Suspense Subgenre Discussion

cover imageWe had a lively discussion of suspense fiction at the Southeastern Mass. Reader’s Advisory Roundtable meeting in Carver last week. Thank you to Amy for hosting!

We talked about the chapter on suspense in Joyce Saricks’ book Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, 2nd ed. (pp. 50-59); a Mystery.Net article by Janet L. Smith titled Mystery vs. Suspense Thriller Book Genres; and a handout on suspense created by two members of the venerable Chicago-area ARRT. We tried to focus less on trying to define suspense or deciding if it is a subgenre of mystery or not, and more on talking about about what characteristics we would expect a suspense story to have. We also talked about the terms “thriller” and “suspense” and what the differences might be between them.

Main characteristics of suspense:

  • Creates an atmosphere of tension and makes the reader feel tense
  • Puts a main character(s) that readers care about in jeopardy
  • Is more about what’s about to happen than about a crime that has already happened
  • Often – not always – gives the reader more information about what’s going on than the protagonist has
  • Usually has action taking place in contemporary setting over the course of a short period of time (a few days or weeks)

 The group members had a variety of responses to See Jane Run by Joy Fielding – a story about a woman suffering from hysterical amnesia – and whether it did or didn’t succeed in keeping the reader in suspense, making the reader care about Jane, and maintaining tension. Whitney suggested that a more recent novel, Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson, takes a similar premise and does it better. Amy noted too many errors related to the Boston setting that showed the author didn’t really know the area well. Others commented that the action was too slow to call See Jane Run a thriller. As with all older benchmark titles, See Jane Run – published in 1991 – may suffer in comparison to later books because what was shocking at the time is no longer, and what seemed new and different to readers then, no longer does.

See Jane Run shows up frequently on read-alike lists for Mary Higgins Clark, an author of suspense without graphic sex or violence, including this If You Like Mary Higgins Clark book list from Overbooked, which the group was referred to.

Everyone shared and discussed their second titles in the suspense subgenre. If you haven’t posted your second title annotation on the blog yet, there’s still time. The second titles from the Private Investigators meeting have been posted.

A recommended resource for our mystery genre study, in addition to the ones listed on the MLS Readers’ Advisory LibGuide is BookList’s recent Fall Into a Good Mystery 1-hour webinar. (To watch a BookList webinar for the first time, you may have to download and install Network Recording Player software.)

Update: The first submissions of second titles in the suspense subgenre have been posted. There’s still time to submit your second title; they will be added as they come in.

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