by | Jul 22, 2016 | Extraordinary Guest Bloggers | 8 comments

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA

“Espionage, suspense, political intrigue, danger, international and evocative settings, secrets…yes. But what about romance?”–Helaine Mario

Francine Mathews: Today I’m happy to introduce espionage author Helaine Mario to the Rogue Women World. Helaine writes international espionage novels from a historical perspective–rather as I do myself–which is one reason I enjoy her work. Another is her penchant for offering readers strong, romantic love stories within her thriller plots. As a result, Helaine’s books are often described by reviewers as romantic suspense rather than framed and discussed as the spy novels they actually are. 

I find that puzzling–because growing up as a reader of women’s thriller fiction, I knew the difference between the two without having to be told. The Shivering Sands by Victoria Holt and Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart were romantic suspense: Naive young woman stumbles on deception and romance, is saved by handsome fellow with dash of integrity, and both live happily-ever-after. I liked those books–I still reread my shelf full of Mary Stewart each year–but even at the age of thirteen I never confused them with the heart-stopping work of, say, Helen MacInnes. MacInnes was a spy novelist, period. She wrote fantastic international espionage that just happened to have both male and female characters. They always tangled emotionally with one another, which added to the psychological interest. Nobody seemed to refer to this as romantic suspense. MacInnes had the profound respect of all espionage fans and authors, regardless of gender–because her credentials (she had worked for British Intelligence during WWII) and her details were impeccable. 

Turns out Helaine is a MacInnes-lover as well.

In a week where we’ve been discussing the role of sex scenes in suspense, I asked Helaine to weigh in–and she was eager to join the Rogue conversation. 

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Helaine Mario
By Helaine Mario
Do you remember the day you discovered a favorite author? I know the exact moment I discovered Helen MacInnes, often called ‘The Queen of Espionage Writers,’ because her books changed my life.

Almost five decades ago, as a new college graduate with no writing aspirations, I visited my parents for the weekend. On the table was a tattered paperback titled The Venetian Affair. The cover lured me in – an attractive couple, clearly in danger, running through night shadows across a Venetian bridge. The opening sentence – “Two men sat in a darkened room… ” – sealed my fate. I read all night and was the first person in the bookstore the next morning to buy Helen MacInnes’ earlier works. I still have all twenty-two of her novels in the bookcase behind my desk.

Espionage, suspense – and romance. Helen MacInnes gave it all in equal measure. As a child of the 50’s and 60’s, I was fascinated by her stories of the spies and danger of World War II and the Cold War. My father told me of his landing in Normandy on day two of the invasion, and later, in school, we practiced hiding under our desks in case of a Cold War missile strike. (Yes, really!) So an innocent character caught up in a World War II drama or Cold War spy mystery was the perfect combination for me. And if you added in romance – well, who doesn’t want to fall into a good love story?

Only one problem. Other than Evelyn Anthony, I found very few women writers of international espionage. Even today, if you google “top ten espionage authors,” you will find only lists of male writers – Le Carre, Ludlum, Follet, Forsyth, Silva. [N.B.: Gayle Lynds and Stella Rimington appear on a few.– FMSo I decided that I would have to write the books I wanted to read. And Firebird and The Lost Concerto were born.

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Firebird is the story of a forgotten Russian spy on a collision course with an innocent art curator. The prologue opens with a performance of the Kirov’s Firebird ballet during the Cold War. The Lost Concerto, which tells the story of a classical pianist searching for her missing godson throughout France, is set against a decades old secret from World War II. Flashback scenes and memories transport the reader back to 1943.

Espionage, suspense, political intrigue, danger, international and evocative settings, secrets…yes. But what about romance? The author Ken Follett said of Ms. MacInnes that, “For Helen, plot is just a channel through which a love story can flow.” That is how I feel. Like so many of you, my characters come first. I always am looking for a good story, a plot worthy of them. For me, both as a writer and a reader, a good love story takes center stage. I often say that I write romantic love stories masquerading as thrillers.

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Now, I am talking about real, old-fashioned romance. That look, that gesture, that touch. That sudden fluttering spark, that first kiss, that ‘will she or won’t she?’ To me, these moments create the best suspense of all. I know that many thrillers include very descriptive sex – and I enjoy those scenes as much as everyone else. But the genre’s action – whether suspense, thriller or mystery – usually takes place within a few days or a week at most. My main character in Firebird, Alexandra, has survived an abusive husband. In The Lost Concerto, Maggie is grieving for her beloved lost husband. While both characters find a way to move on with a new and unexpected love, they are mature women who need the relationship and trust to come before the ‘hot and heavy.’

I could not have predicted that a woman I never met would encourage me to write fiction. Helen MacInnes taught me about suspense, courage and love, and inspired me with her heroic and complex women characters. I learned about building page-turning suspense, finding a voice, dialogue that sounds natural, intriguing international settings, creating a believable and involving romance. The women in my novels, especially, are strong but flawed, smart, independent, a bit quirky, funny, accomplished, brave. The kind of woman who has the courage to do the right thing, who will run toward something, not away.

