A Little Sugar in Your Mystery? How to Balance Romance and Murder

     A very little romance goes a long way I was told when I started writing mysteries–it’s best not to mix the two.  Anyway, for me, what could possibly be romantic about a female sleuth in boots smelling of cow manure? My amateur sleuth at the time was Ruth, a single mother dairy farmer whose husband had fallen hard for a local actress. For Ruth, left with three kids and thirty cows, the single life was only hard work–not to mention the mysterious troubles she found herself immersed in.  

     But I wanted some spice in my plot so I added a male sidekick, a would-be lover named Colm from Ruth’s high school days. I gave him all the foibles and habits of my spouse: the awful puns, the double Manhattans filled with Guckenheimer whiskey, the fifty hats and shoes he owned. To make him an integral part of the mystery, I made him a parttime Realtor whose father is a mortician, and a parttime cop like his granddad–all useful vocations. Colm turned out, as well, to be a humorous foil for resolute Ruth, and an inventive sleuth. For as author Steve Liskow notes  in his website essay, “On Writing:” “Unless both halves of the team are actively involved in a case, which means either a fellow sleuth or some kind of expert lawyer, psychiatrist, forensic tech–there’s a good chance that the (romantic) outsider is going to become more a hindrance than a help.”

     Ruth, who had lost her trust in men after the husband’s defection, kept persistent Colm at arm’s length through four books until one day a nonagenarian fan blurted out at a mystery event: “When are you ever going to get those two into bed?!” The applause was humbling. So for book #5 I gave in, and so did Ruth.      

     In my current series, I’ve no control over the question of romance. For my sleuth Mary Wollstonecraft lived in the 18th-century, and although I invent a mystery, I must keep her in her historical time and place, and stay true to her character. And while the historical Mary was fiercely independent, she yearned for a grand passion, and shortly after the publication of her groundbreaking  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she became wholly obsessed with the artist Henry Fuseli, twenty years her senior and shorter than she, though what he lacked in height he made up by force of personality. Steamy letters flew between them; he allegedly never opened hers but relished the image of himself he saw mirrored in her eyes. She felt she had to be with him daily–never mind he was married.

     “I would unite myself with your mind,” she wrote him (still a virgin at thirty-three). “If I thought my passion criminal, I would conquer it or die in the attempt!”

     And so in the spring of 1793 she marched up to his door to propose a menage a trois with him and wife. A horrified Sophia showed her the door, while Fuseli stood on the landing, his face red with fury. It was evidently all right to dally beyond his borders, but not in the sanctuary of his repectable home. London was scandalized.

     I felt I had to include this dramatic affair in my novel, The Nightmare,  but how could I work in the mystery? The affair did explain, I reasoned, why Mary had “writers block” at that time and couldn’t seem to complete part 2 of her Vindication. So I had the mystery involve a theft of Fuseli’s famous painting, “The Nightmare,” and added a beautiful woman strangled and arranged to resemble it. Mary, I figured, was trying to find the culprit–in part to gain Fuseli’s gratitude.  But why a menage a trois?   Was she truly in love with this philandering man or was it her awakening sexuality? Was she perhaps seeking, as her biographer Lyndall Gordon suggests, a surrogate father to make up for her own abusive dad, her dysfunctional childhood?  Was it a frustrated craving to conjure up a loving, close-knit family?

     Whatever the reason, she was deeply hurt and humiliated. The scandal catapulted her off to revolutionary Paris where she once again fell blindly in love with a dashing American captain who ultimately abandoned her and their natural child. More scandal! Suicide attempts! More dilemmas for this novelist who would weave her story into a mystery. Each morning now as I write book #3 in the series I warn myself: do not let the romance take over the mystery!  But how do I do that?   I think back on Steve Liskow’s warning to keep sleuth and romantic interest, whether sidekick or protagonist, actively involved in the “case.”  And I wonder: shall I make this rogue American a villain in my book? Not just because he abandoned a devastated Mary, but because as an historical character he happened, in real life, to be  a double spy for America and France. 

