Romance in Mysteries, Yes or No?

Happy Valentine’s Day! We thought this would be the perfect time for a discussion of the place of romance in our mysteries, and we welcome your thoughts on the subject.

Kate Flora: I have to start by admitting that my husband doesn’t like all the image001“relationship” stuff in my mysteries and wishes they were a bit more streamlined. I, being of a more romantic bent, and also believing that relationships, romantic, co-worker, and with others who people Thea and Joe’s worlds serve an important role in developing characters, deepening them, challenging them, and often in creating tension between the job that must be done, and a partner or family’s concerns about risk and whether they’re getting a fair share of the protagonist’s time. Earlier in my Thea Kozak series, she finally marries Andre, after disliking him intensely when they first met. As for Joe Burgess? He proposed and Chris accepted, but she won’t marry him. A nice way to create some on-going suspense for readers. Will Book 7 finally be the one where they get married?

In May, the one and only romantic suspense novel I’ve written, Wedding Bell Rusewill be published. There, the balance between romance and suspense is far more heavily toward “will they get married” than “who made those poison cookies?”

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett: I don’t have much in the way of romance in the mysteries I’m currently writing, since one features a woman who’s been married for over ten years and the other has a protagonist who is a recent widow, but when I was writing the Face Down Mysteries as Kathy Lynn Emerson there was almost always a romance subplot. In the early books in the series, my sleuth, Lady Appleton, was unhappily married and then a widow. She wasn’t in the market for a love interest. I did, however, include romance by adding a young couple, often star-crossed, to each story. I blatantly stole this technique from Ellis Peters, whose Brother Cadfael was not a candidate for romantic love, either. If you read her historical mysteries, almost all of them have a romance subplot. Romance as a subplot strikes me as a good compromise—the love story isn’t such a major part of the book that it takes away from the focus of solving the crime, but it does serve to lighten the otherwise dark atmosphere produced by writing about murder and its aftermath.

Susan Vaughan: As a writer of romantic suspense, I’m in favor of romance in almost all genres. Whether it’s romance or family connection or friendship, relationships enrich a story. They can create resting moments or tension or outright conflict. They help develop characters. In my books, often the hero and heroine begin in conflict, but later find they’re drawn to each other as they must work together to solve a crime or stop a villain or prevent a disaster of some kind. Characters should have secrets and inner conflicts that the romantic connection can amplify and eventually resolve. I found when writing Hidden Obsession that Justin was only a detective solving a crime, without someone in the story he cared about. Rather than develop family issues, I connected him with Sheri, who helps him solve the crime and is also in danger. Their relationship adds to the tension of the story. As Kathy says above, romance serves to lighten the atmosphere. Especially in romantic suspense, the reader knows that not only will the bad guy be stopped, but the couple will be together, happy for now or happily ever after.

Maureen Millken: What is romance? It’s emotional interaction between adults. We can have characters who are cardboard cutouts, or we can have ones who interact with each other. A review of my most recent book, BAD NEWS TRAVELS FAST, said it was fine if you could get past all the “soap opera.” Even my publisher, when I submitted the manuscript, griped about the “romance” — the word was actually used — and said, “Some people just want a mystery.” That’s true, some people do. But I’ve always been more into books that have characters who I can care about, and it helps if other people in the book care about them, too. People who like my books usually make a point to say they like the characters. I wonder how much they’d like them if there was no “romance.”

Romance? Soap opera? Yes, it’s all been flung my way. Readers who like my books just call it good characters.

And what’s a mystery plot, really, but human interaction based on feelings and decisions people make. Are we to leave out a huge chunk of the emotional and mental life of the humans who are at the heart of our books?

They can all sit down and play cards once a week, or be like goldfish in a bowl forgetting abou the person as soon as he or she is out of sight, or they can behave like grownups and have relationships. I do try, despite, what the cranky reviewer and others may think, to have the “romance” have some intertwining with the plot instead of intruding on it.

