Romance, Suspense, Mystery, Anyone?

When I first joined the Maine Romance Writers, Kathy Lynn Emerson aka Kaitlyn Dunnett and Tess Gerritsen were then writing romantic suspense for Harlequin, which also published some of my romantic suspense novels. Kaitlyn’s move to mystery and Tess’s to suspense didn’t constitute a great leap from romantic suspense. Mystery/crime novels and romantic suspense novels are both genre fiction in which lives are in jeopardy and in which the reader expects the villain(s) to be caught and/or killed. Both require strong characters to carry the plot. Beyond that, readers can find wide variations in both.

So if the two genres have danger and villains, how is romantic suspense different from mystery/crime fiction? Warning: my analysis involves sweeping generalizations. In a mystery, the sleuth—whether law enforcement, a private investigator, or an amateur sleuth—investigates a crime, usually murder, to uncover and catch the criminal. There may be other murders/crimes along the way to the solution, and the sleuth may face danger toward the end. To further confuse the issue, a mystery novel can contain suspense, and a romantic suspense novel can contain mystery.

All genre novels, actually all novels, involve suspense in the sense of tension. The author wants the reader in suspense wondering what will happen next and how this tangled plot will work out. Suspense novels and romantic suspense novels may involve mysteries as well as a suspense plot. The “suspense” aspect in this case means the characters are trying to stop what the villain intends to do—blow up a dam, kill the president, poison donors at a charity dinner, smuggle diamonds out of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History—something involving high stakes. The characters may not know who the villain or villains are and then we have a mystery too!

Romance can be a minor or secondary part of the story, even a continuing thread employed to develop and enrich the main character as the series continues. A romance is a subplot in Barbara Ross’s Clambake series, in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Liss MacCrimmon series, and in Lea Wait’s antique prints mysteries.

Romance novels of all stripes focus on the romance along with whatever the plot entails. They are character-driven stories in which flawed people work toward a common goal or conflicting goals. Along the way, they struggle to overcome personal wounds and find happiness together in the end. In today’s romances, that mostly means happily ever after but in some it’s happily together for now. The romance and the story plot are interwoven. Because of the lives-in-jeopardy tension, this dependency is greater in romantic suspense novels. The romance and suspense plots are inextricably intertwined so that if either was removed, the story would fall apart. Writers create endless variations on the percentage of romance to suspense and on the level of sensuality (read: sex) as well.

In my Task Force Eagle series, the heroine of Always a Suspect wants her name cleared in the death of her husband. The DEA agent hero is undercover as the P.I. she hires so he can investigate the husband’s drug connections. Attempts are made on the heroine’s life as the hero is drawn to her, and the villain’s identity isn’t revealed until the climax on a Maine ski slope.

In Dark Vision, part of my DARK Files series, the hero and heroine are on the run, suspected in a bomb explosion at an embassy. So the hero must foil their pursuers and protect the heroine while trying to uncover the identity of the bomber. As you see, this book has both suspense and mystery. At the same time, my hero, a DARK (Domestic Anti-terrorism Risk Corps) officer has cut himself off from his agency for other reasons, so they’re hiding from them as well.

In my stand-alone RS novel Primal Obsession, the heroine, an investigative reporter covering a serial killer known as The Hunter, embarks on a canoe and camping trip to keep a promise to her murdered friend. She and the ex-Major Leaguer turned Maine Guide must use wilderness skills to defeat the killer. The reader knows the Hunter is the killer but not his identity until later in the book.

As you can tell, romantic suspense novels are sometimes “woman in jeopardy” plots, with the hero acting as protector. Often the reader and the characters may know the villain’s identity, in which case the thrill is in the threat and the chase. Who is chasing whom depends on the plot.

As with the mystery/crime genre, romance fiction has evolved. Today’s romance is not your grandmother’s romance novel.

About susanvaughan

Susan Vaughan loves writing romantic suspense because it throws the hero and heroine together under extraordinary circumstances and pits them against a clever villain. Her books have won the Golden Leaf, More Than Magic, and Write Touch Readers’ Award and been a finalist for the Booksellers’ Best and Daphne du Maurier awards. A former teacher, she’s a West Virginia native, but she and her husband have lived in the Mid-Coast area of Maine for many years. Her latest release is GENUINE FAKE, a stand-alone book in the Devlin Security Force series. Find her at or on Facebook as Susan H. Vaughan or on Twitter @SHVaughan.
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5 Responses to Romance, Suspense, Mystery, Anyone?

  1. Kate Flora says:

    Does the question of whether it is romantic suspense or suspense or mystery depend on the balance between romance and other elements, Susan?

    • susanvaughan says:

      Great question, Kate. A great suspense/thriller may contain a “love interest,” but it’s likely to be secondary to the plot, as it would in a mystery. In a well-written RS, the external/suspense plot, which may have mystery elements too, and the romance are so interwoven that they impact each other throughout the book.

  2. kaitlynkathy says:

    Excellent analysis, Susan. And thanks for the plug.

  3. Barbara Ross says:

    I think I’m beginning to get this. Would love to have a discussion about the plot/structure of romantic suspense sometime.

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