Crime, Mystery, or Thriller?

Just the thought of classifying your beloved novel into a specific genre can throw your brain into a psychic maelstrom. I tripped all over myself trying to classify my first novel, and ended up sending queries to a few agents with it tagged as an action-adventure-mystery-suspense-thriller. Even that didn’t seem to excite them, but it did seem to cover most of the bases. I probably should have prefaced it with “cozy.”

It turns out that most agents and publishers…and, strangely enough, your readers…want to know pretty much what it is you’re peddling to them. Not everything fits into neat little boxes, and that’s as it should be. However, knowing what niche you’re shooting for and where your end result might best be marketed can give you a lot of help in the best way to craft the nuances of your tale.

So here’s a helpful article by former-private-investigator-turned-award-winning-novelist, writing guru, and contributing editor for Writer’s Digest (from which I snagged this post), David Corbett. It’s a little guide on wending your way through the labyrinth and coming out with a clear idea of how to construct and properly market your novel. A little perspective from someone who’s been there and was quite successful at it. Worth a look!

The Differences Between a Crime, Mystery, and Thriller Novel

To pitch the right agents, you first need to know exactly what it is you’re pitching. Learn the subtle differences among the many subgenres of suspense—and how to meet and exceed expectations in every one.

DAVID CORBETT
MAR 13, 2019

One of the first things to consider when setting out, therefore, is what kinds of expectations your story creates, so you can go about gratifying readers in surprising ways.

This is particularly true of writing in a genre, where conventions can seem ironclad—or all too often degrade into formula. And formula, by definition, surprises no one.

The suspense genres in particular have a number of seemingly hard and fast rules that a writer defies at his peril. And yet the most satisfying mysteries, thrillers, and crime stories find a way to create a new take on those rules to fashion something fresh, interesting, original. In other words, while you don’t want to mistakenly pitch your cozy mystery to an agent who wants only high-octane thrillers, you also want to make sure that when you connect with that cozy-loving agent, she’ll be jumping to sign you because your cozy stands out from the rest.

Here’s a map to help you navigate subgenre subtleties.

Mystery Novels

A crime is committed—almost always a murder—and the action of the story is the solution of that crime: determining who did it and why, and obtaining some form of justice. The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.

Thematic emphasis: How can we come to know the truth? (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)

Structural distinctions: The basic plot elements of the mystery form are:

  1. The baffling crime
  2. The singularly motivated investigator
  3. The hidden killer
  4. The cover-up (often more important than the crime itself, as the cover-up is what conceals the killer)
  5. Discovery and elimination of suspects (in which creating false suspects is often part of the killer’s plan)
  6. Evaluation of clues (sifting the true from the untrue)
  7. Identification and apprehension of the killer.

Additional Reader Expectations:

The Hero: Whether a cop, a private eye, a reporter, or an amateur sleuth, the hero must possess a strong will to see justice served, often embodied in a code (for example, Harry Bosch’s “Everyone matters or no one matters” in the popular Michael Connelly series). He also often possesses not just a great mind but great empathy—a fascination not with crime, per se, but with human nature.

The Villain: The crime may be a hapless accident or an elaborately staged ritual; it’s the cover-up that unifies all villains in the act of deceit. The attempt to escape justice, therefore, often best personifies the killer’s malevolence. The mystery villain is often a great deceiver, or trickster, and succeeds because she knows how to get others to believe that what’s false is true.

Setting: Although mysteries can take place anywhere, they often thematically work well in tranquil settings—with the crime peeling back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

Reveals: Given its emphasis on determining the true from the untrue, the mystery genre has more reveals than any other—the more shocking and unexpected, the better.

Mystery Subgenres

➤ Cozy: One of the ironic strengths of this subgenre is the fact that, by creating a world in which violence is rare, a bloody act resonates far more viscerally than it would in a more urban or disordered setting. Reader Expectations: A unique and engaging protagonist: Father Brown, Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone. The crime should be clever, requiring ingenuity or even brilliance on the hero’s part to solve. Secondary characters can be coarse, but never the hero—or the author. Justice triumphs in the end, and the world returns to its original tranquility.

➤ Hard-boiled: The hero is a cop or PI, tough and capable. The moral view is often that of hard-won experience in the service of innocence or decency. The hero tends to be more world-weary than bitter—but that ice can get slippery. Reader Expectations: A strong hero who can “walk the mean streets but who is not himself mean,” as Raymond Chandler once put it. A realistic portrayal of crime and its milieu, with detailed knowledge of criminal methods and investigative techniques. The style is often brisk and simple, reflecting the unpretentious nature of the hero, who is intelligent but not necessarily learned. Although the hero almost always sees that justice prevails, there is usually a bittersweet resolution. The streets remain mean; such is the human condition.

➤ Police Procedural: A cousin to the hard-boiled subgenre, with the unit or precinct taking over for the lone cop. Reader Expectations: Much like the hard-boiled detective story, but with a larger cast and special focus on police tactics, squad-room psychology, station-house politics, and the tensions between the police and politicians, the media, and the citizenry.

➤ Medical, Scientific, or Forensic Mystery: A refinement of the police procedural in which the protagonists—doctors, medical examiners, forensic pathologists, or other technical experts—use intelligence and expertise, not guns, as their weapons. Reader Expectations: Similar to the police procedural, with extra emphasis on the physical details of analyzing unusual evidence.

➤ Legal or Courtroom Drama: The crime is seen through the eyes of the lawyers prosecuting or defending the case. Reader Expectations: A meticulous rendering of criminal court procedure and politics, along with how police and prosecutors work together (or don’t).

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