Christine’s note: This is a guest post by award-winning author Patrick Kendrick. His latest crime thriller, Acoustic Shadows, (HarperCollins) is available now. Click here to enter the Goodreads giveaway!
I often talk to other writers who, when asked what they write, will answer “mysteries, you know, thrillers.” To be sure, thrillers and mysteries have something common—usually murder, or murders—and they often cross lines with several elements of their structure, pacing, style, and characters. But, the two genres really are quite separate.
Let’s look at some of those differences.
Structure of Cozy Mysteries
The primary difference between the two genres, is that cozies are often, not always, based on a formula:
Quirky Character(s) + A Non-Graphic Murder + Puzzle to be Solved = Cozy.
There is a description of a quaint town, and the characters that inhabit it, one of which is either a small town police chief, or some other type of amateur “detective.” It could be a clever dry cleaner, or baker, for that matter.
There is a murder, usually, “off-screen,” so we hear of it, or we might even see it, but not morbidly graphic. The criminal is typically one of the first characters we meet, though we are not suspect of him/her.
The structure is that of piecing together a puzzle. Think of any Agatha Christie novel and you have the formula. There are a number of popular writers who still use that formula to great success.
Structure of Crazy Thrillers
Crazies are often, not always, based on real murders or real life-inspired events and often read like that. Ripped from the headlines is the formula and it’s typically a shocking incident: a mass, spree, or serial killing occurs, into which a detective (and this can be another type of professional investigator such as a State Fire Marshal, or FBI agent, a CSI investigator, etc. ) enters.
The detective often becomes part of the crime, that is, their life is almost always at some risk for taking on this dark task. This creates suspense as we, the reader, already know the horrific way in which the killer dispatches his victims. Think of Thomas Harris or John Sandford books.
So, for thrillers, the structure is:
Horrific Murder + Crime Weary, Experienced Detective + Threatened Life (or Lives) = Crazy.
All of the crimes in my last book, Extended Family, were based on real murders and they’re very disturbing. In my new novel, Acoustic Shadows, the story starts off with a mass killing, a school shooting, based on one of now many, unfortunately, that troubled me so much that I had to write about it, and try to produce a character that could stop it, or at least control it.
Pacing: Controlled vs. Breakneck
- Cozies tend to move along at a controlled pace, introducing some puzzles pieces that the reader is supposed to assemble, along with an “A-ha” moment thrown in here and there to keep up the mild suspense.
- Crazies move along at breakneck pace. If you don’t have a graphic murder, or several, in the first chapter, you probably are not writing a thriller. Here, we can smell the blood, see the severed head or the disemboweled intestines. It is meant to be disturbing and create fear, not a puzzle. And that fear creates suspense; if done right, intense suspense.
Style: Quirky vs. Graphic
- Cozies often have romantic influences and it is not uncommon to find many writers who have written romance and mystery genres. They are often humorous. Details are in the architecture, the brass door knobs, the frilly skirts, the bespectacled librarian, perhaps even a heaving bosom, or two. The crime is restricted, usually, to the quaint town, or even a singular home, or castle.
- Crazies often have strong sexual content, gruesome, graphic descriptions of the crimes and are written to evoke an emotional response– even if it is repulsion. The crime scenes change often and may cover many miles and locations, which adds to the reader’s unease and helps sustain that suspense. They are almost never humorous.
P.O.V’s and Characterizations
- The point of view in the cozy is almost always the detective’s or his sidekick, i.e. Captain Arthur Hastings from the Poirot novels. The characters are witty, funny, temperamental, fussy or eccentric.
- They are often caricatures more so than characters. They can be meticulous but just as often can seem careless and unassuming, even bumbling. Think of Colombo, or Monk.
- The killer is often someone with something to gain, or there might not even be a murder. The criminal, with few exceptions is not as interesting as the sleuth.
- There might be a theft of the family heirloom or the prized pet. There are often animals in the cozies and sometimes the pet is the “detective” and solves the crime.
- In crazies, the killer might be the antagonist of the story, and it might be written in first person. POV’s are often shifted among various characters.
- In Extended Family, there are two first person narratives. One is from our protagonist, Fire Marshal Greymon Gift, the other we are not sure about other than we know he is a very demented killer. You might suspect it is Gift in both narratives and this creates a natural tension, a discomfort of where the story might go.
- In Acoustic Shadows we know what all of the characters are thinking, with their shifting POV’s, but the mystery is their motivation. Why is the lawman, Justin Thiery so full of doubt? What secret is the school teacher hiding? Why are the killers so mentally deranged? The killers in crazies are often at least as interesting as the protagonist, if not more so.
So, if you have not guessed yet, I am a crazy writer (in more ways than one, I’m afraid). I have witnessed murder victims and numerous violent crimes. I’ve personally known a serial killer (long story) so I feel, with my crazies I am, in a sense, reporting on the violence of these crimes (a hangover from freelance journalism, I’m afraid.)
With that, I feel an obligation to write the scenes as realistically and as uncomfortably, as possible. Because, murders are not cute or cozy in real life. I enjoy reading cozies from time to time, often because they contain detailed descriptions of historical interests that I find fascinating. But, I doubt I could write one.
If you read my “crazy” books and are compelled to question the motivation of a strange neighbor, or question where his wife went, or turn to see what caused the sound behind you in the dark driveway, then I’ve succeeded.