Does Romance Belong in a Mystery: Please Discuss

(Note: Kate’s husband often tells her that her books would be more successful is she left out all that relationship stuff. So today, we take that topic to our writers and here are their responses)

Antique_Valentine_1909_01From Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett: Let me tell you a little story. Back in July of 2014 on the CrimeThruTime yahoo group, there was a discussion of whether or not romance belonged in historical mysteries. Some felt it had no place, or remarked that they avoided reading series that burdened the sleuth with a love interest. Others felt obliged to take a jab at romance novels in general. Yes, the term “bodice-ripper” appeared. I held off posting my opinion at first, afraid I’d come off sounding defensive. The term bodice-ripper is a hot button for me, since it is not only inaccurate, but also derogatory. Of my fifty-one published books, twenty-six of them are mysteries, but fourteen are either contemporary category romance or historical romantic suspense. I can’t speak for anyone else, but in my case writing romance novels, which are as much about relationships as they are about sex, taught me how to develop convincing relationships between my sleuths and all those close to them—family and friends as well as lovers. To me, that’s what turns a character from a cardboard cutout into a human being. Romance novels also rely on the writer being able to sustain sexual tension. What better training ground for learning how to create suspense in a mystery? The truth is, some of the best mysteries, past and present, include romance. Even series where the detective is celibate, such as Ellis Peters’s Cadfael, often contain subplots where a pair (or two) of young lovers complicate the case for the sleuth.

Susan Vaughan: Relationships, and not just romantic ones, should be an important part of a mystery. Relationships help make the sleuth a more rounded and believable character, showing his or her personality—with flaws, conflicts, desires—in interaction with friends, family, and lovers. In a mystery series with a continuing sleuth and cast of secondary characters, an author has the opportunity to build a romantic relationship over several books.

Barb Ross: As a reader, I can take my mysteries with or without romance. Relationship was part of

romantic martini, La Jolla, January 2013

romantic martini, La Jolla, January 2013

what attracted me, and kept me reading, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne mysteries and Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro books, though I wouldn’t have kept reading if the writing and the mysteries in each weren’t so very strong. Two of my favorite, favorite sleuths, Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford and Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache are happily married, even uxorious. I love that and it’s part of what inspired me to write a happily married sleuth in my first novel, The Death of an Ambitious Woman.

There’s more romance in my new Maine Clambake series. It’s more expected, though not required, in the cozy genre, but Julia Snowden, my sleuth, is thirty, a time of life when people are often making big decisions about their future. She returns to Busman’s Harbor to find her junior high crush still there, as well as the boy-next-door, who’s become a cop. For awhile I thought we were headed to the “dreaded triangle,” but it hasn’t turned out that way.

Sarah Graves: I think romance in mysteries can heighten suspense first of all in the will-they-or-won’t-they department, as with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd in the TV series “Moonlighting” — but only for as long as the question remains. Once it’s solved, that tension is over and needs to be replaced, for instance with a brilliantly evocative portrait of coupledom, as in the Nick-and-Nora duo in The Thin Man, etc. Or there’s the yearning-from-afar scenario, or the gone-but-not-forgotten situation, or… Anything but boring happiness, actually, works fine for me in mysteries. There is, however, the problem of why is the hero/heroine such a fool as to be all hung up on the obviously unsuitable but still desperately desired love interest; I usually solve this (I hope) by letting the protagonist wonder the same thing…but not have the answer. (This does require convincing the reader of the desperate desirability of you-know-who, however!)

Kate Flora: Despite what my husband says about romance or relationships screwing up my books, in a series, I like to see romance, or the development of relationships, as part of the character arc. (Though if I were Stephanie Plum, I’d have to have two husbands.) In my first Joe Burgess book, Playing God, Burgess was in an almost monk-like state, having become relationship-averse because of all he’s seen through his job. He also feared, because his father was a nasty drunk who used to beat his mother, that he had within himself dangerous seeds of violence. Over the course of four books, Burgess has gone from being the outsider, longing for normal while fearing it, to being in a committed, loving relationship and living with Chris and three kids, and trying to square “normal” with his passionate commitment to his job. I think that having the complexities and complications of making and sustaining relationships makes characters deeper and the books more real. It also amps up the tension between work and family, within the inner lives of the protagonists, and within the relationship.

Gerry Boyle and I were having a conversation about this earlier in the week, and Gerry pointed out that both his character, Jack McMorrow, and Joe Burgess are in jobs where they feel a calling to secure justice. They feel deep obligations to life and to work, and it is work that comes, as Gerry put it, with “an inflated sense of right and wrong…in their minds this is their job, their duty.” These conflicting instincts—between love and relationship, and work which is truly a calling—absolutely puts pressure on their relationships and creates tension in the books. (Though I have to say, Gerry can make waiting for the mailman so tense I’m on the edge of my chair, never mind relationships.)

Assuming that we have created characters that our readers care about, their challenge, as Gerry put it, is “to figure out how to have a normal life and do what they do.” It’s not easy, especially when long-term commitments and kids enter the picture. Because of the stresses their commitment to work puts on their jobs, Gerry posed what I think is a fascinating question: Are we exploring the nature of love? How far we can stretch it without something breaking?

John Clark: As both a reader and writer and drawing on both mystery and extensive experience with YA, I think that romance is the ‘safe harbor’ factor that does a number of things. 1-it makes characters more appealing and fleshed out, 2-it lends some sanity to a world/story where most everything else is dark and threatening, 3-it gives readers something extra to anticipate. Think about the Hunger Games series. Would Katnis have as much depth and appeal if she were totally cold and focused on killing and survival? Frankly, it’s the romantic elements in YA dystopian fiction that draw me in. If they’re really well done, I can’t put the book down. Finally I think a lot of people like to imagine themselves in that role and it’s a nice escape…Just ask Harlequin.

