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.”
Photo Credit: alicejamieson