Monday 4 November 2013

Genre: Mystery, Suspense and Thrillers

By Iola Goulton

Ronald Tobias distinguishes between plots of the body and plots of the mind, and action plots are plots of the body. They are focused on providing suspense, surprise and fulfilling expectation, and the main character doesn’t necessarily change and grow as an individual (think James Bond or Jack Reacher).


The essence of a mystery novel is that there is a mystery to be solved, usually a murder. The reader is introduced to a small group of characters in the beginning of the novel, one of whom becomes the detective, one (or more) the victim, and one the murderer. Writing a good mystery requires a significant level of skill: the reader shouldn’t be able to easily identify the murderer, but there should be a logic to the plot so the reader says, ‘of course!’ when the culprit is revealed at the end (as they always are).

Cozy mysteries are popular, and generally feature a bloodless off-stage murder, little sex, violence or profanity, and a female amateur investigator (with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple being a classic example). Other sub-genres include hard-boiled (featuring the classic male detective), and police procedural (which might investigate several related crimes, and where the reader may know who the criminal is, in which case part of the suspense comes from wanting the police to catch the criminal before another crime is committed).

Fans of classic detective fiction will want to read Rules of Murder by debut author Julianna Deering. Other authors writing Christian mysteries include Mindy Starns Clark (cozy), Stephen James and J Mark Bertrand (police procedural).


If a thriller does not thrill, if it doesn’t give readers an adrenaline rush, it’s not a thriller. (Steven James)

A thriller is usually some kind of chase to find a criminal (such as a kidnapper or murderer), often before they commit another crime. These are the books that keep you awake at night—because you have to finish them before you can sleep, just in case the unthinkable happens and a major character is killed (it does happen. Not often, but it does happen). Prominent Christian thriller authors include Alton Gansky, Steven James, Creston Mapes, Robert Whitmore and Liz Wiehl.

Medical Thriller

Medical thrillers are usually centred in or around a hospital, and involve some kind of threat or crisis, whether medical or physical. Christian authors writing in this sub-genre include Hannah Alexander, Candace Calvert, Jordyn Redwood, and Richard Mabry.

Legal Thriller

The protagonist is usually a crusading lawyer out to prove a client innocent, or investigating a corrupt organisation or system. The legal system is a vital component, and the ring of authenticity is important to the reader—there is no room for factual errors in a legal thriller. Christian authors writing in this genre include James Scott Bell, Pamela Binnings Ewen, and Randy Singer.


Crime novels, in contrast, are usually from the point of view of the criminal. As such, there is little in the way of Christian crime fiction (although a thriller or romantic suspense novel may well include the criminal as a viewpoint character).


The objective of horror is to scare the reader. Personally, I don’t see the thrill in that, and it seems I’m not alone, because it’s not a common genre in Christian fiction. Authors in this area include James Rubart, Mike Duran and Ted Dekker.


In Christian fiction, speculative or visionary fiction includes some aspect of the supernatural, and this may or may not be biblically accurate (which can cause problems). While the plot is a thriller, it also requires a degree of worldbuilding, which will be discussed in the next post.

Based on these examples, you’d be forgiven for assuming that almost all thriller authors are men (one of the female names listed above, Hannah Alexander, is actually the pseudonym for a husband and wife writing team). I think that's true. Women make up more than 80% of the membership of writing organisations such as ACFW, and probably a similar proportion of fiction readers. Authors targeting the female reader are more likely to combine an action plot with a romance plot (romantic suspense), and are more likely to be women. Personally, I find many male authors emphasise action at the expense of the character relationships.

Do you write action or adventure? How do you describe what you write? What do you feel are the essential ingredients in an action novel?

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest. I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog.


  1. Another informative genre post, Iola. Thank you.

    It was interesting at 2012 ACFW Conference some stats that were presented by ThomasNelson by a survey of their readers: the 3rd most popular genre category was suspense/thriller and 69% of the readers of that genre were female which is no surprise based on the 80% statistic you supply above.

    Also of note that the biggest selling Christian novel in the past 2 years is The Harbinger (> 1 million units sold), a mystery/prophecy/end times novel.

    At present, I write speculative thrillers. Speculative because angels & demons are key characters alongside humans. Pace is very important in a thriller to keep readers turning the pages.

  2. Thanks, Ian.

    It's interesting that you should mention The Harbinger. I haven't read it, but it's topped the ECPA Fiction Bestseller list again ( It's interesting how many of the books are thrillers or suspense.

    1. I haven't read it yet either, Iola. I'd like to. Most months the list has a number of thrillers/suspense but they often don't hang around for too long unless it's The Shack or The Harbinger or one of Joel C Rosenberg's.

  3. Thanks Iola! These books can be quite similar so its good to have you define them.
    My favourite suspense does have the romance element - Mindy Starns Clark. I've read two and I find they hold me to the end.

  4. Iola, thanks for your comprehensive summary. I like reading a romance element in mystery, suspense and thriller books. Although, when I'm writing a romance first draft I prefer to read genres with zero or very little romance. You know you're primarily a romance reader when you read Books 1 and 3 in a straight mystery series, and the main reason you want to read Book 2 is to see how the very minor romance sub-plot developed in Book 2.

    1. I see we have similar tastes in romance reading, Narelle. Although my three Baragula series do have "baddies" in them I am never quite sure whether I'd dare to classify them as anything else except romance with mystery/suspense elements.This is similar thinking as books that contain "romantic elements" - meaning some romance but not focused as intently on the romance as inspirational romance books are expected to.

  5. I like reading all sorts of genres but feel more satisfied with a romance with some intrigue. I find myself skipping too much description and getting a little annoyed if what could be a really good romance is left off at the end, leaving the reader to make their own conclusion.

  6. It seems we're all romantics at heart!


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