Thrillers and mysteries, and suspense . . . oh my! Who can keep up with the genres and subgenres in the world of thrilling books? With an estimated 4 million books published in 2019 alone in the U.S., according to a study by ProQuest Bowker Report, it’s easy to see how readers can become overwhelmed with what’s what in the literary world.
Let’s first define these three popular genres: thriller, mystery, and suspense. Then we’ll look at the key elements that make thriller novels “must-read” versus, “hmm, that was pretty good.” Lastly, we’ll peek at three thrillers perfect for your summer reading list.
What are the similarities and differences between thriller, mystery, and suspense books?
Thrillers are like the drama queens of the genre. They sweep in, proclaim peril, and get readers’ hearts racing in short order. Thrillers are typically set in large urban areas and often take place in multiple locations around the globe (think of Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code or Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series). Thrillers induce excitement, tension, fear, and other adrenaline-fueled reactions, hence the name.
While thrillers can be personal—a single woman being stalked by an obsessive ex—they’re typically set on a broader stage. In The Davinci Code, for example, Robert Langdon holds the fate of many people in his hands. If he can’t solve the puzzle and stop the killer, many innocent people will die. Another hallmark of the triller genre is that the protagonist is racing against time to stop some evil plot from unfolding.
In mysteries, on the other hand, the bad thing has typically already occurred. The smoking gun has been found or the bloody knife discovered in the bed of tulips. Now, the protagonist must use his or her wits to figure out the who and why behind the crime. Mystery novels are broken down into several subgenres—everything from culinary cozy mysteries to private investigator mysteries and many more in between. The late Sue Grafton’s popular Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Series is a great example of classic mystery novels.
According to an article on Author Learning Center, suspense novels—though closely related to both thriller and mysteries—differentiate themselves in this way: “In a suspense novel, the sense of worry or anticipation is very high because the reader is aware of things that the protagonist is not. This creates even more anxiety in the reader, causing the novel to be more suspenseful than a mystery or thriller.”
What Thriller Books Need to Be Un-Put-Down-Able
Chances are you’ve read a book and been so engrossed that the sound of your phone ringing or the doorbell chiming made you jump. That’s the sign of a great novel and a talented author. Thriller books need these important elements to be successful:
- Believable characters—Protagonists must be not only knowledgeable and able to defeat the villain (we hope) but also likeable or at least relatable. You may have nothing in common with Jack Reacher, the famous character in Lee Child’s popular series, but because we’re introduced to some of Reacher’s vulnerabilities and past hurts, we’re more able to relate to him.
- Great, immersible settings—Many—though not all—thrillers are set in famous cities around the world. What’s most important is that the thriller author makes it clear what the setting looks like, feels like, and even smells like, for the reader. You may have never been to the remote Great Basket Island, off Ireland. But a good thriller author will make you feel like you’re right there, listening to the throaty calls of the grey seals that migrate there each summer.
- Twisting plots—Plots that slog along in predictable, steady steps have no place in thriller novels. Instead, high-octane books in this genre are filled with twists and unexpected turns, leaving us, the readers, on the edge of our seats.
- Cliffhangers—That feeling you get when you reach the end of a chapter only to tell yourself, “just one more” despite it being way past your bedtime? That’s a cliffhanger. Great thrillers keep you turning pages long after you intended to move onto another task, even if that task was sleeping.
- Climax—Important in any novel, this is where the whole story comes together. In thriller books, the climax is even more important. This is often the scene when the great battle or final showdown between good guy and bad guy (or girl) happens. A satisfying conclusion leaves the reader with a sense of contentment and satisfaction. An unsatisfactory or ill-explained climax scene, on the other hand, leaves readers frustrated or perhaps even angry at the author.
3 Must-Read Thrillers for Your Summer Reading List
Whether you’re already halfway through your summer #tbr list or haven’t started it yet, here are three must-read thrillers to add to your list.
Faithless by Steven Ramirez
Jane wakes up to find men in gray suits are trying to kill her. When she’s shot though, Jane heals. How is that possible? Who are these men and why do they want Jane dead? And what will happen if Jane stops taking the experimental drug that she learns is keeping her alive? Faithless hit shelves on May 16th. Steven Ramirez is a thriller and horror author who has also penned the excellent Sarah Greene Mystery series and the popular zombie series, Tell Me When I’m Dead.
The Match by Ann Dominguez
The first in a two-book series, The Match follows medical student, Kate Deming, who wants only to keep her marriage and family together as she finishes a tough residency program. But when the mob and gangs in her native Chicago make the winter the city’s bloodiest ever, Kate is inadvertently swept into the turf war. This book won a best mystery/suspense award through the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and promises to keep readers glued to the page.
The Drowning Kind by Jennifer McMahon
Known for her spellbinding and creepy novels, author Jennifer McMahon’s newest, The Drowning Kind, released April 6th, is a modern-day ghost story with deep thriller vibes. When Jax, a social worker, receives nine messages from her sister, Lexie, who struggles with mania, she puts off calling her back. The next day, Lexie is found dead in the pool of their grandmother’s estate. As Jax cleans up the remains of her sister’s life, she finds that secrets in their family’s—and the land’s—past played a frightening role in her sister’s death.
What are some of your favorite thrillers? Let me know in the comments below!