Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Romance in Mystery

A good friend of mine is a romance writer, and he asked me to write a little essay on romance in mystery. I’m not a romance reader—I don’t even usually enjoy romantic movies. Except this little assignment made me think about my preconceptions.

Readers love a little romance in their mysteries. Or do they prefer mystery in their romance? Do they care? Yes, many do. There is even debate as to whether romantic suspense is a sub-genre of mystery or romance. Is J.D. Robb a romance writer or a writer of suspense? How about Janet Evanovich?

In my opinion, the answers vary. If the novel is well written, with a balance of conflict and realistic human interaction, I’ll probably enjoy it, no matter what it’s called. Whether a reader likes his mystery touched with romance or her romance saturated with mystery boils down to personal preference, doesn’t it? And it’s why many literary genres exist. Hooray!

I am a mystery/crime fiction writer and have four books in a series showcasing a female protagonist named Storm Kayama. My novels take place in Hawaii, and weave the legends and folklore of the islands into a contemporary suspense story. Storm has a love interest, Ian Hamlin, who plays a prominent part in her adventures, and affects the choices she makes in her life.

Let’s take a look at romance in mystery and examine some of the roles romance can play in deepening the plot, heightening the suspense, and making the overall novel more compelling.

People have baggage. We all do, and we like to read how others deal with their unique problems. In crime fiction, complicated lives often push characters to be loners. Some are substance abusers. Some avoid commitment. Some care for small children, alone. Some were abused as children. Some, like Storm, lost their parents at a young age. Storm’s mother suffered from depression and committed suicide, and Storm, already insecure at twelve, discovered her body.

A character’s early experiences color the decisions he will make when the author starts putting him in hot water. When she is threatened with physical harm, does she use her martial art skills or run like a track star? Does he use his considerable intellect, the skill he developed as a lonely child? If her father was an angry alcoholic, what’s her view of men? If his mother left when he was five, does he, as an adult, distrust women?

My favorite novels have a complicated protagonist who has room for growth during the novel. A love interest is an excellent way to test, torment, and nurture this person. The incipient romance can highlight the character’s faults and teach her to be a better human being. It can also put him in further danger, test her past assumptions, and pull him into deeper emotional waters.

In suspense, the love interest is an excellent way of getting to the protagonist. A twisted villain will look for a weak spot, a way to deter the protagonist from revealing the criminal’s identity and crimes. And the loved one (horrors!) is a great way to twist the knife. Just as she’s opening up, just as she’s started to trust him…he’s gone. First, she thinks he’s left her. And then she receives the threat. Naturally, the phone call or note comes with a time limit, and a puzzle to solve. As fast as she can do it. The tension and pace escalate.

Other times, the loved one turns out to be a betrayer. His child is being held hostage, and even though he’s loath to do it, he’s been forced to lure her into a trap. Did you see Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler to Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes? I don’t want to give anything away, BUT… Hey, go see the movie.

In "The Five Orange Pips", Holmes mentions that he has been beaten only four times, three times by a man and once by a woman. He admires her. Irene Adler is his equal, and even Watson acknowledges that she’s his secret love.

Sometimes the love interest provides comedy, as in Janet Evanovich’s series starring spunky bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. And Stephanie has three—she can’t make up her mind. Nor does the reader know if any of them are good marriage material, or whether they always have her best interests in mind. Talk about tense and steamy!

Love is a fact of life, and though it brings boundless joys, we all know it sometimes brings trouble and heartache. A good novel delves into emotion, and peels up the armor we attempt to wrap around ourselves. The best novels teach us something, and they show we’re not alone in our fears and trials. Love, romance, and failure are the soul of life and literature. As William Faulkner said in his speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1950, “…the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself … alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.


Vicki Delany said...

Great post, Debby. Unfortunately romance in books is still considered by some to make them trivial - to make them into 'women's books'. I'd love to do a discussion one day about the male fantasy novel. There are thousands of them out there, hundreds of thousands, yet not many people realize what they are.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

Yes, there certainly are! Do a post on it--we'd all get a chuckle out of male fantasy novels. So much room for hyperbole! The romance-writing friend who asked me about romance in mystery is a male, and he writes romance. Go figure.

Jo B said...

I remember reading a men's adventure novel where the hero was attacked by a bunch of Swedish schoolgirls determined to ravish him. That's one male fantasy!

In general, however, the love interest is there to be captured, so he can be heroic, or to die, so he can go on a rampage of revenge. In the end, commitment is avoided, too often by the death of the woman, because a committed relationship would cramp his style and is not, overall, a male fantasy.

Is this why the love story with a tragic ending finds more favour in the arguably male-dominated literary academy?

I'm not sure where this puts the determinedly uncommitted female sleuth, but I don't remember any where their love interest is knocked off for plot convenience.

Jo, a romance author. Good blog. :)

Vicki Delany said...

To me a male fantasy isn't a romance novel. It's one in which he, with the help of a beautiful mysterious woman who falls in love with him for no reason the reader can comprhend saves the world. Or he throught his incredible intellect and sterling character saves the world. Dan Brown is a male fantasy writer. I remember one male friend of mine calling a book written by a male, mastrabutory (probably sic)

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

I think we should write one--Swedish schoolgirls, indeed. We could start with them, then have him thwart a nuclear bomb in the London (New York, Madrid, fill in the blank) subway, planted by Iranian terrorists. But then we need a twist...he's really a transsexual, a woman in disguise. Oh, this could be fun.

Rick Blechta said...

Transexuality might limit our audience a bit too much, Debby. I have had people come up to me at signings to ask if there any transexuals in the book. "I don't read anything if it has transexuals!"
Vicki was there. She'll tell you that I'm telling the truth.

Or not.

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