Where’s the Party? Crime fiction, thrillers, and mysteries

There’s a Crime Fiction Writers group on LinkedIn that I belong to. Recently, this question was posed: what’s the difference between crime fiction, thrillers, and mysteries? I thought about it and responded:

Crime fiction: the party’s going to happen
Thrillers: the party’s happening
Mystery: the party’s over. Who drank all the beer?

My answer might seem flippant, but the funny thing is that I wasn’t really kidding. I’ve used this little mantra to help me sort out my own crime fiction writing and aid me in deciding where my plot is going.

While all three genres or sub-genres, if you like, can share qualities (there are mysterious thrillers and thrilling mysteries), the primary differences are chronological. At some point the novel has to turn a corner on the action. When that tipping point occurs makes all the difference in what the protagonist will encounter and how they’ll respond to the action and conflicts the writer throws in their way. Maybe more importantly, it defines how the author–if they’re playing fair, which they should–will interact with the reader.

Breaking It Down

Crime fiction

The mojo in the best crime fiction is in the preparation. The story turns on the suspense of how a crime is going to be committed, by whom, and when the dark moment (double-cross, stroke of bad luck, empty heist, etc.) is going to occur. What would normally seem like the true action–bullets flying, safes being cracked, burglaries taking place–is a future moment far out in front of the build-up and, frankly, secondary to it.

Consider a caper like Oceans Eleven. The majority of the storyline is devoted to rounding up the crew, resolving the disputes and histories of them, practicing the job, then trying to overcome any obstacles in the way of accomplishing the robbery. The actual heist takes place in the last quarter of the movie and, while thrilling, is almost a foregone conclusion.

This kind of set up is crime fiction master Elmore Leonard’s bread and butter. Throw three bad people together and see what happens. Leonard’s classics–Stick, Gold Coast, Maximum Bob, Out of Sight–follow this pattern; the heist, the con, the robbery, the kidnapping, all take place at the end of the storyline. The fun is in getting there. Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald Westlake), another crime fiction maestro, wrote nearly every Parker novel (sixteen of them) in this fashion.

There’s a saying in modern fiction: start the action as soon as possible and end it as soon as you can. Thrillers take this guideline to the extreme. The point of all thrillers is to use the action to drive the story and not the other way around.

To use another movie reference, the classic Heat begins with a bank car robbery and never lets up until the main character is dead. If this had been meant as a crime fiction story, we would’ve seen Robert Deniro’s character contacting then assembling his team, picking out the targets, then getting ready to knock over the armored car.

Or, for a more traditional example from movie and literature, try the thesis on James Bond. While there might be an element of mystery (who and where is Dr. No?), the turning point of the conflict in every Bond story is in the present moment. There is no planning ahead to a future point (at least, not one in Bond’s control) nor is there a retrospective on a crime that has happened and needs to be deciphered. The action is now.

Mystery is perhaps the easiest sub-genre to unpack since it has the longest tradition and so much of that tradition is based in one hackneyed phrase. If you can’t figure out where the chronological turning point of a story is when saying “Whodunit?” out loud, then I’m afraid there’s no hope for you.

Mysteries are retrospective, a glance backward in time. While the action of doing so may take on a life of its own (think Henning Mankell’s Wallander series where the protagonist comes under attack several times), generally speaking the focus of attention is on getting the killer who committed the action–the raison d’etre of the novel–in the past.

One of the interesting things about approaching the three sub-genres from the chronological perspective is that none of them are mutually exclusive; they could all happen in time. An author could write the drama leading up to a crime, the thrill of the action while it was taking place, and detail the efforts of an investigator trying to piece it all together once the dust had settled.

Playing Fair
It may not be immediately obvious, but which approach an author takes in telling his or her crime story–crime fiction, thriller, or mystery–determines how they interact with the reader. Specifically, it’s the fundamental driver for deciding whether or not they have to play fair.

Consider that in crime fiction, with all the action to come, the author has some, but not much, responsibility to let the reader in on all the secrets that might underpin the story. In Resevoir Dogs, for instance, the major revelation that Mr. Orange is an undercover cop would cause mystery readers to throw the book across the room and cry foul. But in a crime fiction novel, it’s taken in stride as part of the unfolding stream of events.

