Choices for Crime Writers: The Sleuth’s Love Interest

In the traditional romantic suspense (aka Gothic) novel set up, the heroine meets two attractive men, one good and one evil, only she doesn’t know for certain which is which until near the end of the story. The traditional female amateur sleuth (Miss Marple being an exception) often acquires a love interest with law enforcement connections, to the point where the cop boyfriend comes pretty darn close to being a cliché. On the other hand, it’s extremely useful to have someone on the “inside” and in some series the relationship evolves so that the crimes are solved by a sleuthing couple rather than by the female sleuth alone.

In the Face Down series I wrote as Kathy Lynn Emerson, my detective is Susanna, Lady Appleton, a married (later widowed) sixteenth-century gentlewoman who is an expert on poisonous herbs—”every husband’s worst nightmare,” as one reviewer wrote. For the first three books, her sleuthing partner was her obnoxious, overbearing, philandering husband, Robert (it was an arranged marriage) and his only redeeming quality was the fact that he was, secretly, an “intelligencer” for the Crown. I knew early on that I was going to kill him off. My editor at St. Martin’s was all for that plan. But once he was gone, and Susanna had been cleared of his murder in

cover of the large print edition

Face Down Beneath the Eleanor Cross, there was a void to fill. I tried out two candidates, both “good guys,” Robert’s former “boss” in the intelligence service, Walter Pendennis, and Susanna’s neighbor in Kent, wealthy merchant Nick Baldwin. Walter had court connections. Nick was soon appointed a local J.P. But marry one of them? Not a chance. You see, back in the 1500s, the only way a woman could keep control of her own property (and her person) was to remain unmarried. The minute she said “I do” everything she owned became his. That didn’t stop Susanna from having romantic relationships, however, something I was able to keep going through all ten books and numerous short stories.

The other historical mystery series I wrote as Kathy was the Diana Spaulding 1888 Mystery Quartet, featuring a female journalist in 1888 America. The first book, Deadlier than the Pen,

also available in large print and as an ebook

was originally intended as a single title. In fact, it started life as a Gothic novel in which, at the end, the heroine is about to marry. When my publisher and I opted for a four-book series instead, the choice of profession for Diana’s love interest, Ben Northcote, became even more useful. He’s a physician who also serves as a coroner in his home town of Bangor, Maine. In the other three books in the series (Fatal as a Fallen Woman, No Mortal Reason and Lethal Legend), Diana and Ben work together to solve murders.

That brings me up to Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Liss MacCrimmon Scottish-American Heritage Mysteries. What to do? What to do? Liss is definitely an amateur sleuth. She was a professional Scottish dancer before a career-ending injury to her knee. In Kilt Dead she’s working in Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium in Moosetookalook, Maine, population 1007. She’s motivated to solve the murder herself by the fact that she’s a suspect in the crime, but at the planning stages I faced the age-old problem of how to give her access to information on the progress of the case. A romantic relationship with the investigating officer was out. He’s not a nice man. Nor is he very bright. Enter Sherri Willett, dispatcher at the sheriff’s office and part-time sales clerk at the Emporium. Although Liss is the one who solves the mysteries in this series, Sherri is there as her sidekick and source of intelligence, especially after she changes jobs and becomes a member of the Moosetookalook police force.

But that left me without a love interest. As a subplot, romance works well in a “cozy” mystery, even if he doesn’t turn out to be “the one.” If Liss’s love interest wasn’t to be in law enforcement, then what should his profession be? Since I was already setting this series in my own back yard, so to speak, I looked around said back yard and found—no surprise here!—my husband. At that time he was looking forward to retiring from his job as a probation officer and was planning two new careers: running a Christmas tree farm and doing custom woodworking. Voila! Dan Ruskin of Ruskin Construction, doing custom woodworking on the side, was born. In the books in the series, just about every item my husband has made, from decorative boxes to magic wands to jigsaw puzzle tables, has popped up as one of Dan’s creations.

I spiced things up a bit in Scone Cold Dead and A Wee Christmas Homicide by adding the new state trooper in the area, Gordon Tandy, to the mix. He, too, is interested in Liss. I mentioned above the well-established tradition of giving the heroine two men to choose between. They aren’t always the good guy and the bad guy. Sometimes they’re both flawed. And some protagonists, like Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, are so consistently unable to make a choice that readers start to get annoyed. Morelli or Ranger. Bill or Eric. Angel or Spike. Oops. Veered out of genre a bit there! Anyway, you get the idea. So in my series, I did not draw out the minor suspense over the issue of “the boyfriend” for very long.

