So, what is a thriller? Years ago, when I looked up the definitions of mystery, suspense and thrillers, a mystery was defined as a story where the reader follows the detective as he solves the crime. The reader is one step behind the discovery, and can't know anything until the detective does. The Sherlock Holmes tales are good examples of classic mystery.
A suspense, on the other hand, puts the reader one step ahead of the protagonist. Whereas in a mystery, a detective would have to solve the crime after it happens, in a suspense, it's more likely there's a crime to prevent. One thing that automatically shifts a mystery into suspense territory is using multiple points of view, including the killer's. In a suspense, the reader is privy to information before the protagonist. Think Hitchcock.
The definition of a thriller that I discovered all those years ago was that a thriller is a suspense with consequences of global proportion. So, the story wouldn't be about someone to stop a "mere" serial killer, it would be along the lines of stopping someone from assassinating a world leader, throwing the planet into chaos. Or preventing a bioterrorist attack, or anything else that would result in a widespread disaster.
Frankly, that definition of thriller kept me from reading them. I'm not into politics, or global disasters, and at heart, I'm a mystery lover. But when I saw more and more books labeled thrillers, and when I was going to conferences where these "thriller" authors were speaking, I did pick up a few books and discovered I didn't consider them thrillers at all. Suspense, yes, but more often than not, the books I read were centered around a protagonist and very "localized" rather than global.
I mentioned this to Lee Child, asking him if he thought the publishers were tacking "thriller" onto what I'd consider good suspense books, and he smiled and said, "Do you want to know the difference between a suspense and a thriller? It's an extra zero on your advance."
So, there it is. Thrillers now are defined as "fast-paced suspense novels" and it doesn't really matter if the world is going to be destroyed or if a small-town mayor gets poisoned. As long as the reader is kept turning pages, you can call the book a thriller. Of course, since any author's goal is to keep readers turning pages, one could argue that any book could be a thriller. Of course, that's an overstatement, and I think one still expects the suspense element to be there.
What about you? Any books that didn't "match" your own definition of the genre? Do you think the publishers are labeling things to sell books rather than to define what the reader gets when he reads them?
Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.