24 January 2015

Mysterious, Thrilling, and Criminal

I've heard that the late great Elmore Leonard, who was at one point named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and who won an Edgar for his novel LaBrava, once confessed in an interview that he'd never written a mystery in his life. He said he wrote crime stories, thrillers, suspense novels (and short stories)--but never what might be a called a "traditional" mystery.

Does it matter? Not to me. I love Leonard's books and stories--all of them, including his Westerns--and I couldn't care less how they're labeled. Besides, mysteries are not always whodunits. I maintain that mysteries are puzzles, in the sense that any good story is a puzzle--we want to see what happens, how things turn out--but the identity of the villain doesn't always have to be withheld from the reader until the end. Look at the Columbo series, where the bad guy was always identified in the first five minutes of the episode. It was still considered a mystery show, and one of the best.

The criminal element

This question of what a mystery is--or isn't--seems to come up a lot, in literary discussions. One way to address it is this: Next time you're in a bookstore, take a look at the "Mystery" section. Stacked upon those shelves are hundreds and even thousands of volumes containing murder, mayhem, and misbehavior on all levels. But all of them aren't traditional mysteries, and certainly all of them are not whodunits. I doubt that half of them are. What they are is crime fiction.

If you need further proof, consider the short-story submission guidelines for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Both of them used to say (I'm paraphrasing, but this is the gist) that a story qualifies as a mystery if a crime is central, or essential, to the plot. In other words, if there's no crime, the storyline would fall apart. I also think I remember once reading in their guidelines that a story can be categorized as a mystery if it includes a crime, or even includes the hint of a crime.

In light of these observations, I dutifully went back and examined some of the stories I've had published over the past twenty years. As it turns out, only about twenty percent of my mystery stories have been whodunits. The rest were howdunits, or whydunits, or howcatchems. In those, there's no question about who killed whom. The question is, will the good guy(s) win out, and--if so--how?

Bottom line: Are whodunits good examples of mystery stories? Of course they are, and they'll always be around. But mysteries, whether long or short, don't have to be traditional. They just have to include criminal activity of some kind.

Puzzle vs. suspense

What, then, are some differences between so-called mysteries and so-called thrillers? Here are a few that come to mind:

1. In a traditional mystery, the protagonist (detective, usually) knows more than the reader. In a thriller, the reader knows more than the protagonist--or at least knows it sooner. I once heard it put another way: in a mystery the reader is a step behind the hero, and in a thriller the reader is a step ahead.

2. Traditional mysteries are often told in first person, which supports the "conceal the facts from the reader" approach. Thrillers are more likely to be told in third person, which can heighten suspense. It's "thrilling" for the reader to know, before the FBI agent does, that the terrorist is ready and waiting, just around the corner (or in the root cellar). Or, as Hictchcock is famous for saying, that "there's a bomb under the table."

3. In a thriller, the protagonist's world gradually grows larger, to include more and more tense situations. In a mystery, his world narrows, until only the solution remains.

4. In a traditional mystery, we wonder who committed the crime. In a thriller, we wonder if the hero will survive.

The big question is . . .

Which of the two do you prefer? The answer might not reveal only your reading tastes, but your writing preferences as well. It's been said that crime fiction writers who prefer using third person naturally tend to write more suspense/thriller stories, and that crime fiction writers who prefer first person lean more toward traditional mysteries. I admit that in my case that might be true. Some of my favorite stories of my own were written in first person, but I usually feel more comfortable writing in third--and I've written far more suspense stories than whodunits.

What are your thoughts? Which had you rather read? Which had you rather write? At a guess, what percentage of your own stories or novels are mysteries and what percentage are thrillers?

On the one hand, who cares, right? They're both fun to read, and to create. And we're all different. As Lt. Frank Bullitt said, "You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."

On the other hand . . . tell me your secrets. End the suspense.

To do less would be a crime.


  1. John, your explanation of the differences in crime stories is one of the easiest to understand of those I've read. Personally, I really enjoy both. As for reading, I've always been especially drawn into stories and books written in first person because I feel more of an immediate identification with the narrator (even those written first person from the protagonist's pov).
    As a writer, I enjoy all of them as well. My cozies are always in first person, but I've read many written in third. I wrote Kudzu River, my first suspense/thriller in third person, and after many revisions added first person chapters from the pov of the killer.

  2. Fran, it's interesting that you chose to add those first-person POV chapters to an otherwise third-person novel. I think James Patterson was the one of the first to do that (or at least the first I noticed), and now it's done often. Some have said that that mixes the best of both worlds: wide scope/high tension (third-person) with intimacy/reader identification (first-person).

    It occurred to me after finishing this column that most of the "traditional" mysteries by Nevada Barr are third-person rather than first, but they're "limited" third, in that they're still told only in the hero(ine)'s POV--which is practically the same as first-person.

    Is your head beginning to hurt? Mine is.

  3. John, I'm a big fan of Patterson's earlier works and have attempted those short, short chapters he uses so often now, but I've yet to make them work for me. One of the reasons that I wrote so much in first person earlier is that it helps avoid POV mistakes.