In a thriller, there’s no time–or need–to play fair. What the reader may or may not know often doesn’t affect the action. The protagonist has to deal with the emergencies of the moment. Since the reader is an observer and not a participant in the action, the author can take liberties.

Mysteries, unlike the other two sub-genres, require consummate fairness on the part of the writer because readers are being invited to unravel the mystery in time with the protagonist. When that sense of fairness is violated, readers are justifiably angry. Ten Little Indians (And Then There Were None) might be a classic of the genre, but I doubt there’s a reader alive who didn’t curse Agatha Christie’s name at the end.

To take a more modern example, in John Lescroart’s Guilt the killer is one of the many characters who relate the action of the novel to us. In that narrative, we’re given a prolonged view inside the killer’s head, yet Lescroart fails to reveal that we’re thinking thoughts with the killer. This is a violation of the covenant between reader and writer and it harms the book.

Trying It For Myself
These differences seem straightforward enough when laid out this way, but when novels are hybrids, the result can be tricky. In writing my (soon to be) debut novel, A Reason to Live, I thought I was writing a straightforward crime fiction story. I innocently introduced a past murder into the story, the implications of which had a profound impact on present day events. Well, hello! A murder in the past instantly transformed my free-wheeling crime fiction novel into a mystery, all the elements of which had to add up and be presented fairly or else I was going to have some irate readers. Since the need for fairness was an afterthought, I struggled to back-fill the mystery in a subtle and logical way. Had I planned better–and known what I was dealing with–I could’ve saved myself a ton of effort.

Everybody likes a party, but you have to know which one you’re showing up for. If you’re in the crime fiction or mystery or thriller business, know what you’re getting into before you start drawing chalk marks on the ground. Both you–and your readers–will appreciate it.


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Excellence in Writing
4 comments on “Where’s the Party? Crime fiction, thrillers, and mysteries
  1. Very insightful and thoughtfully explained essay on the subject, Matt! You really hit the nail on the head. Love your distilled version and analogy as well! It explains why I’m not always a fan of truly traditional mysteries – I like action to drive a plot, and traditional mysteries are less in the active now, more in the introspective past.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Thanks, Karen. I never thought about it until I started writing A Reason to Live…then the differences became REAL evident REALLY fast. 🙂 As I began dissecting the stories that I’ve always loved, trying to emulate my favorite writers, I began seeing the “seams” of the writing, so to speak.

      For instance, I love Lee Child’s Reacher books, which most people would categorize as thrillers or suspense. But there’s very often (always?) a mystery at the center of the piece and I’ve always been intrigued the way Child tries to write his way out of his self-made play-fair traps (he unapologetically relies on coincidence, but only to get Reacher into trouble, rarely to get him out of it). Once in a while (for me, it’s Tripwire), I think he falls short of being square with the reader…but it’s usually a fun ride, nevertheless.

  2. Very interesting, thoughtful piece. When I wrote Death on a High Floor: A Legal Thriller, I didn’t think consciously about any of those things, although I knew it was a mystery. My wife’s comment, upon hearing an agent describe it as a legal thriller was: but it’s NOT a thriller. To which I responded: well, that’s apparently the sub-genre name for any mystery or thriller with courtroom scenes. Not that she was particularly mollified by that response. 🙂

    Your delineation of categories also helped me think through why I liked Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal so much. It’s a classic piece of crime fiction rather than either a mystery or a thriller, and superb despite the fact that you know in advance that in the end Charles de Gaulle is not going to die. But I suppose it’s a sub-sub-category: a historical crime fiction.

    And speaking of history, that reminds me that long before Poe wrote what most people regard as the first true mystery story (Murders in the Rue Morgue), “true crime” books were very popular in England and elsewhere. These were works which described brutal crimes in detail, plus their perpetrators, settings, etc. So I suppose you could say that mysteries and crime fiction have different ancestors, which is another way to differentiate them.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Charles – Great comments. I like some of the thoughts you have about other sub-genres. Day of the Jackal is a great example and it puts me in mind of an in-depth book study I did on Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle. I examined that classic in terms of its plot construction, but now I want to go back and take a new look at it in light of this conversation (though, on reflection, I suppose EotN is simply a straightforward historical thriller unlike ‘Jackal).

      And legal thrillers…I like your take on it, even if your wife doesn’t 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

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