As much as they might enjoy suspense, critics tend to be a bit suspicious of it, perhaps because it seems to stimulate emotion rather than intellect: It makes readers care rather than think.
Genre writing leans more heavily on suspense than do other forms of fiction. If your protagonist is in immediate danger of being shot, arrested, chased, bewitched or devoured, it’s not out of the question to delay the outcome a bit to build tension. The term novel of suspense once again has a certain currency, but not in the narrow sense in which Chandler used it. Now, it’s a blanket term to relieve everybody of the need to label a book a mystery, thriller, supernatural or spy story, when it might be a little of each. Whenever we classify original work, we’re dealing with approximate boundaries and the judging of predominances rather than recognizing sure signs. The need to classify is commercial rather than literary, the book industry’s attempt to give customers some idea of what they’re buying without spoiling the surprises.
It’s true that the dire predictions that prose fiction is dying, something we’ve been hearing for at least a generation, have come to seem less implausible lately, as more and more eyeballs are drawn away from print to electronic screens, and as economic distress reminds our society that people need food, clothing and shelter but don’t actually need to buy novels. But so far, the novel endures, and judging from the titles on the best-seller lists each week, suspense seems to be contributing significantly to its survival. Maybe the pleasant agitation of being held for a day or two in a state of sustained anxiety about the fate of a worthy character, waiting to be relieved by the ending, is too psychologically rewarding an entertainment to disappear from the world just yet. We’ll have to wait and see.
Thomas Perry is the author of 16 novels, including Fidelity, just published by Harcourt.