Detectives, and Spies, and SEALs, Oh My!: The Difference Between a Romantic Thriller and a Romantic Suspense

Breaking Point by Pamela Clare
Breaking Point by Pamela Clare
One of the ongoing debates in most romance reading circles is the specific answer to one question: What differentiates a romantic suspense from a romantic thriller? The answer is different depending on who you ask, but as far as I’m concerned, it boils down to the scope of the story. Romantic thrillers are filled with what happens as larger-than-life events take over the lives of people who mostly live their lives on or over the edge. Romantic suspense is personal, encompassing the trouble that happens in someone’s own backyard, whether it’s in their town or in their house.

Pamela Clare’s Breaking Point is a lovely example of a romantic thriller. Our heroine is a journalist who gets kidnapped by representatives of a Mexican drug cartel, one of many women this particular cartel has kidnapped for all sorts of purposes. Our hero turns out to be *spoiler* an undercover federal marshal. The goal is to free our heroine and stop the cartel. Global problems, larger scale: romantic thriller.

Laura Griffin’s Snapped is a great example of a romantic suspense. It’s the story of what happens in a small town following a sniper attack at a local university. The goal is to catch the killer and discover what plot is going on underneath the surface. Our heroine is a witness; our hero is a local homicide detective. Local setting, local law enforcement, effects on the local population: romantic suspense.

Rev It Up by Julie Ann Walker
Rev It Up by Julie Ann Walker
Julie Ann Walker’s Rev it Up is a reunion story carried out on a larger scale and another great example of a romantic thriller. It’s the story of what happens when the sister of the head of a black ops team, and the man who’s trying to win her back (a new member of this team) must deal with the consequences of their unexpected reunion and the revenge for the death of a mobster killed at the hands of another member of the team. People living their lives on the edge, dealing with larger-than-life problems: romantic thriller.

Shiloh Walker’s Stolen is a wonderful example of a romantic suspense. Our heroine is a reclusive writer, our hero is former military who’s now the owner of a bookstore. It’s about what happens when our heroine’s past (the reason for her reclusiveness) comes back to haunt her…and brings them together in the process. This is intensely personal, as readers watch the lives of these characters unravel in front of them. This is romantic suspense.

Our final example of a romantic thriller is Dee Davis’s Dark Deceptions. A former sniper is forced back into the fold by terrorists who have kidnapped her son. The man who has to stop her? Her former lover, a member of an elite unit of the CIA who must figure out if he can trust her or if he must kill her. High stakes, government agencies, and terrorism: romantic thriller.

Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between romantic suspense and romantic thriller. Regardless, reading these books is worth the ride; whether it’s psychological or a local mystery (suspense) or larger-than-life on a global scale (thriller). Enjoy!

It took Stacey Agdern the Odyssey of the Bar Exam to discover what her parents knew all along…that she was meant to be a writer. Now she uses her degrees in International Law and Political Science, as well her love of travel, music, reading, hockey, anime/manga, mythology, and foreign languages to fuel her writing, and channels her knowledge of Romance into her day-job as an award winning bookseller.


  1. Lynn Spencer(AAR)

    Came across this while doing some post-Thanksgiving internet wandering, and just had to say I found it helpful. I read and enjoy both RS and thrillers, but sometimes that line is a hard one to draw!

  2. Alisa Kwitney

    Just downloaded samples of all your books for my kindle. Except for the Pamela Clare. I’ve read it already!

  3. Karen Cherubino

    I appreciate the clarification of the difference between romantic suspense and romantic thriller. Regardless of the name/definition – I love them both!

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