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There’s A Mystery In My Romance

A lot of romances have mysteries in them.  And by mysteries I don’t mean only “does he love me?”  “Does she care” but full blown mysteries, and sometimes thrillers.

“But Sarah” you’ll say “You already did a post on mystery!” (I did right?  If not I’ll be doing one. I have NO brain this morning.)

And you can go and review the “structure of mystery thing” for the mystery part of your romance, but you should know there’s important differences.

First, though, why is mystery in so many romances?

Well, I have a theory.

There were always romances with mystery, mind, particularly the more gothic “wife in the attic” ones.  And sometimes Patricia Wentworth is a bit “is this a romance of a mystery?”

But until the early 2000s I didn’t see so many mysteries in romances that there was almost no romance without a mystery.

My theory is two fold: first, a lot of historical mystery authors got run out when Publishing, in its inscrutable way, decided that historical mysteries just didn’t sell (possibly because following the push model, they weren’t pushing.)

Romances, be it Jane Austen’s or even the more robust one of Heyers hit well under 100k words.  (And Heyers had mysteries in them a couple of times.)

The second point, delicate as it is to mention this on a post about romance is…. size.

As the price of paperbacks increased a lot of books gained girth.  This was usually by publisher demand.  I escaped the worst of it, though I was once asked to produce a goat gagger of a quarter million words.  It fell apart without coming together (yes, I know, phrasing) and since it was supposed to be a collaboration, that’s probably for the best.

But the fact remained, if you were going to have to pay $8 for a book, you didn’t want a little harlequin there and gone of 60k words or so.  But there’s only so much you can do “he said/she said” and then a ton of sex (which is where traditional publishing mostly went with romances.  Possibly because the books weren’t being read with the kind of attention where you discern the emotional movement.  And yep, they completely missed the rise of things like Amish romances or Mormon romances meant not every reader was in it for the melon rolling.)  So, enter mystery.

Mystery in romance is a bit more peculiar than normal mystery.  There are certain points it must hit. If you’re trying to decide if you just wrote a mystery or a romance, here are some things to look for.

1- As in cozy, at least early in the series, in romance with mystery, one of the main characters must be in jeopardy.  Usually she’s a potential victim or he thinks he committed the murder, or she thinks he committed the murder, etc.

2- Whatever the mystery is, it must be part of what stands between them.

For instance, he thinks he committed a murder.  Or she thinks she’s unlovable because her favorite sister committed suicide and that must have been because of her (her sister was really murdered.)

3- The impetus for solving the murder is often their relationship.

4- Usually, even if it’s not a thriller, it ends up with Woman In Peril and the big hero coming to the rescue.  (Romances are far more traditional than the other genres on “lady must be rescued.”  Sometimes I wonder if all the women complaining against “passive women” really read a lot of romance and it colors their perception.  Certainly not true in the other fields.  SOMETIMES the romances reverse this, and he’ll be in jeopardy and she rescues him.  Not very often though.)

5- Solving the mystery removes the last block to the romance, they now understand each other perfectly and there’s a happy ever after.

6- There MUST be a happy ever after.  My husband tried to argue this when I was explaining Romance to him.  It’s “predictable” he says.  Yes, indeed.  But in ROMANCE there must be a happy ever after.  In mystery or science fiction or fantasy, your star crossed lovers might never make it up.  BUT in romance, they must end the book in love, possibly married and — as Kris Rusch points out — these days often with a kid because it’s the only way we believe they’ll always be linked.


So go ahead, put a mystery in your romance.  But remember that the romance must still have its due.

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Apparently Dorothy L. Sayers was in a conversation about “romance interrupting the mystery” but a comment was made that the people involved would see “the mystery interrupting their romance”. 👿

    Then she went and interrupted Lord Peter & Harriet’s honeymoon with a murder mystery (Busman’s Honeymoon). 😈

    December 6, 2017
    • sam57l0 #

      The only one of her books I’ve read (my wife brought it home).

      December 6, 2017
      • sam57l0 #

        And I had to explain the Busman’s reference.

