Romantic Mystery Vs. Romantic Suspense

Jacqueline SeewaldMultiple award-winning author Jacqueline Seewald has taught creative, expository and technical writing at the university level as well as high school English. She also worked as an academic librarian and an educational media specialist. Eleven of her books of fiction have been published. Her short stories, poems, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in hundreds of diverse publications. Her Kim Reynolds mystery series includes: The Inferno Collection, The Drowning Pool, and newest release The Truth Sleuth, all of which received excellent reviews from BOOKLIST.

There seems to be some confusion as to whether romantic mystery and romantic suspense are the same genre of fiction.  In fact, they are not. My latest mystery novel The Truth Sleuth published by Five Star/Gale in hardcover, for example, is a romantic mystery not romantic suspense. It is the third Kim Reynolds librarian sleuth mystery novel in a series, the first two being The Infernal Collection and The Drowning Pool.

In romantic suspense, the mystery is secondary to the romance. Plot focus is always on the romance while the mystery merely offers a plot device, usually ways to bring the hero and heroine closer together.

The Truth SleuthIn a romantic mystery, the love interest is secondary. The mystery and finding its solution is the key plot factor. The romantic aspect usually serves to provide added depth to the main character(s) and make them more real to the reader.

In romantic suspense there is always a happy ending with the couple united at the end in the love of their lives. In romantic mystery novels, which are often part of a series like mine, that is not necessarily the case–although it can be. Also in a romantic mystery series the main protagonists are more like real people with their lives changing and their character developing. Ideally, these novels are not static–one reason a romantic mystery series can grow in popularity and recognition.

As a reader, I enjoy both types of genres and consider each very satisfying. As a writer,

I like to experiment with both types of fiction as well.

Any thoughts or opinions on this subject?  Do you prefer one type of genre over another and if so why?


33 thoughts on “Romantic Mystery Vs. Romantic Suspense

  1. You have an interesting take on the RM/RS genres. There do seem to be two distinct styles of romantic suspense now, but I hadn’t considered romantic mystery the same way. Good, Jacqueline. You’ve given me something to think about.


  2. Genre should matter more to me as I write; however, I write a story, influenced by the environment and the personality of the characters. The setting is critical to most of my writing. The characters play out their roles in relationship to each other and the setting. There is generally an unresolved question that leads the reader to seek answers and an element of the unknown that may be a family or romantic entanglement gone wrong that needs correcting. My characters reflect the thoughts, actions and struggles of real people with their emotions clearly visible. The plot is the critical element but romance is always on the horizon. My first novel was labeled General Fiction; my second was labeled Mainstream Paranormal and my upcoming works will likely be General Fiction as well since the pattern is a little wobbly….thanks for a thought provoking topic. author of Ghost Orchid and more


  3. I totally agree with your definitions and would add one more distinction. A romantic mystery often has a whodunit type puzzle at its core. The story may begin with a crime and the sleuth tries to unravel the villain’s identity. In a romantic suspense, the villain may be known at the start, so the story becomes a chase to prevent him from doing more evil. Or even if the killer’s identity is unknown, the story switches viewpoints between the hero and heroine, whose thoughts are focused on each other as well as the suspense element.


  4. Hi D.K.,

    Sometimes the labels publishers give books are perplexing.
    It presents a problem, for instance, when books are reviewed. For example, mystery reviewers are sometimes very critical of romantic suspense while romance reviewers might tend to find a mystery novel with a smaller romantic element boring.


  5. Hi, Nancy,

    I agree with your observations. Each of my romantic mysteries is a who-dun-it while a romantic suspense novel might be a suspense thriller. Good distinction!


  6. I’m really sorry, but I can’t agree. I don’t believe these fine distinctions make a significant difference to readers. In fact I find some evidence that the divisions of all literature into smaller and smaller sub-sub-sub genres makes the sale of books to the ultimate audience more difficult. It certainly means that publisher’s sales departments, trying to pigeonhole new manuscripts, often reject good works because they can’t figure out a sales label. In some areas of the world there is in use a large umbrella. Crime Fiction. Personally, I’d like to see libraries and bookstores shelve everything in three categories with age-significant sub categories. Fiction, Non-fiction and Other.


  7. Hello, Carl,

    I appreciate your comments. I agree that the significance to readers in drawing fine distinctions is unnecessary.
    For review purposes, I think it is valuable. You may be an open-minded reviewer, but many are not. For instance, there are those who review mystery but dislike any element of romance or the paranormal in the plot. This happens quite often to the detriment of authors.


  8. I’d never thought about this and found it interesting. Writers should be aware of the options you describe because it allows flexibility for letting the story go where it wants to go. As a reader, I agree with Carl about over-defining sub genres. The writing and the story either grab me and hold me or not. Some amount of sleuthing is required to hold my interest, but it doesn’t matter if it’s labeled suspense or mystery as long as it’s well done.


  9. Earl,

    Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I don’t like writing or reading “category” fiction with set rules and regulations either. I enjoy flexibility as well. Writing out-of-box encourages creativity. But publishers do like to pidgeonhole authors.


