Mad Genius Club

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.