by Nick Conrad
I have had authors ask me many versions of the following question: “I’m writing this suspense/romantic suspense, but it’s not a mystery because the killer is revealed early on. Is that okay?” The short answer, provided that the lack of mystery doesn’t compromise the author’s goals for the story, is yes. This article is the first installment in a short series about the differences between mystery and suspense and how they overlap.
Some publishers and book vendors group “mystery” and “suspense” together because there is frequent overlap of the two. However, “mystery” and “suspense” are not synonyms. Generally speaking, a mystery will contain some elements of suspense, whether it is a hardboiled thriller with lots of gore or a cozy mystery with nary a speck of violence or threat of violence. Stepping away from book genres for a minute, a mystery is an abstract object — a story with a missing piece. Suspense is a feeling that is evoked by an outside factor, be it fear, anticipation or curiosity. So most well-written mysteries will inspire feelings of suspense in various forms. Pick up a book by Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Higgins Clark, or John le Carré, and you will most likely encounter instances of danger for the protagonist and some kind of life-threatening menace. In a word, one might call these stories “hair-raising”. Meanwhile, there might not be anything particularly life-threatening or hair-raising about Donald J. Sobol’s Encylopedia Brown character trying to figure out who stole the neighbor’s pet frog, but the story still presents a compelling puzzle. Can the reader solve the mystery before Encyclopedia does? It becomes a race against the clock. The crime itself might not evoke fear or anxiety, but solving the puzzle presents a challenge to the reader — the suspense lies in the challenge.
So most mysteries contain some kind of suspense as a rule. But the fundamental part of a book that fits the mystery genre is the actual mystery — the whodunit and how it was done. In a suspense story, on the other hand, the heart of it lies in the feeling the story evokes. A suspense story can contain mystery elements to various degrees, hence the decision of some publishers and vendors to cross-classify; however, the mystery itself is not a requirement for suspense. The root of the suspense, then, is that the reader doesn’t know if the protagonist will “win” — will the killer be caught? Will the protagonist come out of the story alive? Will a satisfactory resolution be reached? A good example of how suspense can work without containing an actual mystery is the subgenre of romantic suspense. The protagonists’ relationship forms in the midst of a dangerous situation they are experiencing together. Often the relationship is intensified by these outside elements, bringing the protagonists closer together because of the emotional intensity of what they are going through. It also ups the ante for those characters’ investment in overcoming the conflict — they not only want to protect themselves and resolve the conflict, but they also have concern for each other’s safety and well-being. The emotional intensity and raised stakes in this instance can make for a whole new level of suspense.
To further explain suspense, we should look to the broader genre that contains it — thriller. The simplest definition of a thriller is a story that places the protagonist in extenuating circumstances, often well outside the realm of normalcy for them. Thrillers are often cross-genre, and many are mysteries. Murder or the threat of murder is almost always involved in some capacity, often framed as a race against time. It makes sense, then, that suspense fits neatly within this greater genre, and that an overlap exists between all three:
So, in a nutshell, mystery and suspense might be two different entities, but they can certainly make excellent bedfellows.