Love inspires us to be heroes and fools, lust has a long, distinguished role as a motive for bad behavior, but the confluence of the mystery and romance genres is something different, and that’s what we were talking about. Five mystery writers who included elements of romance in their novels shared the stage at the 2015 Left Coast Crime conference. The name of our panel was Guns and Roses.
We were a disparate group. Donnell Ann Bell moderated. Her debut mystery, The Past Came Hunting, was a finalist for the Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Award. Kendra Elliott has sold over a million books of tightly plotted romantic suspense. Yvonne Kohano’s books are heavy on the romance and include a little spice. Carole Price’s heroine is an ex-cop who is romantically involved with a Navy Seal. Each of my three books is a mystery, but together, they describe a young widow’s journey from emotional devastation to a new love – in other words, the trilogy is a romance.
A sprinkling of romance in a mystery novel isn’t a radical change. Maybe Miss Marple simply didn’t – didn’t even think about it, but others did. Nancy Drew had what’s-his-name, although he always struck me as part of the scenery and not a player. Adam Dagleish, PD James’ poet police commissioner, had romance in his life, however, resolving the relationship always took back seat to solving the crime. On the noir side, our heroes were rarely celibate, but romantic love was a faint and usually regretted glow in their rearview. James Bond followed in that cynical tradition, without the regrets, and had more fun.
In today’s mysteries, there are more partnerships and fewer detectives with a little romance on the side. Attitudes have evolved. Calling women dames, as noir heroes did, is not cool. Still, this is evolution not revolution. Mystery writers who incorporate romance in their stories owe a debt to the past and, strangely enough, to a pillar of noir.
You don’t get much more hard-boiled (harder boiled?) than Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, but Hammett also created Nick and Nora Charles. The Thin Man, Hammett’s last book, introduced this wisecracking married couple who solved mysteries together. Despite The Thin Man’s enormous success, Hammett didn’t write another Nick and Nora novel, but he and others wrote stories that became five more Nick and Nora movies. These immensely popular films led to a radio show, a TV series, even a Broadway musical. I think it’s fair to say that Nick and Nora are the parents of today’s romantically involved detective teams.
It is a proud tradition. Kendra Elliott’s Callahan and McLane series features FBI Special Agent Ava McLane and the man she has come to love, police detective Mason Callahan. I wouldn’t be surprised if a future book didn’t see them marry. In Carole Price’s Shakespeare in the Vineyard series, an ex-crime analyst Cait Pepper inherits a vineyard, two summer theaters and a lot of trouble. Her romance is a bit more tenuous. RT Tanner, her Navy Seal, has an unfortunate habit of being called back to duty just when things are moving along between them. Donnell Ann Bell writes stand-alone mysteries, each with a romantic relationship that enhances the suspense. Because the books are stand-alone, the romance as well as the mystery is resolved at the end.
Plenty of mysteries are still written with little or no romance, but overall, there is a greater emphasis on romance. Among the panelists, this is most evident in Yvonne Kohano’s Flynn’s Crossing series, which moves from one couple to another in a group of long-time friends. Yvonne’s books are on the romantic side of romantic suspense. The relationship is resolved, and a mystery is solved, in that order of importance.
A romantic relationship provides another dimension to both characters and plot. The reader wonders how a budding romance will survive the stress of being involved in a murder investigation. For the protagonists, seeing their beloved in danger raises the ante. There can be conflicts within the romance. The main character in my trilogy is a young widow with two potential love interests. Which one she will choose, if either, adds another layer of mystery to the who-done-it of the central plot line. That question will be answered in the third book, which doesn’t come out until the fall, but readers are already expressing strong opinions as to how it should go. I’m not telling.
Back when books were only on paper and sold from shelves in stores, genres were important. Lines had to be drawn because booksellers had to decide which shelf. Does this book belong on the mystery shelf or on the romance shelf? (A little off the topic, but funny: one ex-bookstore employee swears that, back in the day, the question of whether a book was “literature” or “fiction” was decided by whether or not the author was alive. You guess which way it went.)
Genre still matters to the brick and mortar stores, and this is among their challenges. Elsewhere, in our electronic age, a book can “sit” on as many shelves as seems appropriate, and the number of shelves isn’t limited by physical space. A reader looking for a mystery with a touch of romance can click on romantic suspense, or mystery, or romance. The same thing applies to science fiction and fantasy, and steampunk and every other genre. The question of what is literary fiction vs. popular fiction will probably remained unanswered forever, but do readers really care?
The name of our panel was Guns and Roses; it could have been Blurred Lines. Genres still exist, and they matter, but the edges are melting into each other. Bits of this are finding their way into books of that. Readers are getting a wider variety of products to choose from. This has to be a good thing – don’t you think? Being on the panel introduced me to four new – to me – authors. I read something by each before our session and recommend them to anyone who enjoys a bit of romance in their mystery.
Before she became a writer, Patricia Dusenbury was an economist and the author of numerous dry publications. She is hoping to atone by writing mystery stories that people read for pleasure. Her first book, A Perfect Victim, won the Electronic Industry 2015 e-book award for a mystery. Book 2, Secrets, Lies & Homicide, was a top ten finalist in the Preditors and Editors 2014 readers’ poll. Book 3, A House of Her Own, is scheduled for publication in late 2015. All are published by Uncail Press. Pat also writes short stories and you can always find one on her web site, PatriciaDusenbury.com. When she isn’t writing, Pat is reading, gardening, babysitting or exploring San Francisco, her new home. Or, if it is late April/early May, you can find her in New Orleans, soaking up the sounds of Jazz Fest.