Do Readers Know the Difference Between Thrillers and Mysteries?

Last week I posted about the four types of serial killers and how I knew my stuff and people should just step off. Well, I wasn’t quite that harsh about it, but you get the idea. Not to harp on one terrible…let’s say interesting…beta reader experience, but that post reminded me of something else that person had trouble with. Besides questioning the motivations of my main character and the catalyst to her becoming a serial killer, the person also didn’t understand why there were sections of Blood in the Paint told from my killer’s point of view, why her full name was routinely used, and why the reader knew so much about her. She kept referring to Blood in the Paint as a ‘mystery.’

And that’s where she messed up. I don’t write mysteries. I don’t write whodunits. I write thrillers. When I set out to write this series years ago, my main inspiration was to pen something that colored the killer in a sympathetic light by writing from their POV.  I mentioned in my other post that this particular beta reader hadn’t read Blood in the Past prior to volunteering to be a beta. Perhaps that was part of the problem. But I have never billed my books as mysteries and I even shy away from describing them as suspense. So I have to wonder: is all my careful genre specificity wasted because readers think ‘mystery’ and ‘thriller’ are synonyms?


According to Jodie Renner, author of Writing a Killer Thriller, readers were always more familiar with mysteries than with thrillers. She goes on to point out that some bookstores have a ‘Mystery’ section, but not a ‘Thriller’ section, which leads to both genres being shelved in the same space. In the rest of her guest post for DP Lyle’s Writers Forensic Blog, she talks about the two main differences between mysteries and thrillers.

First, in a mystery, neither the reader nor the protagonist knows who the killer is. The whole idea is to figure out “whodunit,” then apprehend the bad guy. In a thriller, the reader often knows who the villain is early on, and sometimes the hero does too. The object is for the hero to outwit and stop the killer before he kills others, including the hero, or endangers the world. Also, in mysteries, the protagonist is not usually in danger, whereas in thrillers, the protagonist is almost always directly threatened, fighting for his life as he matches wits with a clever, determined, amoral villain.

The other main difference between mysteries and thrillers is in the delivery—how they are told. Mysteries are usually more cerebral, for readers who enjoy solving puzzles, whereas thrillers are more heart-pounding, adrenaline-raising, appealing to the emotions and a yearning for excitement, a desire to vicariously confront danger and defeat nasty villains. A mystery, especially a “cozy” one, can unfold in a leisurely fashion, but thrillers need to be much more fast-paced and suspenseful.

Given these points, Blood in the Past and Blood in the Paint are most definitely thrillers. Even though one of the main characters becomes a cop and investigates the series of suspicious deaths, the reader knows who the killer is the entire time. (It’s in the blurb for frick’s sake!) In addition, reviewers have said that the pacing of Blood in the Past is downright page-turning. But I’m not one to brag…

Enough about me and my books. My question is: are readers aware of these differences or do they suffer from the same confusion as my beta reader? And if they do, what is the likelihood that they’ll leave less than favorable reviews as a result?





19 thoughts on “Do Readers Know the Difference Between Thrillers and Mysteries?

  1. My recently published novel started life as a mystery but the publishers called it a thriller because of the pace at end, and, perhaps, because the antagonist was exposed. Maybe some people get easily confused. Not sure about the reviewer-reader who felt it was ” a complicated tale about equestrian-related espionage and skulduggery, and a murder mystery” and that got in the way of the (background) story. Hadn’t they noted the murder was in Chapter One?

  2. Definitely a thriller. No question. Even *I* know that. The beta experience is beyond confusing. Disturbing?

    Interesting about thrillers and mystery being lumped together.

  3. Good job on explaining the differences. I don’t read mysteries or thrillers but I teach them. I’d noticed students’ confusion but couldn’t explain the differences because it’s not my area of expertise or interest.

  4. I’ve never asked myself the question, to be honest, and my first guess was pace but now that your explain that the involvement of the protagonist is also key, I feel I would have stumbled unpon that evenually!
    It’s almost the difference between the protagonist being a spectator versus a player. Investigating from the sidelines versus being in the thick of it.
    Have you come across a brilliant Australian TV production over there called Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries based on the books by Kerry Greenwood? Classic mysteries set in 1928 Melbourne*. It prompted me to think that a mystery can morph into a thriller when the killer realises the protag is on his tail. A story that starts as a mystery ends as a thriller. Even the reader may be in the dark for the same duration as the protag.

    *Useless trivia: After the 2nd series went to air here, I realised the building they use for the police station is the back of the old South Melbourne Town Hall, 5 minutes walk from where I’ve been working for nearly 15 years! Being an early 1900’s building they’ve also used the front of it for various scenes, too. Beautiful old building.

  5. I’d give it fifty fifty. Though we’d assume readers are a bit more worldly than the average schmuck on the street, the world is really full of all kinds. You ask two people the same question and you’ll get two different answers and one will have to be told which is which while the other will know. Don’t take things for granted.

  6. I am realizing the whole genre thing is difficult to know. But as authors, it’s important to know. Thanks for your clarification of Thriller. As a person and reader, I’m a wuss. Hate tension and “not knowing.” As a writer, I now realize I’m more of a Thriller writer than a Mystery writer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s