So, am I a Romantic Suspense writer or an International Espionage Thriller writer? I’ve been listed in both categories, and neither, by itself, is perfect for me. The covers of my books do not feature ‘women in peril,’ so readers who expect romantic suspense are often surprised by the ‘thriller’ scenes, while readers expecting non-stop action can be thrown by the unexpected romance and depth of character. But as I study hundreds of reviews and responses, I am struck by how many readers love the ‘can’t put down’ combination. (Surprisingly enough, only one person has told me there should have been more sex.) For me, the key is to pace the story in such a way that readers will find emotional suspense as well as physical thrills. We love the danger, but the romance gives our stories heart.

My publisher, Oceanview, specializes in thrillers, mystery and suspense – not romance. But they took a chance on me because – like Helen MacInnes, the Rogue Writing Women, and myself – we believe we can have it all. 

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Francine: Okay, Helaine, so about that Top 10 list–I have to throw you 
the hardball question Steve Berry tossed to our Rogue Women Writers panel at ThrillerFest 2016 a few weeks ago: “Why aren’t women spy novelists as recognized and read as men? Is it the way our publishers market us, or is there something deeper at work?”

HelaineAs for [my publisher], Oceanview, as far as I know they always have marketed me in the suspense/mystery/thriller category, not romance, in keeping with their mission. They have submitted me for awards based on those categories as well (and I’ve done well there). They took a chance on my ‘added romance’. Sometimes I have wished that they would call more attention to the romance in my books. Men who read my books really enjoy them, but I think they are surprised. Perhaps we need to change the marketing for all of us to reflect how good our stories are – combining suspense, thrills AND romance is possible. Personally, I would begin with how amazon categorizes us. there doesn’t always seem to be a rhyme or reason, and amazon is a powerful marketing agent.

Francine: What do you think, Rogue Readers? Is “romantic suspense” a label pitched mostly to girls–while “espionage thriller” is targeted at the boys? Is romance out of place in skullduggery? 

Thanks so much, Helaine!

Helaine Mario
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  1. S. Lee Manning

    I like some romance in my thrillers. The best thrillers, in my mind, have at least a touch of it. i agree that often the primary difference between romantic suspense and thrillers is the marketing label, although there may be some, Mary Stewart was a teen age favorable of mine, who are clearly just romantic suspense.

  2. Francine Mathews

    Question for you, Helaine: neither your covers nor your titles suggest "thriller" or "suspense." Is that your decision, or your publisher's?

  3. Karna Bodman

    Helaine – thanks for sharing your ideas and inspiration for this blog! Now, I can't wait to order The Lost Concerto — although the cover doesn't denote "thriller" or "romantic suspense" in the traditional sense. I too love to read about the development of a romance in a suspenseful situation and your stories truly fit the bill! As for "shelf placement" — I now see the term "Romantic Thriller" in Publishers Weekly reviews, so perhaps that's what we should cell your great stories. Again, thanks for writing.

  4. Chris Goff

    Thanks, Helaine, for such great incite. I'm looking forward to reading your books!

  5. helaine mario

    hi s. lee, thank you so much for you comment. i am a huge mary stewart fan as well, although she clearly is in the romantic suspense category. either way, i love the emotion and depth women writers bring to their stories. helaine

  6. helaine mario

    hi karna, thank you so much for your comments. i absolutely agree that there is a place for romance in thrilling suspense and espionage fiction. personally could not write one without the other, i feel strongly that the romance brings so much emotion and depth to stories. and so many readers agree, there has to be a place for us. helaine

  7. helaine mario

    hi chris, thank you so much, i am looking forward to your books as well. rogues has opened up several new women authors to me and i couldn't be more pleased – and i am sharing them with several espionage loving friends. it's a terrific club… just before i read this i left a comment of my own on the blog you posted today. i would add that when men read my books they really enjoy them – although one did say "i actually held my own in the big-boy league" so, yikes, not sure how to take that one… speaks to the subject of all these recent blogs. helaine

  8. helaine mario

    hi francine, finally figured out how to answer the blog questions, so here goes re your book cover question. my first novel, 'firebird,' was self published in 2012. i was totally new to the process and chose the cover with the help of a 'self-publishing publisher' – in hindsight i would choose a photo of the antique firebird brooch that inspired much of the story. as for 'the lost concerto' – it was traditionally published by oceanview in 2015. they asked my opinion on the cover and i offered 2 options but placed my trust in them. the aged classical music score they chose is beautiful and has been well received – it might not connote 'romantic thriller' but i think the word 'lost' in the title conveys a mystery – and the score tells the reader that this will be a book about classical music. i think you could do a whole week of blogs on the critical choice of book covers. again, thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts. helaine