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?