  4. Good reason, Fran! I think what would be especially difficult is writing an entire series in first person (as Robert B. Parker did, with Spenser) and writing a different series in third person (as he did with Jesse Stone). I suspect that he was constantly having to double-check that he hadn't accidentally used an "I" instead of a "he" in the Stone series.

  5. Here's how we define mystery vs thriller/suspense at CWC:
    In Mystery, the crime appears toward the beginning of the book, and the book is about the solving of some aspect of it (whodunit, howdunit, whydunit.)
    In Suspense/Thriller, the books is about a character in jeopardy - the main action (crime or murder) has not yet taken place and the emphasis is on the tension built by the anticipation of the outcome.
    I write both. My Goddaughter series is caper, so that's suspense. My co-written series is classic mystery whodunit.

  6. I like your definitions, John--Of course I always give extra weight to the words of Edgar nominees.

    Almost everything I've written has been in third person; I can only think of one exception. And, not surprisingly, I've written very few whodunits.

  7. John, I agree with Fran: This is one of the best explanations I've run into. Particularly when coupled with Melodie's CWC definition, I think this post gives a blog reader the most "full-bodied" view of the differences that I've ever encountered.

    Considering the question you asked at the end, I find that my favorite suspense mystery still remains Alistair MacLean's Ice Station Zebra, which (spoilers ahead) is written in 1st person, with a somewhat undependable narrator, and derives its suspense from (a) the setting -- a nuclear submarine racing to save survivors of a fire at a "weather station" on the arctic ice cap, and (b) the intrigue of the spy story that slowly becomes revealed as the action unfolds.

    As for my own work, I've tried, on several occasions, to decide what I actually aim at writing. I use both first and third person, but often find myself deciding to switch (and having to rewrite!) in mid-story, usually because of the effect I'm trying to create in a reader's mind -- sometimes trying to hide or reveal things, as you pointed out. In the end, the only thing I feel comfortable calling my stuff is either "fiction" or "action fiction." Not sure that makes much sense, though. LOL


  8. Let's see... I write mostly first person, but occasionally third. And I've written mysteries and thrillers in both, as well as a couple that have a crime in them, but it's not really a whodunit but more of a "what is that person up to?"...

    I like to read both. My favorite mystery and/or thriller depends on the mood I'm in. I still think the most interesting motive for murder I ever read was in Margaret Frazer's "A Servant's Tale". And I still think one of the great thrillers of all time is Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White". And Liza Cody's "Rift" is very haunting.

  9. Perhaps the central issue of a mystery is that it poses one of these questions: Who, How, or Why, the last related to motive. As long as there’s a puzzle to figure out, something to challenge the brain, I’m happy.

    I just realized that I’ve been working on a couple of ‘What’ type of mysteries. In this case, the ‘What’ refers to what’s going on. For example: (1) A computer expert cornered by a hitman acts indifferent to the danger. (2) A young man claims to be a long lost son; his mother believes him but his stepfather doesn’t. WHAT is going on? Now if I can sell one of these…

    As for 1st versus 3rd, I simply strive to use whichever sounds better. If I recall, Arthur Conan Doyle used both 1st and 3rd at various times.

  10. Good definition, Melodie. Which brings up something I didn't mention: One of the differences is the fact that the traditional mystery hero is usually some kind of sleuth (amateur, P.I., police detective, etc.) and the suspense/thriller hero is usually an ordinary guy--which means (to me) that the reader can sometimes more easily identify with the thriller protagonist.

  11. David, I agree that third-person is just a more comfortable way to tell a story. Again, I do first-person now and then, but I gravitate toward third-person, suspense/thriller stories.

    As for the Edgar nomination, NO one is more surprised than I am, about that.

    Dix, I loved Ice Station Zebra--I'm glad you mentioned it. And I too have often had to go back to the beginning of one of my stories and change all the he's to I's or vice versa. The pitfall there, of course, is trying to make sure you caught them all . . .

  12. Eve, I like your "what is that person up to . . . ?"

    I can't believe you named three novels I have not yet read!! Never fear, they are now on my list.

    Leigh, sounds like you too are using the "what's happening?" approach to the mysteries you're working on. As for 1st vs. 3rd, yes, the trick is realizing which will work best, in a story or novel. Sometimes that's a hard decision for me to make. Usually, if I'm writing a story in which I need to stay in one person's head throughout, I'll go ahead and opt for 1st to try to make the whole thing more "intimate" or "personal." And of course if there's a need to head-hop, that makes the 3rd-person decision for me.

  13. I wonder how many of Dick Francis' fans noticed that one of his books is a traditional mystery, complete with an amatuer detective, a narrow pool of suspects, and a least likely villain. The trick is, it is at the same time a standard Dick Francis novel, which is pretty amazing.

    Less than a quarter of my stories are whodunits, but my first novel was. My next book is a crime novel, not exactly mystery or thriller, but a sort of Crook's Progress.

  14. Rob, I'm a Dick Francis fan, and I sure didn't notice it--but I love observations like that.


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