Reader's Corner: There's a Fine Line Between Romantic Suspense and Mystery

dog intelligence

Today’s post was inspired by a forum discussion at AAR where readers are yet still defining what constitutes a romance but that’s not what I’m going to expound on here today.

The discussion started around a romantic suspense novel, FADE TO BLACK by Leslie Parish where one reader thought the violence was too graphic and the story not romantic at all. This made me think just what differentiates romantic suspense from mystery?

Well, let’s see, in romantic suspense, you have, well, the two elements of romance and suspense. If done right, they are supposed to balance each other out but that rarely if ever is achieved. In romantic suspense, the heavy emphasis is suppose to be on the romance. The suspense is more or less a side arc that is supposed to be the main conflict that is utilized to draw the two protagonists together.

Often the violence in romantic suspense novels can go from mild to graphic violence. But the level of violence isn’t what defines romantic suspense is it? No.

Now, there are mysteries that I’ve read that would easily fall under the umbrella of romantic suspense as these stories tend to have a very strong romantic subplot. But what stops them from being labeled as romantic suspense is the use of over the top violence and the lack of a HEA. Even in some of these romantic suspense novels, the violence can get gruesome, too, thereby further blurring the lines between the two sub-genres.

Then in that case we’re back to what differentiates romantic suspense from mystery? Well, let’s start with the obvious, romantic suspense must have a HEA whereas mysteries do not. Easy enough to figure out, yes? In fact, that is about it for me when defining the difference between them.

I’ve read my share of mystery and romantic suspense novels and hey, they seem to share a lot of the same elements like serial killers and in some cases the romance is either a blip in the story or a big subplot. For example, Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries are labeled as “cozy” and are shelved in mystery but they have a strong romantic subplot in them. A lot of romance readers, I think, would enjoy that series.

Where romantic suspense gets to be a big turn off for romance readers is when the violence gets to be too graphic and even gratuitous. The romance is often given the shaft. No one likes reading from the perps POV. Often I have to ask why is it even necessary to have a victim/perp scene? Anyway, the author almost writes like he/she forgot they were suppose to write a romantic suspense novel not suspense novel with romantic elements in them. But half of them more or less read like the latter these days.

I did some undercover, non-scientific study with a very small sample size, asking readers on Twitter if they enjoyed reading romantic suspense. I wasn’t surprised by the results as it turned out to be not very many. Why is that? Who wants to read about two people falling in love and running for their lives? Eh?

When one thinks of romantic suspense, for me it brings to mind authors like Linda Howard (After the Night) or Katherine Sutcliffe (Bad Moon Rising) or even Karen Rose (Kill For Me). The violence in those books tend to be non-existent to tame. Now Sandra Brown’s work is hard to classify. Sometimes her books have a strong romantic subplot in them (Play Dirty) and in that case I would call them “romantic suspense” but she’s written other books like Charade and Witness which are straight up suspense with sex.

Also, how many read Karen Robards? How well does she do? I find her stuff hit or miss. The last good Karen Robards book I read was One Summer and it had a weak suspense plot, an afterthought really and no it wasn’t labeled as romantic suspense. How about Iris Johansen? She went from historical romance writer to straight suspense writer. Last good book by her that I read was Long After Midnight. Even though readers want the romance to be nicely done, the suspense part of the novel has to be on par or else, it’s a FAIL.

Wrapping this up, mystery and romantic suspense do share a lot of the same elements but where the difference stops is in the focus (romance versus the mystery) and the ending (happy versus not). I know I try to mention violence when it is heavy handed in any book I read as I think it’s significant.

There’s violence that I find in Karin Slaughter’s work or even Chelsea Cain’s work that seem gratitituous. But that goes beyond the scope of this topic and it has yet to stop me from reading their work. Violence in books just doesn’t bother me but again, that goes beyond the scope of this topic. Maybe another time.

In the end, romantic suspense is about the romance and the HEA. You can add in whatever you like, I guess, as far as violence, villain POV, skanky sex, etc as far as that goes but the focus must always be on the romance and the ending must be a good one and a happy one if one is to label it “romantic suspense.”

As an aside, Fade To Black by Leslie Parish looks good and AAR gave the book a decent grade. I just might check it out for myself. Yes, you are witnessing word of mouth, in action.

Photo Credit: alicejamieson


About Keishon

Voracious reader of just about everything.
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13 Responses to Reader's Corner: There's a Fine Line Between Romantic Suspense and Mystery

  1. KristieJ says:

    One of the best RS books I’ve read in a while – one that has a good balance between the R and the S (as opposed to the alphabet where there is nothing in between is Stolen Heat by Elizabeth Naughton. It IS a hard thing to balance right I think and not many authors get it right.

  2. Lori says:

    Now, see? I’m one of those who thinks that the violence in Fade to Black wasn’t overdone. It was totally appropriate for the story. And there was romance in the book, too – also appropriate for the story. But I also love books like that. The authors with whom I would equate this book are earlier Karen Rose, Mariah Stewart, and maybe even a little Lisa Jackson, although this one was heavier on the romance than a classic Jackson is. IMO, it’s all about preferences. And isn’t that what the romance genre is so great at? Supporting multiple preferences? It always bothers me when people criticize books simply because they aren’t their preference.

