Defining Subgenres: Trust Your Vonnegut

It starts with a death, but will it be a mystery, a thriller, or a crime story?
There’s nothing like a good crime story, or is there? What about a good thriller or mystery… and what’s the difference anyway? I did a little research. According to some; mysteries are cerebral and likened to solving a puzzle; thrillers are emotional with excitement moving at a breakneck pace; crime stories are plot driven about crimes and criminals. Often the line between these genres becomes blurred.

Still confused about the difference between the three? I submit for your consideration three novels that I feel are totally true to their genres:

  • Crime Story: The Godfather by Mario Puzo… a story about generations of criminals from a criminal’s point of view.  There are shootings, stabbings, strangling, gambling, vice and corruption but neither the reader nor a protagonist is called upon to solve anything.
  • Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln ChildThriller: Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child… a story about a living monster delivered to the New York Museum of Natural History inside one of the crates of a large exhibit. The beast comes out at night inside the museum and eats people’s brains. Relic is a thriller in the purest sense of the word. Doug is a friend of mine and when I first met him I told him that Relic kept me up nights and I now refuse to open boxes.
  • Mystery: the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan DoyleThere are many other pure mysteries but Sherlock is a perfect example. Why beat around the bush?

And yet, many—if not most—of the really good crime fiction books out there transcend particular subgenre lines.

I read a novel recently that contained the most thrilling murder scene I ever read, leading to a “whodunit” mystery and an ending with all the elements of a crime story. The novel was written by the fourth cousin of one of America’s most iconic, celebrated authors, famous enough to have played himself in a 1986 move comedy. Who? I’ve given you enough clues already so you’ll have to read on to solve the mystery.

The crime took place at a very popular Boston destination and five hundred witnesses saw the victim slaughtered. The author’s description of the scene included these remarks:

We were five hundred strong. We were five hundred united in horror, watching without believing.

Charlie’s face looked pudgy and bloated. His expression howled for help.

Something chunky and red flopped through Charlie’s shirt. The mangled globs looked vital. Intestines, kidney, liver, maybe all three.

The author described the scene so vividly that I felt like I was one of the five hundred witnesses watching the horror unfold. I saw everything. When the ghastly act was done, however, no one knew who killed the victim.

Top Producer by Norb VonnegutThrilling? Absolutely! Mysterious? Completely! Crime? Obviously! The author subtly turned a thriller into a mystery and ultimately in a genre blurring masterpiece of exciting writing.

So whodunit? Who wrote the best murder scene I ever read and totally blurred the line between thriller, mystery and crime? His name is Norb Vonnegut, distantly related to Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughter House Five, Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions who appeared in the movie “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield. Norb’s book was entitled Top Producer and revolved around people on Wall Street who can be thrilling, mysterious and criminal…at the same time. I met Norb at a writer’s convention and told him how much I loved the way he killed people and I think he took it as a compliment. I’ve reread that murder scene several times and never get tired of it. That’s why I read thrillers…or is that why I read crime stories, or mysteries?

There you have it. Like I said at the outset, there’s nothing like a thrilling, mysterious crime story.

Steve Forman is the author of BOCA KNIGHTS and BOCA MOURNINGS, humorous mysteries set in Boca Raton, FL. His latest novel, BOCA DAZE, launches January 31st. Visit for more information.


  1. Deborah Lacy

    Thanks for this Steve. You’ve made me want to read Norb’s book. Norb is also a really interesting name. Do you know where it can from or what it’s short for?

    BTW – I just started reading Boca Daze as a result of the Fresh Meat review that appeared on Criminal Element and I am really enjoying it.

  2. Clare 2e

    Deb- I have a friend whose dad was a Norb, short for Norbert in his case.

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