Love and Death – Romance and Sexual Tension in Writing Mystery

This one comes from the Meg Brown Facebook Page (my very own page for fans of the Meg Brown stories as written by yours truly). I had a little trouble coming up with a subject for today’s mystery post so i threw it out there for all my friends and neighbors to come up with some suggestions. I figured it wouldn’t do to write another review – particularly seeing as i hadn’t read anything in the past week to review about.

Anyway. The question i’ve picked is a good one: does every detective or protagonist always need a love interest, partner, or sexual tension? The short answer is: No.

End of blog. Move on.

Just kidding. I don’t know about you but when i’m reading a mystery or thriller i sometimes get the feeling that the sexy vamp or quirky love interest is just casually dumped in on a whim after being loosely cobbled together from the random love interest factory. You don’t have to go far to see this sort of thing. Just go to the grocery store, find the tiny little book shelf and pick up the first thriller you see. Now read the back jacket cover. If it isn’t so laden with accolades that after reading it you still haven’t a clue what the book is about you’ll probably find something similar to the ‘partnered with his gorgeous assistant district attorney’ or ‘now, with the help of a beautiful comic book fan’ etc. Implying that whoever the hero is they will encounter, at some point, a ready-made perfectly-built sidekick complete with potential sex right out of the package.

This is just my opinion but that sort of thing irritates the hell out of me. A romantic interest and sexual tension is a great thing to have in any story. Like Chandlers adage of bringing in the guy with the gun sexual tension and a fitting love interest can really punch up the ingredients of any given thriller. It can also add the level of spice that sends it over the top into stupidity. Chandler and Hammett were so good with the sexual tension that they’ve become tropes in and of themselves. Who can forget Lauren Bacall as Vivien in The Big Sleep or Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy? But like everything else, they created a cliche that’s become so familiar that even those completely unfamiliar with the mystery/thriller genre can tick off the type from memory.

In my own stories i’ve so far avoided adding a love interest. It may come up when the time is right and i don’t discount the advantages of such a thing. Any chance you can get to add conflict and tension to a mystery/thriller and do it convincingly only serves to advance the plot and create more drama for the protagonist. The trouble i have with it is that the romantic interest only seems to exist for it’s own sake as a cast off character. If you aren’t consistently using such a character (preferably the same character) then whoever it is becomes the skirt or sausage de jour and a reader isn’t likely to give a poop about them, knowing that they are only providing motivation RIGHT NOW. What Chandler and Hammett did so well was grill their love interests right into the story. The Maltese Falcon would be a dull lackluster chase after a bird statue without the intricate machinations of O’Shaughnessy, and i would hate to think of The Big Sleep without the slinking sultry Vivien and her playfully deadly sister. These characters weave their way through the story like a cinch and pull it tight when it needs to be pulled.

Mystery and thriller writers have a tendency to jerk readers around with a protagonists sense of compassion for a given character. It’s roughly akin to ginning up concern. Most of the time you don’t feel it at all. Does anyone even remember the female companion to Robert Langdon in The Lost Symbol? Anyone? I had to go look it up, actually. But then i’m not Dan Brown’s biggest fan anyway. We’ve all seen the revenge motive, the race against time to save the girl, the intimate betrayal, all that stuff. It’s been done to death and unless you can really bring something new to the table like Tana French does in In The Woods, then leave it on the dust bin of cliches.

Basically my point is this: People – and your characters especially – will have relationships and they should. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s really a question of how you write it and what it adds to the story at hand. Love is always a terrific motive for murder, after all. But if you’re going to go that route you really need to put your back into it. What does love turned to murder actually look like? What does it feel like? What does it smell like? It’s really a matter of how you explore that without treading the same well worn ground. Because it is SUCH a tired cliche you’ll really have to blow up your comfort zone to make it work. This means research folks. Buckle down and hit the books. Read some ee cummings. (Not even the rain/has such small hands) Read Wuthering Heights if you haven’t already. Read Austen. Read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I recommend those right off the bat because they do very well to soak you in the sour, gurgling, underbelly of love and romance – they give you a nice taste for the lunacy of it. Things like that would have to be a source of your inspiration. If you want a protagonist who’s going to risk life and limb to rescue the damsel from the bad guy you’re going to have to convince us why and what that means to them. You can’t just say “she’s awful pretty, It’d be a shame if she got run over by a train while tied to the tracks.’

Unless your protagonist is the german grail hero Percival. In which case he’s mind bogglingly stupid so it’s okay.

Quite honestly and in my completely unasked for and un-expert opinion – consider your character as an individual first and foremost. You should know your detective or whomever you’re writing about personally. They should feel comfortable enough with you that they start lying to your face. You should know what they’re looking for in the grocery store, what their favorite brand of wine is and what they drink it out of (in Meg’s case she’s drinking chard out of a small glass beer stein) Don’t expect to know everything about them. Let them have their secrets but know where they bury them. THEN, if you want to add a love interest or a romance do the same thing with someone else and put the two of them together. That way when the real sparks start flying they’re coming out of the writing organically and not as a forced plot march.

Be careful – very very careful – if you’re working on a series that your character doesn’t have the skirt or sausage de jour. It’s a remarkably easy way to ruin a readers empathy with a character if they pick up a new girl or cute guy every book. At some point, as a reader, you just stop caring and you wonder about their sanity as they’re dashing headlong on the train tracks trying to get there before their love gets run over.

Like anything else, romance and sexual tension is a tool and like any tool it needs to be maintained and cared for or it becomes useless. If you can’t use it effectively then go get the blades sharpened or don’t use it. Not every mystery needs a love interest but every mystery needs a mystery. Put that first in your plot – make a few characters, stir and let breathe. If they generate heat you’ve got a bonus, if they separate… well… that can be amazingly dramatic too.

Categories: Fiction, Mystery, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Love and Death – Romance and Sexual Tension in Writing Mystery

  1. Gillian McMurray

    I have to agree with you. It isn’t necessary to have the protagonist in a relationship. As a reader I want good, solid storytelling with characters I can identify with or connect to. Their marital or sexual status bears no relation to that. Great post, by the way.

    • I was trying to come up with more examples where there wasn’t a romantic tangle in the heart of a mystery. It seems that most stories have them but i tend to think that’s simply because most characters have relationships. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon was fun for the way his protagonist and his ex-wife played off each other. The relationship is there but it’s long since disintegrated. Again, the point isn’t that the love interest/partner/tension isn’t frequently there it’s just that it doesn’t have to be. Red Harvest is a terrific example – Dinah Brand is an interesting character and there is indeed tension there but it’s almost incidental. You get the impression that Dinah could have been anybody but is Dinah. If that makes sense. She’s a very well fleshed out character and intriguing in her own right but she’s not central. She could have been any old gun moll but just happens to be this very particular old gun moll. Which is probably why her end is both expected AND shocking at the same time.

  2. Thanks for this exposition. I’ve also often wondered why they feel the need to add this element when it often doesn’t add to the overall story. It too often seems fake or even obsequiesse or demeaning. Thanks again.

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