        December 6, 2017
      • Robin Munn #

        Gaudy Night is also lots of fun, and has a vaguely similar mystery-interrupting-the-romance feel at times. Set some time before Busman’s Honeymoon, as in Gaudy Night, Peter and Harriet are not yet engaged. She’s attending her class reunion at Oxford, a mystery happens, and Harriet tries to solve it but ends up calling in Peter as a consultant because she’s not making much headway. It’s probably my favorite Lord Peter book, as there’s a lot of fun banter between Peter and Harriet.

        December 7, 2017
    • Busman’s Honeymoon s one of my most favorite books. I re-read it at least once every year.

      December 7, 2017
  2. paladin3001 #

    Romance and mystery. Mystery and romance. Well, at least this case is almost closed.

    December 6, 2017
  3. C4c

    December 6, 2017
  4. for the melon rolling

    This is not a euphemism I have heard before. That is all.

    December 6, 2017
    • Possibly made up by my best friend growing up — salutes towards France — that’s what she called it.

      December 6, 2017
  5. Christopher M. Chupik #

    “There MUST be a happy ever after.”

    Well, I once saw Othello classed as a Romance . . .

    December 6, 2017
    • the f*ck? Not in the modern sense, no.

      December 6, 2017
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        I know? I thought: “Did you somehow miss how that ends?”

        December 6, 2017
    • John Ringo’s “Ghost” won a Romance award.

      December 6, 2017
  6. There’s always mystery in romance. It’s called “women”. Mysterious critters, they are . . .

    December 6, 2017
  7. Starting something now that might fall in this… will definitely keep this in mind.

    (Dumb question, but… does anyone know much about how it affects expectations if they’re lesbians? (Well, one’s a lesbian. The other is a bi/poly/switch/”Hey, that sounds like fun, let’s try it!”))

    (…I swear, one of these days I will write something that isn’t an odd-couple setup featuring an alien (“how illogical”) and a pixie. Honestly.)

    December 6, 2017
  8. Yes, yes, this is one of those weird romance things. Everybody outside the genre thinks, “Two people forced by fate into sleuthing together, and eventually they find romance! Yay!”

    Most of the folks inside the genre think, “Gothic misunderstanding to keep the potential lovers apart, so they sleuth at cross-purposes; and they never do any sleuthing together, or only at the end of the book! Yay!”

    That said, I do hear a lot of romance readers complaining about all the misunderstanding plots.

    I also hear a lot of mystery readers complaining about all the ethics violations. But I think that’s bad construction, really. If the Hero is a good guy, he should be careful about his sleuthing ethics; and this should be a clue to the heroine that he’s really not shady.

    December 6, 2017
  9. Thank you.

    I just realized something reading this; I’d have female writers tell me they didn’t want to write damsel in distress stories like everybody else was doing and I’d look around wondering what they were talking about. I’m over forty, I can say with near certainty that has not been an issue (even when they squint really hard and make it up in their own minds) in the books I’ve read. Far from it. In fact, I’d say it’s gone so far the other way that when I see a man not actually useless when teamed up with Action Girl (the Girl of Action) my eyebrows meet my hairline. No matter how far back it’s gone.

    I assumed, since the female writers were older and very left wing, that they were reacting to things in their childhood and looking to be offended as a way to control other people’s art. But when I’d argue back and ask for specifics I’d never get a real response. Any books they’d name that we had in common I’d easily refute and I was laughing about it, basically saying please name them because I could use something good to read (not saying examples don’t exist, but I am willing to say that examples are so rare that they may as well be statistically insignificant in trad publishing) but they often had a strange reluctance to name examples.

    But this post put the pieces in place; the examples they could name of that trope were in Romance, but they were using that trope to attack men and male writers, and men don’t read much Romance, and don’t write a lot of Romance (let’s be generous and call it a 90-10 split), so the writers who wrote these things that the female writers objected to were almost certainly female and were writing for a female audience. Another example of women attacking other women for liking the wrong thing, but not wanting to look like that, blaming men and male writers for it.

    Why? Why does it matter to them if someone of their gender likes something they don’t like? Some women like to feel protected? Fine. Some women don’t like to feel protected? Fine. Everyone should be allowed to like and read what they like without other people trying to take that away from them.