Readers: What say you? A lot of romance? A little? You can take it or leave it? Do you prefer something like early James Lee Burke novels, where Dave Robicheaux’s girlfriends frequently got killed? Are you interested in how characters balance work and life?




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23 Responses to Does Romance Belong in a Mystery: Please Discuss

  1. Monica says:

    A little romance, but not sappy, – oh they’re going to end up a couple because they’re arguing- romance. Not unless you can convince me there’s a reason they’re arguing all the time.

    The boss-subordinate relationships are tricky, tho. I think Deborah Crombie does ok with this in her series, but some just make the usually female subordinate look stupid once the relationship is no longer business only.

    And don’t kill off the girlfriends in every book. My friends and I call this the ‘Bonanza Syndrome’. (All the love interests on the show were killed off, even dear old Mom.)

    Otherwise, yes, personal relationships are important.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Oh, I should have included Deborah Crombie’s books in my list, since she’s another I faithfully read. She has dealt with the working relationship well, and now I think of them as “dual protagonist” books.

  2. Liz Flaherty says:

    I think it’s a shame anyone even feels compelled to use the term “bodice rippers” in the 21st century (makes me wonder how good their prose is when they’re writing it down), but I liked what you and Susan said about relationships. They are an important part of any story. When I was a kid and read PERRY MASON mysteries, it was more to read about Perry, Della, and Paul than it was to see who done it.

  3. Gram says:

    Agree. We readers need fully realized characters. I want to be involved in their lives and that means relationships, romantic and work-related, etc. The guys at the station are your family too.

    • Barb Ross says:

      Yes, it’s true how amazingly close we get to our co-workers. There was a big story in the NYTimes a few years ago about how they always remember our birthdays and are interested in our work, which are families rarely do and are.

  4. Charlene says:

    Romance/relationships are what make the reader care about the character. Joe Burgess is much more real now that he and Chris are together…his vulnerability comes through and makes him and his reactions more understandable. The same was true with his relationship to Reggie in “Redemption” and his continuing sympathy for the street people in Portland.

  5. I’m wrapping up the 2nd book in my cozy series, and my heroine does have a romantic love interest, but it doesn’t overshadow the mystery component. I think it makes it more interesting.

  6. Either is fine with me! I like Kate’s comment on how romance can transform a cutout character into a real person. Who a partner is can give insight into the hero/heroine’s personality. Also, what is happening with the cherished other can be a great plot
    complication, like when the main character suddenly fears a partner may have a dark side that affects the outcome of the mystery!

  7. Mark says:

    I could take or leave romance in my mysteries. There are some times where I really do get into the romance. But I read cozies, and most of the romantic sub-plots are so similar. It would be nice to see some happily married couples in some of the series I read.

    • Barb Ross says:

      I agree, Mark. I know from experience that having your sleuth be happily married does cut out a lot of opportunities to create tension in the story, but Rendell solved this brilliantly with Wexford by having his daughters drive him crazy!

  8. David Edgar Cournoyer says:

    Thanks for the great discussion. Everyone seems to agree that a little romance, or a lot if well done, is fine in a mystery/thriller. Even Lee Child’s famous loner, Reacher, is occasionally allowed a little romance to round out an otherwise flat character (sorry Lee). The late Dick Francis was a mystery grand master and one of my favorites who, with a deft hand and few details, wove romantic tension into quite a few of his mysteries. As much as I loved Kate’s Joe Burgess debut, I kept wondering how a normal, if damaged, guy dealt with his romantic side (otherwise loved the character and book). As a reader of several of you, I hope you will keep spicing your clever plots with a little romance.

    • Barb Ross says:

      David–I often thing Dick Francis had it made. His protagonists were similar in every book, but not the same guy. Therefore, they could get the girl and ride off into the sunset in one book, and he could start the next one with a guy all alone.

  9. JT NICHOLS says:

    Laurie R. King, one of the great mystery writers around, built an entire series around the relationship between a young woman, Mary Russell, and Sherlock Holmes…that works pretty well…

  10. Nancy Miller says:

    Eleanor Taylor Bland did a wonderful job of weaving relationships into her Marti McAlister (police detective) series. Marti starts out as a recent widow but later falls in love with a firefighter. Because they both have children there is this added dimension. The whole thing is believable but not boring. She liked to included all kinds of social issues and family issues in her writing. I really miss her .

    • Barb Ross says:

      I loved Eleanor Taylor Bland’s books.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Nancy, so nice to be reminded of Eleanor. She was one of the first people I met in the mystery business. I remember sitting in a room at a conference and hearing her on a panel talking about the voices in her head that became insistent by the end of the work day as her characters demand to be paid attention to. It was so reassuring to know that I wasn’t alone.

      Like you, I miss her.

      Kate Flora

  11. sandy says:

    That was a great post! So enjoyed hearing from writers and site followers as well. Esp. the comments on how romance enhances character and plot. I love the Amelia Peabody mysteries (by Elizabeth Peters) because either Amelia or “Emerson,” her attractive, overbearing, and compelling husband, are often working at cross purpose to solve crimes/murders. Their relationship is the source of endless trouble.

  12. Gerry Boyle says:

    A fun discussion, especially as I’m in the midst of a relationship teetering on the brink (in my work in progress). And always fun to talk shop with Kate. Helps to clear the head when you go back to the story!

  13. Roslyn Reid says:

    I dunno, but I’ve got some erotica in all of mine!

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