Monday, May 17, 2010

Who needs a hero anyway?

I was moderating a mystery panel on Saturday (what I meant to say was a panel of mystery writers. There was little mystery about who we are!) when one of the audience asked whether we felt that a female sleuth needed a significant other. Good question and one that has been hotly debated over the years. And particularly interesting to me as I'd just been discussing the dark and brooding hero in my blog.

 Some people love a little romance in their mysteries, others feel that it detracts from the story.

I'm of the former school--I love good romantic tension. I was a fan of Moonlighting, of old Katherine Hepburn movies--a strong woman yet irresistably attracted to a man she shouldn't want. I loved Charade--attracted to the enemy.
You can tell those things from reading my books, can't you? Molly and Daniel have this chemistry from day one, when he is trying to arrest her for murder, when he thinks she is married to someone else. And when she discovers the truth about him in later books, she can't stamp out that fire for him. I think it's part of what makes her an appealing character.

Ditto Georgie and the dangerous Darcy O'Mara (of course I gave him the name on purpose!) He's a man she knows she should stay away from but she can't. It adds another element of tension to the story. Will they, won't they?

On the other hand I've read plenty of mysteries in which the boyfriend cop was shoved into the story only so that the heroine can find out forensic evidence or so that there can be some good sex scenes. Sex in mysteries? Only if it is justified and doesn't slow down the essential plot, which is to hunt down a murderer.

I don't think a love interest is essential. Kinsey Milhone makes a fine loner in the tradition of the noir sleuth. I think the writer has to be true to her characters. If they are loners by nature, they will probably not have stable relationships. Take Cara Black's Aimee Leduc. She goes for bad boys who then break her heart.

But sexual tension does have its limits. One can only go on so far with the will they won't they theme. And then--if they marry and live happily ever after--is that the end of the series? Happy married life is boring, is it not? we're about to see what it does for Molly.

So what do you think? Do you like your mysteries with a touch of romance? Or do you like the tough, loner-broad sleuth, or even prefer Miss Marple for whom the word sex has never entered her vocabulary?


  1. A little romance "fleshes out" the character. We get to see how she reacts to personal situations, how she interacts with a potential partner. Does she act differently with a romantic interest than she does with a potential source of information? How does she view herself?

    The subplot tells a lot about the hero/heroine and the author. I scaled back the sex in my series, mainly because I got older and other parts of Derek's life interested me. Not to say he doesn't find a little romance now and then, but it's not distracting him as much now.

  2. By all means, I love a romance in a mystery or suspense novel; a mysery without a suspense for me is like a hamburger without a pickle, a hot dog without relish. I always involve my characters in romantic entanglements, and that goes for my hYstery mYstery as well.


  3. As with many other aspects of a book, romance depends on the character and context. I like a little romance but I want it to happen naturally. Having a heroine-- or a hero, for that matter-- spend a sentence or two of every scene sizing up a person as a potential date or mate gets old. Ditto the perfect couple that is definitely the perfect couple and everybody can see it but them-- fine for awhile. It's okay if they have disagreements or whatever, but to have them break up at the start every book and then get back together at the end, gets becomes tiresome. Unless it's Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, of course!

    As others said, it needs to reveal something about the character for good or ill for me.

    However, I had an elderly patron who really liked romantic mysteries. The problem was finding the proper proportions. When he'd return the books, he'd give me his verdicts: "Too much romance, not enough mystery in this one, that one had too much mystery and not enough romance." Occasionally we'd find the perfect balance in a book. He was a lovely gentleman.

  4. I like 'em all. Romance, no romance, as long as it's a mystery and not gory, I'll read it. The trick is, the romance (or sex) has to benefit the story line, not just be there "because".

  5. I love a little romance in my mysteries. In fact, I prefer it. :)

  6. For me, it depends on the book and the skills of the author. A great mystery doesn't need romance, but won't be hurt by it, either. If I follow a sleuth through a series, and s/he is single-but-attracted in book one, attracted-but-conflicted in book two, too busy to think about it in book three, and back to the attraction in book four, this is great, as long as the writing, the mystery, and the plot hold my interest. If the mystery/plot are not strong, I'm likely not going to care whether Mr./Ms Hero/ine is or isn't in love.
    Rhys, I was a fan of Moonlighting, too, and am always a little worried when the sleuth actually gets the man/woman of his/her dreams . . . does the air go completely out of the story, or not? One television series that seems to be negotiating this turn successfully is 'Chuck'--I'm enjoying the show now as much as I did before, and I think the writing is smart and funny and complex, like it was before the turn.

  7. Rhys, I really have an ecumenical attitude toward sex and romance and relationships between heroine/hero and others. I can take it or leave it, as it were. I think the problems rise when an author has difficulty dealing with these aspects of a character's life. I sometimes want to ask the author whether they had trouble talking to their kids, or their parents about sex and relationships because that background, I suspect, spills over into the novels. Most authors put far more of their attitudes and backgrounds into their writing than they realize.

  8. As long as the writing is good I don't care if the female lead has a love interest or not, with the caveat that the relationships in the book, whether family, enemies, or lovers, have to make sense and have something to do with plot or character development.

    While a boyfriend might not help solve the mystery, the type of person he is and his relationship with the lead could reveal insight into the lead, and if it makes the character more real and more interesting, I'm cool with that.

    Holli Castillo

  9. Rhys, Hooray, I'm finally able to comment on your blog! It must be a new security glitch on AOL. When I logged on via Google Chrome, suddenly your comments and follow boxes are LIVE!
    As for this posting, I have to say that you include just enough but not too much "romance" (never sex) in your Molly Murphy and Royal Spyness books.