One of the great things about the mystery genre is that there are so many different kinds of books. Rules about what should or shouldn’t be in a mystery are kind of silly. Writers make choices about what to put in their books and, if they have any sense, write the kinds of books they want to read. Readers get to choose what to read based on what they like (unless they’re in some really awful book group) and can avoid the stuff they don’t like.

Charlene D’Avanzo: Romance in a mystery? Sure, but what/why/ how depends on how

you define the term. “Romance” can mean adventure, a quest that requires bravery and pluck (think Moby Dick or the Adventures of Huck Finn). A mystery absent a character who overcomes some kind of struggle would be pretty dull reading. While “romance” novels could center on affairs of the heart, more broadly they are stories in which people conquer fear, doubt, panic, etc. and grow as a result. That covers an awful lot of territory.

John Clark commenting more as a reader and reviewer. One of my secret delights is the attraction between characters, especially in YA fiction. More recently, it’s expanded to cover every point on the gender identity spectrum and I’m all for that because it offers teens who aren’t certain, or comfortable with their sexual orientation yet, a story that might help them figure something out, or become more confident. Having said that, I’ll confess that some of my favorite romantic moments this past year have come in YA mysteries written in earlier settings. Here is an example.

Sandra Neily  I’ve taken my author romance cues from a group of women sitting around a campfire talking about romantic scenes we wish potential partners (or current ones) would watch. For hints. Scenes that sweep us into a place of intense caring.  Except for the scene where Kevin Costner sweeps everything off the table to pursue Susan Sarandon in “Bull Durham” (oh, my), no one mentioned sex as essential.  

Hidden Figures

The top votes went to the hair washing scene from Out of Africa and the dinner served on a lovely table after a long day at work as an after-work surprise. From Hidden Figures. Look at the eyes. Oh my.

Extra credit: unexpected caring and. the eyes.

In this scene from my upcoming novel Deadly Trespass (out soon, I hope) I was after a Leave-It-Hanging romantic moment filled with unexpected caring … and surprise. (I like surprises; even small ones keep readers turning pages late into the night.)


  Deadly Turn excerpt: After catching some trout, the narrator, Patton, is sitting on the ground in woods frequented by wildlife and what they leave behind. Moz, game warden, ex-husband’s best friend, and now, perhaps something more … is sitting next to her. Pock, the wayward Lab, is swimming nearby.

Moz reached behind me, put his arm around my waist, and pulled me closer. It didn’t look like there was going to be much discussion. I thought about all the lady-like things I could do with a blow dryer, eyebrow pencil, and other strategies to offset, dark eye circles and hair that had to be mad at me for its permanent pony tail. I’d covered the camp’s mirrors when I’d moved in full time. Personal grooming was limited to soap in the shower.

“I know no easy way to say this,” Moz said, pulling me closer, “but I believe you sit on something an animal left behind, and it is now melting under you.”

I tried jerking my arms away. ”You mean I smell?”

Moz tightened his grip, turned, and leaned down to my neck. I think I went limp, probably just like birds do when you’ve got a good grip on their body and wings at the same time.

He laughed low into my neck. I think more of my small skin hairs floated free. “Yes and no. The part of you at my nose smells like pine and trout and clean water.”

I was a great believer in sniffing one’s way toward shared intimacy even if my daughter rebelled against the practice. It never crossed my mind I’d be on the sniffed end of such a moment. I stayed limp but whispered, “Not having a problem with the part that’s furthest from your nose?”

His chuckle pressed teeth against my neck, but I felt their pressure all the way to my toes. “Pretty sure whatever it is, the owner ate only grass,” he said.

I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and found a not unpleasant horse barn odor. I could feel a Moz smile spread wide on my skin. It seemed like we were suspended, breathing each other. He also smelled like pine, trout, and clean water.

Am very partial to wet doggies.