     Aha! I think I know now where I’m going…


12 Responses

  1. Hi, Nancy,

    Like you, I prefer to have romance with my mystery, but the difference between romantic mystery and romantic suspense is significant as you point out. With romantic mystery, the emphasis has to remain on the mystery. Romance can’t overpower it. I’ve been very careful with my Kim Reynolds mystery series. The romance is important but there’s a full mystery in each of the three novels. My new novel, DEATH LEGACY, is a romantic suspense novel with the romance equally important to the mystery and thriller factors.

    • Thanks so much for responding, Jacqueline; you offer an interesting comparison. I always thought that romance would slightly dominate in the romantic suspense novel. Yet I can see why it must be equal. It’s surely a challenge to equally balance romance and suspense, isn’t it? I must take a look at your Death Legacy.

  2. It took 4 books to move a romance into a significant place in my first series; in my third, I start out with one, but they live separately. What could be next?

    • LIving separately might be the best idea, Camille. My characters were still in separate quarters (but usually in the same bed) when the series ended. Poor Mary W. lost her bedmate despite her best inclinations.

  3. In the Jane Austen mysteries, she made up a romance (spoiler alert!!!)

    ..who was dispatched to stay true to history. I quit reading because I liked the romance! I would say it is important to find the right balance for your story and the reader needs to feel satisfied that progress has been made. For me, I feel cheated when a series “resets” at the beginning of each book. I like the progress of the romance as much or more than the mystery. I see the mystery as part of the challenges the couple faces. I bailed on the Stephanie Plum books because I just felt jerked around by the romance.

    Obviously, romance dominates Mary’s life, but wow. What a life and no sign of a happy ending there. I’d make the mystery more, just because there’s no way to make that happy!

    One thing about making a real person a bad guy, he could have descendants who don’t like it. LOL!

    • Good comment, Pauline. And I like what you say about seeing the mystery “as part of the challenges the couple faces.” In that way, the romantic other is an integral part of the mystery.
      Re: Mary: in real life she did finally have a loving partner in Wm Godwin, along with true commitment. But that doesn’t happen, alas, in the sequel I’m working on now. But maybe better to have truly loved than not at all?
      If you make a real person a bad guy, you should make sure he’s far enough in the past or has no descendants. Mary had none, and as far as I can discover, her erstwhile lover didn’t. So I’m lucky there,LOL.

      • LOL! I am glad she did finally get someone. See, even in real life Iike happy endings. Jane Austen always haunts me a bit, because she has given such happiness with her books. Hope she was happy in her life, but wish she’d found true love. Sigh.

  4. I agree w/ all you say above, and only want to comment on a totally extraneous matter (which is a pet peeve of mine): you don’t need to capitalize “realtor,” as you did in the 2nd paragraph. I know they want us to, but it’s contrary to usage rules (after all we don’t uppercase even “president” unless using the full official title or in direct address). Why should real estate be the only profession w/ a capitalized name for its workers? Even doctors and lawyers don’t ask for it. And realty certainly doesn’t deserve this special consideration, w/ the number of typos and errors I see on house listing brochures!
    OK, I’ll take off my editorial/ranting hat now, and let you get back to mystery and romance.

    • Okay, I will forever use a small r on the word “realtor.” To me the word deserves a small r anyway, since the realtor I have has still not been able to sell my house, despite the fact that he’s a grandson of the famous singing von Trapp family (la la la). Actually it was my former husband who was a realtor at one time who told me the word should be capitalized. And obviously we’re divorced.
      Thanks for giving me permission!

  5. Nancy, I agree regarding the importance of finding the right balance between romance and murder. “A little sugar in your mystery” describes exactly what I like, and what I tried to do in DAMNED IF YOU DON’T. I also think sexual tension is more compelling in fiction (if not in life) than sex itself, and also more fun to write.

    I look forward to reading THE NIGHTMARE.

    • Thanks for these thoughts, Anita, and I like the phrase “sexual tension.” It exactly describes what my protagonist is going through, and no doubt yours as well in your Damned if You Don’t, which I will add to my reading list (great title). I even like the sound of “sexual tension” as I speak the two words–they clutch at the heart.

      • Me too, Pauline. (to respond to your second post): I adore Jane Austen and am sick at heart to think of her early death and her loneliness. At least her writing compensated to a degree; she had to live her fictional lovers’ lives vicariously. I can only imagine her sense of loss as she came to the end of a novel and had to say good bye to those characters.

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