by | Feb 16, 2020 | Karna Small Bodman, On writing | 5 comments

by Karna Small Bodman

Enjoying the romantic Valentine chocolates received last week while reading a thriller, I reflected on a question I’ve heard asked at many writers’ workshops and conferences: Should we weave a romantic relationship into our thrillers, or “play it straight?”

It turns out that of all the genre fiction, the most popular IS “Suspense/Thriller” with over twenty million of these novels sold per year. However, a close second is “Romance,” which has grown into a “1.5 billion-dollar industry.” A few months ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that THE most watched TV channel during the Holiday Season was Hallmark with its romantic stories featuring inspiration, a relationship plus a happy ending.

So, is there a way to gain even more readers by combining the two? I recall that when my first thriller, CHECKMATE was released, I wrote about a young scientist paired with an officer on The White House National Security Council staff who work together to track down villains while falling in love. I did receive (just) one email from a reader who said I should not have included a love scene because “it slowed down the action.”

Of course, different readers have different ideas about pacing, and a number of authors have found great ways to combine these two most popular types of stories, now called “Romantic Thrillers.” One of the best in the business is prolific author, Nora Roberts who has penned 215 novels in both the strictly romance category under that name and romantic thrillers using the pen name J.D. Robb. Booklist writes that her recently released Golden in Death has a plot that “seamlessly fuses danger, propulsive pacing and a sexy partnership between a tough-as-nails heroine and a man of mystery.” These books have consistently hit The New York Times bestseller lists as soon as they are published.

An author of 71 bestselling novels with 80 million copies in print world-wide, and translated into 34 languages, is Sandra Brown, who has also successfully combined suspense with budding relationships. Her recent release, Seeing Red, is described by the Associated Press this way: “Brown’s story mixes thrills with mystery and a spicy sex scene or two . . . it is one of Brown’s best books in years.”

One more great female author, Linda Howard, has been penning clever romantic thrillers for decades. Her story, Mr. Perfect, pairs a woman with an attractive under-cover cop. They work together when lives of her friends are threatened. A summary of this novel indicates that it “combines rapid fire, often humorous dialogue with scenes where the two are about to steam up the windows and burn up the sheets.”

While we have been focusing here on novels combining thrillers with romance, looking back we see examples of wonderful, intriguing movies that would also be dubbed “Romantic Thrillers.” A master of this type of film, of course, was Alfred Hitchcock with the memorable Vertigo and Notorious. Finally, the all-time favorite classic produced back in 1941 featuring the relationship between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca, is still being shown today.

Now, what do YOU think? Should writers include a romantic involvement in mysteries and thrillers? If so, what are some of your favorite stories with this combination of elements?

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  1. Lisa Black

    I would strike you (I strike myself) as the most unromantic person in the world. My own books rarely include anything that could be viewed as a love scene. I always say I went to the Alastair MacLean school of romance—where the two lead characters never touch each other the entire book, and then decide to get married on the last page. that’s all I need, but it has to be there.

  2. Gayle Lynds

    I agree, Lisa. A "love story" as opposed to romance is another way to look at it. I love the examples of authors you cited, Karna — all women who were early on shut out of thrillers and suspense because they were considered "just" romance writers. Denying our inner selves is just crazy – people need relationships. It was so wonderful to see them finally be "allowed" into suspense, where all have made big careers. Another of your terrific blogs, Karna!!!!

  3. Jamie Freveletti

    Lisa-like that take on Alastair Maclean! I think adding romance in a thriller can be a fraught decision for a women writer–sometimes the powers that be claim your book "falls between genres" yet never think that for a male thriller writers romantic subplot. But I agree with Gayle that people need relationships and it makes for a better book. And I'd add "North by Northwest" and "Charade" to the list of movies!

  4. Karna Bodman

    Yes, I love those movies you listed, "North by Northwest" and "Charade, Jamie – and thanks for Gayle's and Lisa's comments. I have always wanted heroes and heroines to "get together in the end" when they take down the bad guys and make the world a better place. That's my favorite kind of thriller!

  5. Chris Goff

    I'm always up for a little romance, as long as it doesn't take over a story. I think relationships are the most important. People need to feel connections.