Even Pock smelled that way when he landed on us, fish head in his mouth and stream pouring off his body. Moz rolled away and leaped to his feet. Pock dropped the fish head in my lap.

“Oh, many thanks, Pock,” I said. Drenched, we all stared at each other. My dog wagged his tail and laid a protective paw on the fish.


This entry was posted in Group Post and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Romance in Mysteries, Yes or No?

  1. louy castonguay says:

    I believe in romance. It’s a fact of life. So is sex, romantic or not. I do not like any books that are graphic in either violence or sex, however. It can be used to add tension, or bridges, or just plain hilarity. In my Keeper Series (about to release #3, Twins’ Keeper), there is certainly adult interaction, but mostly off stage, and in #6, Wild Life Keeper, my widow certainly finds romance, but is it love? She’s flirted with having a relationship with someone in the previous books. She actually dates someone in this one I’m now writing. Will it lead to anything or fizzle? Romance can be a strong tool in our storytelling. Just, please, don’t be so very graphic.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. My first two unpublished books — still tucked away in a drawer waiting to be revised — were romantic suspense novels that I hurried home to work on in the evening (while serving as an Army food inspector during the day). Years later, when I wrote my first traditional mystery, I couldn’t resist including romance. Now that the first five books in my Lizzie Stuart series are being reissued by a new publisher, and I’m working on the sixth, I’m finally move Lizzie and Quinn (John Quinn) toward their wedding (on Dec. 31, 2004). The relationship between the two of them has been fun to write because they are so different — she’s African American, raised in a small-Kentucky town by her grandparents, a Southern crime historian with a PhD from my own university; he’s Irish-America/1/8th Native American on his mother’s side, West Point grad, son of an Army officer, former homicide cop — but both believe in justice. Their differences have kept them from boring me and readers.

    I’m working on my first standalone, set in 1939, and there is the potential for romance. I honestly don’t know how that is going to turn out. Either one of the characters is going to be dead at the end, or they both survive for one of those scenes I always loved when I grew up reading Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, and all the other great writer who combined mystery and romance so seamlessly. You can guess which way I’m leaning, but I’m going to see where the plot takes me. It’s supposed to be a historical thriller, not romantic suspense.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I DO like romance but
    I DON’T like the heroine sizing up every guy as a possible romantic interest
    I DON’T like a heroine who feels her life isn’t complete without a constant romantic interest, and
    I DON’T like when the romance is the excuse for not investigating/following up on clue, ESPECIALLY when it is because our heroine (or less often, hero) is so distracted by wondering if her flame is cheating on her/falling out of love.
    Ellis Peters is a great example; there can be romance without it involving the main character. At this point I would find that very refreshing, having been on a cozy binge to the point I groan every time an eligible partner shows up, especially those with long eye lashes. 🙂 Or I’m happy when there’s a settled couple who still love each other– Kaitlyn’s, Caroline Hart, Charlotte McLeod, and Bill Crider– I’ve just read the one, but I love the relationship there. Old married couple, she’s put him on a diet he hates, but it is so obviously they deeply love each other. She takes his job in stride and doesn’t lay a guilt trip on him every time he investigates, he really tries to stick to the diet. They have their banter. It all makes me believe in true and lasting love in a way that the many infatuations/will they-won’t they romances do not.

    And then there is Mrs. Pollifax, who is in a category by herself by not looking for love but finding it anyway

    and I have mulitple cats helping me write so I give upon this post . Give thanks t

  4. judyinboston says:

    Coming late to the party. All my novels (4 in print) have some romance. Sometimes it ends badly. I think a romantic element adds to any story. Married people just don’t work romantically unless the marriage is in crisis. We’ve been watching the PBS Maigret series and Maigret and his wife have a nice relationship, but only small hints of romance–but love is understood. It can be tricky. Spenser and Susan didn’t work for many people, but I thought they were okay. Not crazy about mysteries where the love interest is killed off. Lots of those. An endlessly interesting topic.

Leave a Reply