    The best part though is that the paradigm has shifted; you can object to that kind of stuff all you want, you can get onto book reviews and sniff at them, you can ignore them, you can roll your eyes at people when you see the covers, you can become an acquisitions editor and toss them in the round file, and all of that used to be successful ways to winnow out the content you objected to, but now? Now, that stuff goes indie, and boom, there’s the audience, it’s on Ereaders so they can’t roll their eyes at it, it doesn’t rely on official reviews, no acquisitions editor, no gatekeepers other than the audience. Their power diminishes, they can no longer suppress by other means that which they object to and it seems to be driving them crazy.

    Being driven crazy by other people getting to read what they want without interference. That’s both sad and amusing.


    December 6, 2017
    • sam57l0 #

      Control issues, I think, Steve.

      December 6, 2017
    • Mary #

      Personally, I wonder why I’ve never seen an Everybody Else magazine that publishes the stories that the other magazines don’t want their stories to be like.

      December 6, 2017
  10. Nicholas Archer #

    Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t the Cross-Genre of Mystery and Romance called: Suspense? That’s what several articles I’ve read on the subject have said quote, “Suspense is a Mystery Story with more focus or development on the romantic relationship than traditional Mystery Stories.” Is that not what you are discussing here or is it different?

    December 6, 2017
    • No, you’re wrong. Suspense is another term for thriller.
      And no, it’s not even close to what I’m discussing, because I’m not discussing a subgenre of mystery, but a subgenre of ROMANCE. There are rules for romance like the Happily ever after which are not in suspense/thriller and certainly not in mystery.
      AND I’ve never heard of suspense having a romance, of necessity. I think you’re thinking of Woman in Peril which is a subgenre of both romance and mystery.

      December 7, 2017
      • Nicholas Archer #

        Woman In Peril is a Sub-Genre? I thought that was a Trope or something. Man, I need to read more than Sci-fi, Love Inspired Suspense, The Deltora Series, and HP Lovecraft.

        So what Genre or Cross-Genre would you say you’re referring to?

        December 7, 2017
        • No, it’s a sub-genre.
          as for what I’m referring to, it’s in the post.

          December 7, 2017
        • The post answered your question. I suggest you go back and read it again. Woman in Peril has been a sub-genre for some time now. It is part of the romantic-suspense genre/sub-genre. In fact, it has existed longer than the name for the sub-genre has.

          December 7, 2017
          • Ah. Romantic Suspense, not just Suspense. Just Suspense is AFAICT thrillers.
            Romantic Suspense is NOT a subgenre of mystery though, so it’s not mystery with a little more romance. It’s a romance with a little more mystery.

            December 7, 2017
  11. Okay I’ve read this entry three times and gone back and read the one about mysteries and another about romance and I see the importance of genre but I still can’t figure out what I wrote. Twin comes to help widowed sister when her young nephew is diagnosed with cancer. Personal growth ensues, kind and handsome doctor appears but someone seems to be stalking kid. Ultimate danger scene — aunt and kid save each other, doctor arrives to save kid second time. I don’t think I met any criteria above OR in the mystery category. Except romance is about the personal aspect?

    December 6, 2017
    • You might not have written genre.

      December 7, 2017
      • Interesting thought…. But I’m going to try a little harder with the next one to adhere to some genre!

        December 7, 2017
        • Well, it sounds like the sort of thing a lot of people would like to read. Nothing wrong with that plot. Sort of like a Hallmark movie with more adventure, or a Lifetime movie with less Woman in Peril.

          December 7, 2017
  12. Mary #

    SOMETIMES the romances reverse this, and he’ll be in jeopardy and she rescues him. Not very often though.

    We’re harder on guys who need to be rescued. It’s best if he gets himself into the position of needing to be rescued by heroic sacrifice on his part.

    December 6, 2017
  13. I always loved Elizabeth Peters and her lampooning of the romantic suspense genre. (Which she sold very well in, writing it straight, under the name Barbara Michaels.)

    Her “Legend in Green Velvet” is laugh-out-loud hilarious as a sendup of romantic suspense tropes, right down to an (attempted) torture scene that turns into pure farce because the villains are attempting to use centuries old, badly maintained equipment.

    December 11, 2017

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