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?.