|Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA|
“Espionage, suspense, political intrigue, danger, international and evocative settings, secrets…yes. But what about romance?”–Helaine Mario
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.
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.– FM] So 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 aperformance 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.
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?”
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?