    I think that many have been wooed by the idea of romantic suspense as Shannon McKenna or Linda Howard (and don’t get me wrong – I absolutely ADORE their books) or other similar books. And perhaps the line between “romantic suspense” and “romantic thriller” has become blurred by authors such as Rose, whom lately I would put firmly in the thriller category rather than suspense. I don’t view it as a bad thing. Just a matter of preference, once again. I’m one of the lucky ones who happen to love both.

    I thought that it was wrong for the book to be criticized, in the same way it would be wrong for a Mariah Stewart or a Karen Rose to be criticized for being too violent. And you should definitely read it 🙂

  3. Avid Reader says:

    Now Elizabeth Naughton I plan to try so thanks KristieJ.
    @Lori, I do plan to read Parish myself and as for Rose, agreed, eventually she will be like Johansen and others, writing thrillers. Heck, she’s good at it and gets better with each successive book she writes.

  4. sybil says:

    damn you, damn you to hell

    I will so go and read that thread. ::head desk:: started by a dick groupie no less… I think it is largely an age thing as well or could be I have been reading a shit load of suspense. And love horror movies.

    I am just a bad bad girl. Of course if it is RS and doesn’t END HEA I would be pissed. Open violent eh… I have Fade to Black to read and really look forward to it. But I am a huge fan of Lisa Gardner and was way sad to hear Allison Brennan’s next are paranormal. Of course we really do need more of those…

    Have you tried Hank Phillippi Ryan?

  5. sybil says:

    And it is romance!!!!! So the AAR Review (which I haven’t read) and the book I haven’t read BUT if it is THAT bad should have given some kind of a warning if they have that big of a pussy group over there still.

    CUZ it is a romance site… a oh this does get pretty graphic takes two seconds… know your visitors… isn’t rocket science no? that is just nice nothing to do with this is that and that is this or lets label the shit out of everything

    romance = hea

    other than that I am pretty cool… ok that is prolly a lie I am cool until you ‘hit’ whatev pisses me off like that 😉

  6. willaful says:

    Which Karen Rose are you reading? I enjoy her writing but find her books extremely violent, almost to the point of giving her up.

  7. Renee says:

    As to the question of romance/mystery dividing line. Like you said, HEA is necessary in romance not necessarily in mystery. The second litmus test for me would be that the mystery plot drives most of the action in a mystery. The relationship would drive most of the action in a romance.
    In the case of the JS-F series (which I LOVE) I would figure it’s a mystery with romantic elements. If Russ for some reason were to be scarce for a book or their relationship did not progress in some way, I’d be really disappointed, but it would still be possible to still have a story.
    I’m not a big romantic suspense reader. IDK why. My earliest romances were historical romantic suspense which I read tons of (Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, Madeleine Brent, etc) but when I started reading romance again a couple of years ago, neither contemporary nor historical rs much interested me. Anne Stuart and Jill Sorenson are the only two I think I’ve recently read.

  8. Lori says:

    I don’t know about it being an age thing, Sybil. Unless you mean *really* old, LOL. Cause I’m pushing my mid-40s, and I obviously have no issues w/the violence, But I thrive on it. Heh. I’m a sicko that way. Although I am cooler than the average old lady.

    And, I do want to see an HEA if there is any hint of a romance in my book. Or at least know that the H/h are on their way to that HEA.

    I also am a bit bummed that the next Brennan trilogy is paranormal. I’m hoping it’s just some elements, ya know? I’ll give the first one a shot, for sure.

  9. sybil says:

    Lori: I don’t know about it being an age thing, Sybil. Unless you mean *really* old, LOL.

    if you dare

    if the link to arr, read the first post and then run out really fast

  10. Lori says:

    Laughing. K. I aint *that* old! Not by a long shot. She easily has 20 years on me. And a far larger stick up her ass.

  11. Avid Reader says:

    willaful: Which Karen Rose are you read­ing? I enjoy her writ­ing but find her books extremely vio­lent, almost to the point of giv­ing her up.

    I have read two of hers thus far Count To Ten and Die For Me I know I’ve read one more but can’t think which one. But anyway, as she continues to write, expect more violence. I really do expect her to move away from r/s and go straight mystery.

    Today it seems as if writers are trying to outdo each other with the violence but then again, I don’t have a problem with it. A lot of the times I skim over the gory details. You can have a violent crime and not have to describe it in full detail but then again what fun would that be.

  12. Avid Reader says:

    Renee: My ear­li­est romances were his­tor­i­cal roman­tic sus­pense which I read tons of (Phyl­lis Whit­ney, Vic­to­ria Holt, Madeleine Brent, etc)

    I read almost everything Victoria Holt wrote and enjoyed almost all of them. Mary Stewart, too. I’m not that big of a r/s reader either but if I hear an author is good, I will most certainly give them a try.

  13. Avid Reader says:

    sybil: other than that I am pretty cool… ok that is pro­lly a lie I am cool until you ‘hit’ whatev pisses me off like that

    Same for me! Didn’t know posters could have groupies but there you go. My point is that there are elements in r/s that may be a big turn off for romance readers – the excessive violence, lack of a strong romance subplot as not every r/s labeled out there follows the rules. Just sayin.

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