What’s in a Name?
Suspense? Mystery? Are those the same thing? Not really. We sometimes say, “Come on, don’t keep us in suspense.” If we say, “It’s a mystery to me,” we mean something entirely different.
In the literary world that difference is significant. Suspense novels look forward: we’ve got to prevent something. Mystery novels look back: we’ve got to find out who did this. Today, though, there is a tendency to blur the distinction between the two genres. When I attend mystery conferences these days, I encounter more and more authors who are actually writing suspense novels but calling them mysteries.
Let’s clarify terms. A suspense novel can be built around the idea of trying to prevent a bomb from going off or someone being assassinated. The protagonist often knows who poses the threat and why. There’s no “mystery”—something unknown—about that. The tension, or suspense, builds as the protagonist races against the clock.
“Mystery” comes from a Greek word meaning “secret.” Mystery cults, like that of Dionysus, revealed something to their initiates which was unknown to those outside the cult. In a mystery novel the unknown thing is the person who committed a crime, and the crime is inevitably murder.
In a mystery novel, however, there will always be some suspense, particularly toward the end. As the protagonist gets closer to the solution of the mystery, the danger he/she faces increases. After all, no murderer wants to be caught.
Since 2002 I’ve published eleven mystery novels. Two are for middle-grade readers. Seven are a series set in ancient Rome and featuring Pliny the Younger, an historical person, as the sleuth. The second in that series, The Blood of Caesar, was named one of the 5 Best Mysteries of 2008 by Library Journal. The eighth is forthcoming.
The other two—Death Goes Dutch and Death by Armoire—fall into the category of “cozy” mysteries. These are stories with a female amateur sleuth. She probably works in a library, yarn shop, bakery, book store, or some other “feminine” place. She has a boyfriend/brother/significant other who is a policeman because she needs someone with law enforcement connections. Amateur sleuths can’t check fingerprints, DNA, etc. They also cannot investigate a case which the police are actively investigating.
The protagonist of Death Goes Dutch is a social worker whose primary focus is helping adult adoptees find their birth families. But some birth families don’t want to be found, especially when there’s a large trust fund involved. In Death by Armoire Maureen Cooper, a professional ghost writer, is told her ex-husband was killed when a large piece of furniture tipped over on him in his antique store, which is now hers. But, when someone breaks into the store and rifles through the armoire and other pieces from the same set, Maureen suspects there’s more involved.
I entered Death by Armoire in Writer’s Digest’s 2018 contest for self-published books. It WON the Genre Fiction category. One reviewer said it “transcends the formulaic.” I admit the book conforms to some of what one expects in a cozy, but I did try to stay away from the most obvious tropes. (The one I really hate is where a mysterious voice over the phone tells the protagonist, “Meet me in the old abandoned parking garage tonight at midnight. And come alone.” And the stupid woman does it!)
More information about me and my books is available at: www.albertbell.wixsite.com/writer
Albert A. Bell, Jr discovered his love for writing in high school, with his first publication in 1972. Although he considers himself a “shy person,” he believes he is a storyteller more than a literary artist. He says, “When I read a book I’m more interested in one with a plot that keeps moving rather than long descriptive passages or philosophical reflection.” He writes books he would enjoy reading himself.
A native of South Carolina, Dr. Bell has taught at Hope College in Holland, Michigan since 1978, and, from 1994 – 2004 served as Chair of the History Department. He holds a PhD from UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as an MA from Duke and an MDiv from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to psychologist Bettye Jo Barnes Bell; they have four children and two grandsons Bell is well-known for the historical mysteries of the series, Cases from the Notebooks of Pliny the Younger. Corpus Conundrum, third of the series, was a Best Mystery of the year from Library Journal. The Secret of the Lonely Grave, first in the series of Steve and Kendra Mysteries for young people, won a Mom’s Choice Silver Medal and the Evelyn Thurman Young Readers Award.