Sunday, May 1, 2011

Mystery vs. Thriller

By Hilary Davidson

On Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel with agent Janet Reid and publisher Ben LeRoy (pictured with me, in a photo courtesy of Dorri Olds). We were at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference in New York, talking crime fiction. The inevitable question came up: What's the difference between a mystery and a thriller? I've heard the difference described in one way that's really stuck with me: in a mystery, you're trying to solve a crime that's been committed, and in a thriller, you're trying to prevent a crime from being committed. That oversimplifies things tremendously, but it's my rule of thumb. So, to this week's question.

The setup: a 30-something woman, an older man, a high-rise office, and a gun.

Mystery version:

Ella Rovan cursed herself as she stepped into the elevator. If she'd kept her head on straight, she never would've ended up in this position. A fool, that's what she was. Everyone else would know it soon enough, unless...
She willed the thought away. She was on a fool's errand and she knew it. Her faint hope that Aaron would be able to help her now made her feel like an idiot. How many times had he disappointed her? Still, she got off at the thirty-first floor, noticing how dingy the carpet was and how the scent of damp dog lingered in the hallway, long after a rainstorm. She found Suite F and knocked on the door. There was a rustling sound behind it, then silence. She knocked louder. Nothing.
"Aaron?" she called. "Open the damn door!"
It took a moment, but it creaked open. "Ella? What are you doing here? Did Mom send you?"
"Of course not." She pushed her way inside. "What kind of stupid question is that..." Her voice trailed off as she spotted the gun on the desk. "What the hell are the doing with that?"
"Don't worry. I've got a license."
"What, from a Cracker Jack box?"
"You know, you're a pretty great theater producer, but you're a sucky sister." Aaron retreated behind the desk and hid the gun in a drawer. "I thought you might be... ah, never mind. What's a bigshot like you doing here, anyway? Isn't your next Tony winner opening next week?"
"It would be, if..." Ella's head felt light, and she felt her head roll back. There was a tiny window, high up the wall, and she tried to focus on it, even though all she saw was grime. "Aaron, my boyfriend just vanished with everything I own, and a lot that I don't. If you can't find him, I'm going to jail."

Thriller version:

Ella Rovan cursed herself as she stepped into the elevator. If she'd kept her head on straight, she never would've ended up in this position. She looked at her watch. Six hours, that was all she had left. How many people could maintain a countdown to their own death?
She'd given up hope of finding an antidote. All she could do now was save others.
The doors opened on the thirty-first floor, and she staggered out. The poison affected her faculties, dulling her vision yet making her hearing painfully acute. Her own heartbeat filled her ears as she moved forward. A slender young blonde in a tight-fitting designer suit stepped toward her, passing by with her face twisted into a mask of revulsion. The poison made Ella sweat, and by now red bumps were assembling over her skin. She probably looked like a plague victim. Well, the world would soon be filled with them if she didn't get to Aaron.
The door to his office was unlocked. Since when had Aaron become so lax about security? she thought, stumbling over the threshold. Her eyes were overwhelmed by the brightness of the lights, and she bobbed and weaved for a moment trying to catch her breath.
"Aaron?" she croaked, staring at the man seated at the desk. He was wearing a gray pinstripe suit, his pocket square folded just so. A thin trickle of blood ran down the side of his face, spilling from the bullet hole in his temple. There was a pistol on the desk in front of him, near his right hand, placed to suggest that Aaron had leaned forward and ended his own life.
The blonde, Ella realized, falling forward. Another assassin. They were being eliminated one by one...

* * *

I'm thrilled to share some truly wonderful news: The Damage Done is a finalist for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel! I'll be in Victoria on June 2nd for the awards ceremony. I'll also be speaking on two panels at the Bloody Words conference in Victoria. I've got some other events coming up in New York City and East Hampton, NY, and I hope to see some friendly faces in the audience!


Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Great explanation. I'd want to read both of those.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks so much, Sue Ann!

Rebecca Cantrell said...

There's a definition I can actually get behind. Simple and logical.

Loved both pieces. Creepy and sinister. I think I might have these red bumps starting to form...

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks, Becky! (BTW, those little red bumps are insidious... but I know a mad scientist with a possible cure... only he's trapped on a tropical island guarded by tigers and... okay, breaking out of thriller mode now!)

Dorri Olds said...

Your panel was great! It was one of my faves of the whole ASJA conference weekend!

Dorri said...

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to your panel. It was one of my absolute faves from the entire ASJA conference weekend! Thanks!