May 31

Deciding a Genre for your Mystery Novel


Recently, I received a mail from a writer requesting my help to decide a genre for his novel. He said that the book was a romantic thriller but that it was lacking in the ‘thriller’ part. He asked me what to call such a novel. I said, ‘Romance’. Yes, fixing a genre for your novel can be as simple or as complicated as that.

When you write your novel, do not try to make it fit into a genre. Allow the writing to flow organically. A writer should not be obsessed by the category of the novel. Novels have genres so that publishers and bookstores find it easier to sell and market them.

Another disappointing trend, that seems to be in vogue, is to label a mystery or a suspense novel or a police procedural as a ‘psychological crime thriller’! Though the story might be perplexing, that does not give it the right to be called a ‘psychological’ crime thriller unless and until the novel explores the psychology and mental make-up of the antagonist.

While there are some situations where a book is categorized wrongly just because a particular genre is more popular, in most situations, these genres overlap with each other and it can be bewildering to find out the right one. While one reader finds a book to be a mystery, the other might call it a suspense. Recently, I read a book that was labeled ‘horror’ but I would have definitely labeled it as ‘literary fiction’.

Though I am no expert in these matters, I thought of sharing a few general features of each of these genres. I hope this article can help answer your query whether your novel is a Mystery or a Suspense or a Thriller.


A mystery is a novel where the detective (who may be an amateur or a professional) solves a perplexing case one clue at a time. There is always something in a mystery that you don’t know till the end. Usually, a mystery is in the master detective’s point of view (POV). Mysteries can be classified as Classic Mystery, Cozy Mystery, Historical Mystery, Hard boiled Mystery, etc.


A hard-boiled mystery has graphic scenes of sex or violence or both. The language has more slang and is usually set in an urban atmosphere. Raymond Chandler was one of the most popular authors of hard-boiled mysteries.


A cozy mystery is a category of mystery that is, for want of a better word, cozier. In these kind of novels, the detective is usually an amateur who has some other interest. For instance, a travel blogger who finds a body on the London Bridge and ends up getting entangled in the mystery of finding the killer. A cozy mystery has lesser blood and gore when compared to other mystery novels. The best example for cozy mysteries are the ones penned by Agatha Christie that star the smart old spinster detective, Miss. Marple.


In a suspense novel, the feeling of fascination and excitement is coupled with anxiety and tension. There is uncertainty and anticipation and an obscure future that stares at the protagonist. The suspense element in these novels need not be connected to a crime. For instance, the popular Tamil movie, ‘Chennaiyil Oru Naal’ is about transporting a heart in time for an organ transplant. Though there is no crime element in the story, the plot is fraught and thrilling.

The lines of distinction between a mystery and suspense novel are based on the crime element and the level of blood and gore. Also, while a mystery is about solving the crime and is usually a whodunnit, a suspense / thriller is about stopping the criminal.


Thriller is a broad genre with many sub-genres. Wikipedia defines this genre perfectly. ‘Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.’ Simply put, a thriller should thrill.

Mostly, thrillers give us a peek into the life and psyche of the antagonist. The plot is driven by the villain and he or she keeps posing challenges to the protagonist.

A thriller should keep you on the edge of the seat till you reach the climax. Depending on the mood that it elicits, or based on the topics that it deals with, a thriller is categorised into subgenres. For instance, medical thriller, suspense thriller, legal thriller, crime thriller, political thriller, etc.


In my opinion, this is the most abused genre of all. With the recent success of popular psychological thrillers such as The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, The Girl Before, Into the Water, etc, there have been a sharp spate of increase in the number of titles with ‘girl’ in them followed by books being categorised as ‘psychological crime thrillers’ though they do not justify that category.

These are some of the important features of psychological thrillers:

  1. The plot should emphasise on the mental instability of the characters. For example, the television series, Dexter, is the perfect example of a psychological crime thriller.
  2. One or more of the characters may be delusional.
  3. Usually, a psychological thriller is narrated through the viewpoint of the disturbed characters. (There may be more than one POV but at least one is of the disturbed character.)
  4. The distorted mental discernments of the character(s) is revealed in the novel.
  5. In many psychological thrillers, it is difficult to distinguish the protagonist and the antagonist. Sometimes, you feel sympathy and attachment to the antagonist that you do not want justice to be served to them. In my debut novel, Birds of Prey, a psychological crime thriller, the male protagonist was completely overshadowed by the disturbed female antagonist and the sympathy-filled reviews that poured in were all carried away by her.
Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) – The Walking Dead – Season 4 _ Gallery – Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

I hope this answers most of the queries that I receive about how to fix a genre for a mystery novel. If you have any more queries or if you have more points to add to this, please drop in a message.

Meanwhile, I leave you with the famous quote by Iain Reid in his psychological thriller, I’m Thinking of Ending Things:

“Maybe it’s impossible. Maybe even in the longest, closest, most successful marriages, the one partner doesn’t always know what the other is thinking. We’re never inside someone else’s head. We can never really know someone else’s thoughts. And it’s thoughts that count. Thought is reality. Actions can be faked.”


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About the author

Welcome! I write for adults and children. More importantly, I love to write for writers. This is where I share everything I know about this mysterious process of writing.

Archana Sarat

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