I've done some research these past few weeks on this topic, and here’s what I found: Mystery novels make you think. Suspense novels make you sweat.
But let’s look a bit closer at each.
The Mystery Novel
A mystery is a secret. A puzzle to be solved. It makes the reader curious. It causes the reader to make guesses as to the outcome. It hooks the reader because the mystery is baffling, unsettling, and begs a resolution.
In a mystery novel, the crime usually happens off stage, and it cannot be solved until the end of the story.
These types of stories tend to have a large cast because the reader needs many suspects. The murderer could be anyone! And as each character is introduced into the story, the reader develops a sense of whether or not each might be guilty or innocent. Clues and red herrings are planted.
The protagonist may be a detective or an amateur sleuth, who gathers the clues or pieces to the puzzle and assembles them in order to find the truth of what happened. In real life, in order to convince a grand jury to indict someone of a crime, there must be probable cause that the suspect committed a crime. The detective or sleuth in a mystery novel must do this as well.
Probable cause states that this person probably committed this particular crime at this place and at this time. And there must be evidence for each of these things to make an arrest. Proof that who did what and where. Just like in the board game Clue (the weapon goes with the “what”). Check out the movie Clue, starring Tim Curry sometime. Another great example of mysteries are the Sherlock Holmes books or movies.
In a mystery, the reader discovers the clue or red herring at the same time as the protagonist does. The reader becomes the investigator too. Mystery novels tend to be slower paced. They’re an unwinding a spool of thread. They challenge the reader’s smarts. They explore the criminal’s mind and motives. Why would a sane person commit a heinous crime? Or how could an insane criminal so perfectly cover his tracks? A mystery is intellectually satisfying to the reader.
The Suspense Novel
Suspense is a condition of mental uncertainty. Like a mystery, it makes the reader curious, but it also makes the reader anxious and excited as he waits for all to be revealed. It plants questions in the reader’s mind. Will the criminal get away with this? Will the hero figure it out in time?
In a suspense novel, the crime often happens on the page, the reader may or may not know who committed the crime, but the reader is waiting to discover how the hero is going to put it all together and how it might impact his life.
The hero is often thrust into the role. He might be a police officer, but he might be a regular guy without any skills or training to face such criminals. He would rather be coaching little league, but he’s been forced by someone or something to step up and protect his loved ones from danger. The stakes are high.
He must keep the terrorists from obtaining their objective, stop the bomb from exploding, keep the zombies away from the kids. The reader lives vicariously through the hero, experiencing a thrill as he faces danger and tries to save the day. A great example is the movie Speed, in which a young cop must prevent a bomb exploding aboard a city bus by keeping its speed above 50 mph.
Alfred Hitchcock explained suspense as, “A state of waiting for something to happen.” If a mystery is an unwinding a spool of thread, a suspense novel is jumping from an airplane and waiting to hit the ground. The excitement should build and build until the ending. It’s not about fear, it’s about waiting for something to happen.
In a suspense novel, the reader sees what’s going to happen before the hero does. This creates that feeling of danger in the reader. He wants to scream, “No! Don’t trust that guy!” or “Don’t get in the car!”
Hitchcock uses the example of a bomb to explain the difference between mystery and suspense. In a mystery, two people might be eating lunch in a restaurant, talking, and a bomb suddenly explodes. Then the story would be: Who did it?
In a suspense novel, the reader would see the criminal come in and plant the bomb. The patrons in the restaurant wouldn't see him. But the reader would know. He would listen to the patron’s conversation, on the edge of his seat, knowing that an explosion was imminent. The clock is tick-tick-ticking, just like the reader’s heartbeat. A suspense novel is emotionally satisfying to the reader.
What are some of your favorite mystery or suspense novels, movies, or TV programs?