At the end of the fourth book, The Corpse Wore Tartan, Liss accepts Dan’s marriage proposal. They’re engaged throughout book five, Scotched, and the wedding takes place in Bagpipes, Brides, and Homicides,

in stores July 31

which will be out in late July. In the one I’m working on now, with a Halloween setting (Vampires, Bones, and Treacle Scones), they’ve been married for several months. I’ve already had fan email telling me she picked the wrong man. To these readers, Dan is the “dull” one.

I’ll agree that life with Gordon the trooper would have contained more conflict. That’s one reason Liss didn’t seriously consider marrying him. They brought out the worst in each other. I know Alpha males are the stuff of romance novels, but how many women really want to live with one on a daily basis? There would be conflict, sure, but not the kind I want for the sleuth in my humorous mystery series. Her opponent should be the villain, not her spouse. And, yes, I admit it—in her personal life I’d like her to be, mostly, happy. Liss MacCrimmon will continue to encounter murderers, but to balance the bad she gets Dan, two cats, and a house full of books.

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8 Responses to Choices for Crime Writers: The Sleuth’s Love Interest

  1. Barb Ross says:

    Thanks, Kaitlyn. I’m dealing with this exact issue in my work in progress. I have the traditional conflict between the edgier man she’s a attracted to and the steady man who’s attracted to her, with, I hope, a twist. First time down this road for me since the protagonist of The Death of an Ambitious Woman is happily married.

    BTW, I am Team Dan all the way!

  2. Fascinating, Kaitlyn! Thanks for the glimpse into how you’ve navigated the sometimes rough waters of romance in fiction.

  3. Ramona says:

    Great post. The romantic triangle is a dilemma, isn’t it?
    I was determined not to write a “cop boyfriend” into a story, but then I realized that’s exactly what was needed. So I made him a state trooper, because troopers are not cops. They’re troopers. 🙂

  4. MCWriTers says:

    I really love this post, Kaitlyn. When I started my Thea Kozak series, many years ago, I gave her a cop boyfriend in the first book. Actually, in the traditional way, they started out disliking each other and battled their way to love. My plan was to have Andre drop away and Thea go on, because I wanted that heroine who saved herself, but when I sent book two in to be edited, many of my editor’s comments were about “pumping up the Andre quotient.”

    Sometimes, it seems, the decisions aren’t ours. I’m having a lot of fun with relationships in the new Burgess series, with young Stanley still footloose and fancy free and thus able to get into a LOT of trouble.

    I don’t think we necessarily give enough thought to the love interests in the beginning…sometimes, as you note, because we think we’re writing a stand alone, and then it becomes a series.


  5. Karen says:

    Love this post! The love interest certainly provides a great subplot, but can also be a problem. For me, it’s a very different sort of problem from the one you’ve had. My protagonist, Hannah Morrison, is an environmental engineer who, after her misadventures in oil refining in UNREASONABLE RISK, started her own consulting company. Her love interest in UR, Noel Keller, was a photojournalist whose skills came in handy in narrowing down the suspect pool in that case of sabotage at the refinery. The problem was, when Hannah moved on to her next case (in the just-published THROUGH DARK SPACES) at a hard rock mine in the Black Hills of western South Dakota, I couldn’t get Noel to go there. I rewrote many scenes many times, trying to make it plausible for him to be there, but it just didn’t work. He was too ambitious, considered South Dakota a backwater that would provide nothing for his career, so he went off to CNN in Atlanta instead. So now my protagonist is without love interest again. Sigh.

  6. John Clark says:

    How about competing girlfriends on different worlds and the guy doesn’t know if he can ever get back to the original planet.

    • Ah, yes. I didn’t mean to neglect the ladies. Several of my favorite mystery series try out different female love interests before settling on the right one. Troy Soos’s Mickey Rawlings historical series (early days of baseball) and Aaron Elkins’s Gideon Oliver books come to mind, although Aaron only tried out one other girlfriend before Julie. One of the things I always found unappealing about some classic noir mysteries was that being the tough P.I.’s girlfriend was usually a death sentence. Thank goodness that trend has (mostly) gone out of fashion!

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