  10. Hummmm-after this really interesting blog and comments (thanks all 🙂 I’ve still got two that are such halfnhalfs I’m having trouble making up my mind LOL. Fortunately hey’re stand-alones. 🙂
    Jackie Griffey


  11. You draw some interesting, helpful distinctions. Another difference, I think, is that in romances of all sorts, readers generally know from the beginning who the hero and heroine are: If a female protagonist is attracted to a man, readers can usually be confident that he’s basically a good guy, perhaps with a few intriguing character flaws. In a romantic mystery–at least if it’s a stand-alone or the first in a series–there’s always the chance that the heroine is falling for someone who will turn out to be the murderer, or involved in the central crime in some other way; maybe he’s keeping secrets from the protagonist, maybe even using her or betraying her. That, to my mind, adds to the suspense.


  12. Thanks for bringing up this fun topic, Jacqueline. I used to wrestle it while working at a small indie bookstore. Avid readers drew careful distinctions and wanted to know exactly where to find romance, mystery, or fiction. Publishers would often designate romantic suspense as fiction, not mystery, which would frustrate people looking for such books. We finally put romantic mystery and romantic suspense in the mystery section, no matter what the publishers said, with a sign indicating that the section contained both mystery and suspense. General romance books went into the fiction area. That seemed to please most people. My preference is to read and write romantic mystery. Liz


  13. Jackqueline,

    I agree that there is a distinction between romantic mystery and romantic suspense and I think that the distinctions are major. Mysteries must have various components and these components themselves change depending on the mystery’s subgenre. Romance, too, has it’s own special set of requirements and readers expect stories to remain true to those requirements.

    Diana Driver


  14. I agree as well about the distintions. I write RS, and there is always a stong love story. I donb’t think I would know how to write a story without the love theme included! Great post!


  15. Interesting post, Jacqueline, and helpful information for authors attempting classification to decide which publisher to approach with their work, or being able to categorize a story when pitching or querying.

    Runere McLain


  16. Great post, Jacqueline, and thought provoking comments. I can empathize with publishers, publicists and bookstores trying to identify the best way to market or sell a book. I write a humorous mystery series which although it’s PG still has more than the normal hint of romance. I was told by a big publisher that I had to remove the romance because there was no genre called humorous romantic mystery.

    I was told by my fans that they love the romantic aspect in my books. And fortunately my current publisher does too. Isn’t it great that there are so many options out there for authors and readers!


  17. An intriguing post 🙂 I don’t totally agree with your definition of romantic suspense, however. As a writer of 31 RS novels, I can attest that within the RS genre you will find a wide range of romance in individual books. Keeping the discussion to mainstream rather than category RS, many of the books have the suspense plot front and center with the romance secondary. How much time/space is given to the romance varies a great deal between authors and books. You are correct, however, with the expectation for a happy ending in the RS books.

    I think the distinction between RS and romantic mysteries lies more with the suspense element, or lack thereof in the novels.

    I do welcome the addition of romantic relationships in mysteries and thrillers these days. I find they add a human element that has long been lacking in the stories and make the characters more ‘real’.


  18. If a book is shelved/categorized as ROMANCE, be it suspense, mystery, paranormal, contemporary, or any of the myriad subgenres, then the romance has to be the main plot, although the mystery or suspense drives the story. By putting ‘romance’ in the genre, your readers will expect the HEA and that the relationship is first and foremost (which means you must wrap up the mystery/suspense elements before the romance is finalized.)

    The bottom line difference between mystery and suspense, be it in the romance genre or any other, is that in a suspense (think Alfred Hitchcock), you know what’s going to happen before your hero/heroine/protagonist does, and is mystery (think Sherlock Holmes), you’re a step behind and solve the crime with the protagonist. There’s usually no villain POV in a mystery.

    My books are shelved as ‘romantic suspense’ because that’s the only category the industry recognizes. However, I prefer to think of them as “mysteries with relationships.”

    Terry’s Place


  19. I don’t think I can comment further to each individual comment because there are so many and each and every one of you has made an intelligent and helpful addition to this discussion. I hope it will continue, and thank you all for taking time out to read and post.


  20. This is a good discussion of how the different elements affect the perception of the reader/buyer. I like to roam in different genres but it isn’t always clear to me the distinctions between them. I tend to think the type of story is indicated by which words are used as adjectives and which as nouns. For example, in a romantic mystery I expect the mystery to dominate, and in a romantic suspense, I expect the suspense to dominate; but in a mystery romance, I expect romance to dominate. That’s probably too simple, but it works for me.


  21. Well, said, Jacqueline! I especially like your comments about the difference in endings. I have to say that for myself, I like a happy ending, but prefer the more open realistic ending of many (romantic) mysteries. One can always offer hope, but a pat, idealistic denouement often seems sentimental and off-putting.


  22. Good distinction, Jacquie. I agree, the romantic mystery is more about the puzzle while romantic suspense is more about the chase. My publisher considers my Bodyguard series romantic suspense but several readers and reviewers have pegged it as romantic action-adventure; another subgenre. I like that.


  23. Then there are mysteries with just a touch of romance. But mysteries can contain a lot of touches, historical, paranormal, even sci fi. I wish we didn’t have to pigeon-hole everything so thoroughly, like Carl and Earl. I’d rather read a book and be surprised that a ghost shows up.


  24. I agree with Carl but only up to a point. The seemingly endless parade of subgenres is confusing and very limiting but I think “fiction” is too broad. When my store was open, we sold mystery, science fiction, fantasy and horror and that’s how our shelves were labeled. In some cases of crossover, i.e., someone like Charlaine Harris, we kept stock in two sections.

    Jacqueline, thank you for such a stimulating topic 😉


  25. Lelia,

    Thanks for having me as a guest blogger! It’s good to know how bookstores classify fiction. These days, there is a lot of crossover.


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