Profile at MysteryNet.com: “Mystery vs. Thriller” by Janet L. Smith
A novelist discusses the differences between a mystery and a suspense thriller–and chooses her favorite.
What is the difference between a mystery and a suspense thriller? This is a question that has been known to stump conference panelists. The answer we want to give is similar to the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography, “I can’t define suspense, but I know it when I see it.”
Wishing to have a better answer for the mystery and suspense class I was teaching, I went for guidance to the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. In 1962, Hitchcock agreed to a series of interviews with Francois Truffaut. The result was an unprecedented five day, fifty hour marathon, with the two great directors and their French/English interpreter barely breaking for meals. While most of the discussion focused on Hitchcock’s films, the subject of suspense was always there, lurking in the background. Contrary to popular belief, Hitchcock explained, suspense bears no relationship to fear. Instead, it is the state of waiting for something to happen.
Crucial to the Hitchcockian thriller is the difference between suspense and surprise. To put it simply, the director said that if you have a scene where two characters are conversing in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table, the audience experiences surprise. On the other hand, if the audience sees the saboteur place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o’clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between two cafe patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion. Fifteen minutes of suspense, as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary, to Alfred Hitchcock, that the audience be as fully informed as possible.
Based on this principle, the suspense thriller has been loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist’s job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase.
A mystery, on the other hand, is a novel of revelation, with action more mental than physical. A significant event, usually a murder, has just occurred, and the protagonist’s job is to discover who committed the crime, and why. The dilemma created for the writer of traditional mysteries is the fact that the villain and the details of the crime must remain unidentified, breaking Hitchcock’s rule of keeping the audience informed.
A mystery writer quickly learns that it is far harder to generate suspense when the story revolves around something that has already happened, as opposed to a life-threatening event that is going to happen in the future. For this reason, most mysteries contain elements of suspense, where the protagonist or another character’s life is in danger as long as the villain remains at large. But the mystery writer loses the most significant source of conflict by virtue of the fact that the protagonist and her major foe cannot face off in conflict until the final scene. A threat from an unknown source is never as exquisite as the danger of a known and powerful villain.
So, if it’s that simple, why don’t we all give up writing whodunits, and turn our attention to screenplays for the next Die Hard sequel? The answer is simple. While the traditional mystery may lack something in shock value and vicarious thrill, it has other merits. A successful mystery is compelling drama because it explores the uncharted territory of the mind. Few mysteries today rely solely on a puzzle. The contemporary whodunit has become a whydunit. For the same reason that we read true crime, we read mysteries to find out why a sane person would be pushed to commit the ultimate crime, or how an insane murderer could so brilliantly cover his tracks. The reader gets involved because the mystery is such a perfect medium for revealing character.
All great literary writers have understood the connection between plot and character. Characters are defined by what they do. How characters act is controlled by who they are. Henry James wrote, “What is character by the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” The tension is created in a traditional mystery, as in any novel, by the unresolved conflicts between the characters. Conflict is created by placing interesting and well-rounded characters, which the reader can identify with, into an extraordinary and unfamiliar situation. The sudden death and subsequent homicide investigation of a close relative or colleague is an emotional cauldron that is nevertheless plausible and understandable to the reader. Thus, the reader is hooked not by vicarious thrill seeking, but by an intense need to know what will happen to these characters that have become like friends. A good mystery satisfies our need to understand the human condition.
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Legal Mysteries by Janet L. Smith
- Sea of Troubles by Janet L. Smith (1990 An Agatha Award Nominee)
- A Vintage Murder by Janet L. Smith (1994)
Janet L. Smith is a Seattle attorney and creator of the mysteries series featuring lawyer Annie MacPherson.