"I can't believe this library! You have no copies of James Patterson, John Grisham, and Nelson DeMille! What kind of library is this?" These words came from an extremely upset woman who came to the reference desk understandably dismayed that we did not carry her favorite authors. Where had she looked? In the mystery section, of course. Isn't that where these authors would be? Well, actually, no. We do, indeed, collect books by these authors, but they are found in regular fiction, not mystery, because they are considered thrillers or suspense. What is the difference between a mystery and a thriller/suspense title? Basically, a mystery is a puzzle, a game of whodunit. A crime has occurred, which we usually don't see happen, and the protoganist (police detective, amateur sleuth, etc.) must uncover the truth and bring the perpetrator to justice. On the other hand, a suspense/thriller novel works with an imminent fear of danger. A roller coaster of heart pounding thrills ensues and we hang on for the death defying ride.
It is not always easy to decide where to place a book in our collection, these guidelines notwithstanding. Mary Higgins Clark can be considered more of a suspense novelist than a mystery novelist, since her heroines are almost always in peril. However, her books are mostly found in mystery (the exception being her very early titles which were placed, more correctly, in regular fiction).
What are some other rules of thumb concerning mysteries and suspense? A mystery novel is more cerebral, a suspense novel is more action oriented. Readers of mysteries are looking for clues, readers of suspense are expecting surprises. For the penultimate word, let's turn to the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. He said "Mystery is mystifying; it is an intellectual thing. Suspense is an emotional thing." Let the ultimate words be mine, it doesn't really matter where the books are, as long as we can find them.