Thrillers and Suspense have different novelistic conventions than other mystery novels, but most booksellers shelve them in or near the Mystery area.

In a mystery novel, the protagonist’s role is usually to find the killer. While his or her motive to solve the case may involve a personal element, physical threat to the protagonist generally towards the end of the story, as he/she gets close to solving the crime.

Thrillers and suspense novels, in contrast, start out with very high stakes for the protagonist. The plot may or may not involve a murder at the outset, but the threat of danger is palpable from the get-go, and the plot builds and twists from there.

  • In Thrillers — whether the stakes are personal (a man spots and pursues his father’s killer years after the murder); patriotic (a bomb has been hidden somewhere in the White House), or international (a deadly virus will be released on a plane of 200 passengers heading from Hong Kong to Paris), the clock is ticking and the action and the pace are non-stop. An example is Alan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow.
  • In Suspense — the protagonist is generally the one being pursued and must discover the whys and wherefores — again, upping the stakes from the beginning. But here the tension builds more subtly, often more psychologically — as in the novels of Patricia Highsmith, or in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.