Is it a Mystery? Is it a Romance? No, it’s …

Mystery and Romance or, in the UK, Crime and Romance – two genres which, on the surface, seem to operate in different dimensions and act on different parts of the psyche. In one, the bodice is ripped by the fumbling hands of a brooding, handsome gentleman whose hunger and love are matched by that of its wearer; in the other, the hands don’t fumble because they’re deliberate as the serial killer, intent on adding another mammary gland to the collection in his Sheraton mahogany display cabinet, wields his razor.

But both are subject to often strict conventions. For the most part, Romance calls for happy endings, but then so does Crime – well, endings anyway. The mystery must be solved, the culprit apprehended or punished in some other way. There are, of course, examples which subvert the rules, but we only recognise them because the rules are there. The point is that, in both genres, resolution is reached and fans are happy that their desires have been sated yet again.

In the end, though, the rules are only sacrosanct because the characters accept them as such. Romantic heroes and heroines believe in the possibility of happiness. Not only that, it’s a happiness which, according to the rules, will be eternal – happy ever after – a condition which, for (I’m guessing) the vast majority of real people, is unattainable. OK, so obstacles have appeared, but they’ve been overcome. Does that mean there won’t be any more? Probably not, so how can things be ‘happy ever after’. Does requited love really change the way the world works?

It’s hard to imagine a detective, faced with corpse after corpse, excess after excess in the books in which s/he features, having the same belief in the perfectibility of the species and a rosy outcome. And yet s/he works at solving the problems, bringing light where there was darkness. So the apparent bleakness suggested by all these misdeeds can be overcome. In a way, it’s illusory.

The more you look at it, the less cut and dried it seems to be. And I found this out for myself when I was writing The Figurehead. It was going to be a crime novel, because that’s what I write (apparently). Well, it is a crime novel but it also became a Romance, mainly because, without any planning or direction on my part, two of the characters started being attracted to one another. At the end of the book, I wrote this:

Quickly, she raised her hands to his face and pulled him down towards her. As he leaned forward, he saw her lips part and then, suddenly, felt them warm and soft against his own. It was a lover’s kiss.

But that was all. Their social stations were different and no decisions had been made about their future conduct. The woman had the impulse to kiss the man and that was that. It’s a problem I’ll have to resolve in the sequel but I’m congenitally NOT a writer of Romance, so I’ll be interested to see where they go next.

My point is that, as has been said many times by many people, it’s the characters who drive the plot. Let’s try it. I’ll pluck a name out of the air – Marie-Rose Tremaine. There. I won’t describe her because you, the reader, prefer to shape her to your fancy. The name is slightly exotic, certainly, but it could equally be that of a simple Cornish girl. Remember Tess Durbeyfield, a.k.a. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and look what became of Norma Jeane Mortenson.

Now let’s put her in a setting and see how she decides what the book will be. She’s standing by a gate at the edge of a field at sunset. In the corner of the field is a crumbling old barn. But the view is beautiful, it brings out all her yearnings for the love and affection she never got from her father, a retired Field Marshal. She sighs at the beauty of it all but her musing is interrupted by footsteps. She turns and sees a tall, handsome man walking towards her down the lane, a shotgun cradled over his arm.

Over to you. Is it a Romance, a Crime? What happens next?.


  1. His trembling hands fumbled with her safety-catch. “Is that a 12-bore, or have you come to grease my hinges, for I do confess they are on occasion somewhat squeaky from lack of use”, whispered Rose-Marie, fingering his cartridges… “Careful,” he commanded mysteriously, in his mysteriously commanding way, “That could go off at any time!” “Mm, it’s awkward when chaps go off at half-cock, it doesn’t half spoil old Dr. Roger’s weekend more than somewhat, sewing them all back together again, and them not even in BUPA”…

    1. The problem, I think Diane, is that he equates romance with eroticism and eroticism with crime. Add to that the fact that all normal human behaviour is a mystery to him and it’s no wonder the poor Dr is confused.

  2. “O arr, yew may scoff,” responded Rose-Marie Tremaine, dimpling lightly, (whatwherehow? asked Coco), “Oi be just a poor simple country Dr, er, girl with only a couple of MacBook Pro’s and a first-edition iPad ter moi naime, a-lookin for a fine townie gennleman with plenty in his pockets and other trouserly departmental segmentations – look, do you mind if we drop the accents? It’s as difficult to write this stuff as it must be to read, only Bill, that’s ‘im indoors, see, ‘ee loikes a good bit of Southerly Brogue. Ain’t nuthin old Dr. Roger c’n do about it neither, so there isn’t. O arr, the Southerly Brogue is baaad when it gets ‘old of a man. As indeed I am meself. We tried the implants, they wus no good. An’ we ‘ad the cognitive scissors-assisted therapy, nuthin doin there neither.”

