One of the first questions I ask myself when cooking up a legal thriller is whether the story will be structured as a mystery or a thriller. These terms are often used interchangeably, but for me they have distinct meanings.
In a mystery, the identity of the villain (almost always a murderer) is hidden until the end of the book. As the hero struggles to uncover the killer’s identity, the reader solves the mystery alongside the hero.
By contrast, in a thriller, the reader knows the identity of the bad guy and often sees the actions of the bad guy in chapters presented from the bad guy’s perspective. In a thriller, the reader often knows more than the hero. This structure can lead to an increase in suspense as the reader watches, helpless, as the hero follows false leads, walks into traps, etc.
As a reader and a writer, I enjoy both types of stories. Here’s why.
Thrillers: Seduced by the Dark Side
Villains are fun to read about. I’ve covered this topic on this blog before—you can read my thoughts here. One of the joys of the thriller structure is that the reader (and the writer) gets to spend more time with the bad guys. For a famous example of this, take a look at Thomas Harris’s brilliant novel The Silence of the Lambs. In that book, the hero, Clarice Starling, is trying to identify a serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. She spends much of the novel following clues to uncover his identity, but Harris doesn’t withhold that information from the reader. We know from early in the book that the killer’s name is [Jame], and what’s more, we spend time in his twisted mind, learn his motives, experience his creepy thought process, and see him in action as a abducts and terrorizes his latest victim.
In a less famous example, the villain of my legal thriller Burnout, Woody Butler, is never hidden from the reader. In fact, he’s revealed in the opening chapter. As Jessie and her colleagues struggle throughout the book to understand the forces moving against them, the reader knows exactly who those forces are. We spend time in Woody’s head, understanding his motivations. We watch Woody as he plots, maneuvers, and even kills. This is a type of fiction that I always enjoy as a reader. Often, when reading a book, if I reach a chapter from the bad guy’s perspective, I will eagerly devour it.
Mysteries: Working the Case
That said, there are joys to be derived from the mystery structure that can only be achieved by hiding the identity of the bad guy from the reader. From the classic Sherlock Holmes stories to the latest mysteries hitting the bestseller lists today, these stories have remained immensely popular. As readers, we enjoy riding shotgun with our detective heroes and solving mysteries alongside them. Sure, you lose the fun of watching the villain in action, but you gain the challenge of playing detective—analyzing the clues and actively participating in the mystery.
Of my books, Hardcore and Deadly Evidence are the stories that fit the mystery structure most closely. In both, the heroes and the reader don’t know the identity of the villain until the very end. However, when I outlined Deadly Evidence, that wasn’t the plan. Originally, I intended to reveal the villain early in the book, and present chapters from the villain’s perspective as the villain worked against Jessie. But as a wrote the first draft, I quickly realized that the story would be more compelling as a traditional mystery, so I scrapped the chapters from the villain’s perspective and focused on the good guys solving the mystery. Looking back on the novel now, I believe I made the right call.
Because I am a fan of both types of stories, I will probably continue to write mysteries and thrillers. (As I mentioned above, the next Jessie Black book, coming soon, is of the thriller variety—its villain is revealed to the reader early on.) I love that the legal thriller genre so readily encompasses mysteries and thrillers.
Do you have a preference between mysteries (in which the identity of the killer is withheld from the reader, who solves the crime along with the hero) or thrillers (in which the villain’s identity is revealed to the reader early on, so that you can follow the bad guy as a character in the book)? Please let me know in the comments section below!