The easiest category is usually "literary fiction." Updike, Roth, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, et al belong to that club.
But what to do about a novel like Kate Atkinson's Case Histories or Dennis Lehane's Mystic River? These books have mystery or crime plots yet, with their exceptional literary achievement, they defy classification in the conventional mystery or thriller categories.
And do we call John le Carré 's A Perfect Spy, perhaps the best book published in 1986 in any category, (merely) a spy novel?
Another example is John Smolens' Fire Point, which I thought of as an excellent "literary thriller" ... except the cover calls it "a novel of suspense."
The call gets even tougher when the book, however terrific the writing, is packaged to appeal to readers who (as my friend Andrew calls it) "read for plot."
Is it a mystery or a thriller? Or is it crime?
I take the easy way out if the story involves a police detective trying to solve a crime: I think of these books as "procedurals" (or policiers, if I'm in the mood to use one of the five French words I know).
Or if the book qualifies as noir--I'm using 40% of my vocabulaire in this one post--I'll leave it at that and not bother to figure if it's a thriller, a mystery, or a crime novel.
The veteran Chicago Tribune book critic Dick Adler tried to help mark some boundaries over at "The Rap Sheet:"
The line between mystery and thriller is certainly a vague one: as I said in my introduction to Dreams of Justice, to my mind, mysteries most often have continuing casts of central characters who reach some solution to the crimes committed by a mixture of rational deduction and inspiration. Thrillers more often deal with larger, single events, occasionally political, and usually end in scenes of violence.Fair enough.
And it's always nice when the author tells you where his books belong. As does the great Elmore Leonard, who says you usually know who did the deed in his books so there is no mystery; he writes crime.