procedurals are traditional mysteries that follow familiar plot structures, offering their readers a welcome familiarity in each new book.
  2. Hard-boiled detective stories: In these mysteries, the main character may be a police officer, or they may be an ordinary citizen deputized as an amateur sleuth by various factors in their life. There is a natural overlap between hard-boiled detective novels and noir crime fiction books. Both feature world-weary detectives exposed to the seedy underbelly of society; often they encounter the likes of a pimp or a serial killer. As famous crime novelist Raymond Chandler put it, a hard-boiled detective is one who will “walk the mean streets but who is not himself mean.”
  3. Cozy mysteries: A cozy mystery book or cozy mystery series is one that embodies the key components of detective fiction—suspense, misdirection, intrigue, and some degree of criminality—while eschewing the violence and profanity that are often embedded in pulpier mysteries. For examples, think of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series and Cleo Coyle's Coffeehouse Mystery series. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series arguably fits the cozy murder mystery genre.
  4. Whodunits: This subgenre also involves a lighthearted mystery where the atmosphere feels less grave than a hard-boiled detective novel. A whodunit can have a campy style and comedic bent, as in the film Clue.
  5. Scientific mysteries: These mysteries, which may include forensic mysteries or medical mysteries, emphasize science’s role in crime-solving. DNA testing, computer modeling, surveillance technology, and biochemistry may all be integral components of the plot of a scientific mystery.

What Are the Elements of a Thriller Novel?

A thriller novel devotes most of its focus to suspense, dread, and the fear of a future crime—instead of one that’s already happened. Most mysteries reveal a crime and then require their main characters to work backwards to figure out who committed that crime. In a thriller, the bad guy is often established early on, and the main characters must work to stop them from doing evil. The Jack Reacher series, written by Lee Child, and R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series for young adults serve as examples of high stakes thriller novels.

4 Popular Thriller Subgenres

Editors Pick

Thriller subgenres dominate many media, including novels, graphic novels, movies, and TV shows. These subgenres include:

  1. Horror thrillers: Horror thrillers angle a classic suspense story toward the terrifying and grotesque. Many horror novels include a supernatural element, although monsters, aliens, and evil spirits extend to many corners of the broader thriller genre.
  2. Legal thrillers: These thrillers take place within the confines of the court system. Authors like John Grisham and Scott Turow have brought the legal thriller novel to chart-topping highs, and their books have spawned many feature films.
  3. Psychological thrillers: A psychological thriller novel finds the terror in madness and paranoia. Robert Bloch’s Psycho, made famous by the Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, is a story of mental illness more than it is of monsters—although it nonetheless features grisly events.
  4. Epic thrillers: An epic thriller often involves the highest of stakes. In an epic thriller like Stephen King’s The Stand, humanity itself is imperiled. The same is true of the Walking Dead graphic novel series and its TV adaptation.

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