    1. The intrusion of this cod pirate into the literary stream may have frightened off those of a nervous disposition. Be reassured, his piratical bluster is only as authentic as his accent. There is, therefore, nothing at all to fear.

      1. “Please sir,” wheedled Rose-Marie piteously, “Please don’t abandon me now and leave me a poor cypher incapable of independent existence! Have compassion on my virtual vapourous vacuity! L’etre et le wotsit, c’est moi… ah… je meurs… parce-que personne ne me descrit plus dans une ivresse d’ecrazinesse et d’extase infinit… Adieu.. adieu…” “I say, old boy,” harrumphed Coco, “I think we may have to drag the poor gel off to our own blog and let this dastardly Bill carry on with his criminal writing without our assistance, dash it.”

  3. An interesting post, Bill. First, can I say that you seem to be talking about romance and CRIME, rather than romance and mystery. My favourite reading material (and what I’m aiming towards in writing) is romance and mystery – as in there is some kind of intrigue/mystery/puzzle facing the heroine but not necessarily crime/murder.

    And you’re quite correct, of course – it’s the characters who drive the story. I like the fact your hero in The Figurehead found a little tentative romance. Love the character and opening you’ve given us – in my story he would be a neighbouring farmer with whom she is going to have lots of conflict as he wants her farm, and he will also be the love interest of course. But other mysterious things start happening and someone is trying to drive her out – but who? Since I’m not a plotter, I expect my story would bear no resemblance to this – in fact I’m 14,000 words into this kind of story but with a different setting, and no shotgun yet!

    1. You’re right of course Rosemary but I was using Mystery to mean the genre – as you know, it’s the American equivalent of Crime but I’d have been better sticking to the British term. I wonder if your version of the story would be different if I’d made that clearer. I’ve altered the opening sentence accordingly.

    1. Thanks, Donna. But the story hasn’t yet been written. I’m simply offering it for suggestions as to what it might be. I think adding tiny details, such as her father being a Field Marshal and the proximity of the crumbling old barn. They’re hooks for other threads in the story, but they could lead to a happy couple gazing into a sunset or a bloodbath.

  4. ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume.’ she says.
    His smile shows a perfect set of teeth. ‘You must be Marie-Rose. Your brother told me you were coming. I’m Tom.’
    ‘Tom,’ she repeats. ‘Something, Tom, let’s say my father’s old shotgun, is telling me that you’re not just a friend of Rick’s.’
    ‘Nope,’ Tom says, ‘not just.’
    They both listen to the silence for a while until a bird flies straight over their heads.
    ‘Look at that Barn Swallow. It has a nest under our roof.’
    ‘I know, they already used to nest there when I was a kid.’
    ‘I moved in two months ago. I hope you don’t mind.’
    Marie-Rose shakes her head. ‘Why should I?’
    ‘Oh well, after all it was your father’s house, it’s half yours.’
    ‘I hate this place, always have.’
    ‘That’s what Rick told me.’
    ‘Sounds you two are pretty close, him telling you all that.’
    ‘We are, as matter of fact.’
    ‘So, Rickie has finally found true love. Good for him. How is he doing by the way?’
    ‘Handsome as ever. I guess he’ll be back soon.’
    ‘What are your plans with the gun?’
    ‘No plans. Rick asked me to get rid of it. Unless you want it, of course.’
    ‘You must be joking. I’m a pacifist.’
    ‘Aren’t we all,’ Tom says and throws the gun in the trash can.

    1. Thanks, Anneke. Brilliant. In a few short lines, you’ve turned it into a specific situation and given the characters – the couple and Rick, too – back stories full of possibilities. And, while the Rick/Tom thing makes it a romance, the tensions about half the house belonging to her makes it quite possible that things will turn nasty. As Shakespeare didn’t say ‘There’s nothing either romantic or criminal but thinking makes it so’.

  5. In itself, the appearance of two people having a relationship and living together doesn’t have to mean it’s a romance. Certain conventions and the way an author and publisher label it make it into a genre. And if they do, the reader has certain expectations.
    I guess when it turns out that Rick has been obducted by aliens, the story could turn out to be SciFi after all. I’ll be probably not the one writing it, though, nor would I write romance or crime. Now what’s left?

    1. How about semiotically denuded, deconstructivist linear narratives intercut with unilaterally self-referential. post-modern, deconstructivistic prose-patterning divorced from meaning and refusing to acknowledge the interface and/or the essential lacuna between perception and sensation?

      1. Exactly what Coco was saying the other day. But would you listen? Hah. I just hope your listeners are paying attention to Uncle Donnie’s Theory of Everything, where Everything is made plane. Plain.

        1. Ah, the good doctor returns. I acknowledge, without reservations, that in terms of comprehensibility, the above adumbration of a literary form is a mere Enid Blyton to the Tolstoy of Uncle Donnie’s Theory of Everything.

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