Heart in Mysteries: Nancy Drew Grows Up

Confession:  After cutting my teeth on teen sleuths Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and (my favorite) Kay Tracy, I did not turn to Agatha Christie, not the way most of my traditional mystery-fan buddies did.  Instead, I turned to romantic suspense.

I don’t mean the heart-throbbing kind of romantic suspense that is shelved today in the romance section of the bookstore.  What I devoured was a setting-heavy, brooding mystery (emphasis on mystery) with a hint of possible romance, usually unrequited until after the book ended.  I’m talking about Daphne du Maurier, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis A. Whitney.  I couldn’t read them fast enough.

Personally, I like a hint of romance, especially the unrequited type, in a mystery.  I like the tension this produces in a mystery.  And I like imagining the off-stage scenes myself (from romance to violence), instead of reading about them in graphic, play-by-play detail.

With the help of my awesome mystery book club, I’ve made a few very general observations about the presence of romance in mystery:

  • Fans of whodunnit mysteries (as in Agatha Christie) tend to dislike a developing romance in the stories they read if the romance gets in the way of the mystery.  These readers want to read for the intellectual pleasure of solving the puzzle.  The detective can’t solve the crime effectively if he or she is too busy swooning over a love interest.
  • Howdunnit mysteries—suspense—have more room to include a romance.  Too often, (at least for this reader) the “romance” isn’t exactly a developing relationship with romantic undertones.  Instead, it’s more about conquest, and the detectives gain clues from such conquests.  These conquests often end badly for the couple.
  • Romantic suspense in today’s market is more about the hot bedroom scenes and the dance getting there than the mystery or the threat to the protagonist or the brooding atmosphere.  The mystery serves the purpose of getting this couple together, rather than the relationship as byproduct to the mystery.  Little is left to the reader’s imagination, where their relationship is concerned.

As a reader, I like all of these mysteries.  My favorites, though, are the mysteries that defy categorization.  Risky mysteries!  As a writer, I want to be sensitive to what readers in general enjoy reading.

So here’s my conundrum as a writer:

Do I give the fictional sleuth in my traditional mystery a romantic interest?  Do I develop the series in the risky way I would want to read as a reader, or the way that readers in general would expect?  What do you think about the presence of romance in a mystery?

11 thoughts on “Heart in Mysteries: Nancy Drew Grows Up”

  1. Well, I’ll throw you a curve ball. I am a big fan of the “whodunit” type of mystery. And I love a touch of romance (sometimes more than a touch) as you said, it provides tension and drama. And it shows the characters have a life. I write police procedural and there’s definitely a hint of romance in EVERY OTHER MONDAY. My protagonist is the other project is married, but who says there can’t be romance in a marriage? They talked about this on Jungle Reds, too and the vast majority of readers say they like some romance. So I say write the project you want to read. There will be readers for it.


  2. I don’t want the romance to interfere with the mystery, but to be developed as the characters work together. I was chatting with a friend of Stephenie Meyers yesterday and was surprised when she declared the Twilight series paranormal romance. Then I was surprised that I was surprised. It seemed so obvious once she said it.


  3. An eternal question! Truth it, I am not a big fan of romance in a mystery these days, though I don’t dislike it. I just don’t care if it’s there or not. Is that weird?

    And I’m going to high five you now because I could not get enough Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt during that phase, either. Oh, those plucky heroines in dark, windswept situations!


  4. It’s a fine line to walk, between keeping romance a good conflict and before it gets in the way of the mystery. Such a challenge, this business!


  5. I like whodunit and howdunit and even the occasional romantic suspense. I also enjoy a nice love story now and then, so I like romance in the mysteries that I read. I find it helps with character development and can help me get more invested in the characters.


  6. A resounding yes!! to the question of giving a protagonist in a mystery a romantic relationship. Witness the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker. Susan was his ageless girlfriend, the avowed “love of his life.” Their relationship was a constant in the series, which gave Spenser not only a north star but a sounding board and provided multiple plot twists (Susan’s psychiatric patients, ex-husband, etc)

    My own series has the first and only female police detective in Acapulco conducting a relationship with the gringo manager of a luxury hotel. The relationship lets me illustrate social divides in Mexico, have an interesting location to expand upon, and provide succor to a woman dealing with the violence of Mexico’s drug war. Nearly every reviewer remarks on the relationship and what it adds to the series. When I wondered in a Facebook post if I should break them up or make one of them unfaithful, the response was an overwhelming and loud “no!” So Emilia and Kurt will continue to be the Spenser and Susan of the narco noir mystery genre.


  7. Sorry to be late to this post, but I couldn’t resist a comment after I read it. I like all three versions of the mystery to greater or lesser degrees. I enjoy a whodoneit, really love howdoneits and as for romantic suspense – depends on whether the romance or the suspense is the main story. I prefer the suspense parts as I believe that in any ‘mystery’, ‘suspense’, or ‘thriller,’ the main story should be about the solving. Romantic subplots and subtexts are a lot of fun and humanize stories and characters, but if that is what I’m looking for, I’ll read a romance, which I also enjoy! Good post Sue.


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