Romantic Suspense


by Sherwood Smith

I was barely thirteen when I first read Mary Stewart’s Madam Will You Talk. It set the bar high for romantic suspense for me—and all these years later, it still works.

It’s got what for me is a perfect blend of romantic suspense and plotty suspense, which reinforce one another—emotions and action—which make for a compelling page-turner.

I found it in the library after my mom turned me on to the Gothics that were popular at the time—Victoria Holt being the queen after a long and stellar ancestry begun by Charlotte Bronte, and Mrs. Edgeworth before her. But I soon tired of spooky houses and frightened governesses in charge of fey kids, and the craggy-faced, dangerous guy she ends up married to. Or the wussy guy who seems oblivious as the evil housekeeper, or conniving Other Woman, tries to off our heroine. (I only liked the first two or three chapters of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca—and pretty much hated the rest.)

Not that there isn’t a Byronic hero in Madam Will You Talk. He’s there, all right—his name is even Byron, and just so you know he’s dangerous, almost the first thing he does is grab our heroine, ordinary widow Charity Selbourne, by the wrist, and call her a beautiful little bitch. Yeah, definitely an eye-roller nowadays, and there are other signs of the times: everyone smokes like a chimney, drinks a lot, and Freudian buzzwords show up as character insight.

To counterbalance the beautiful bitchery, there’s the setting, the exquisitely described South of France. The story takes place during summer in the fifties, and Stewart paints in glimpses of Europe’s layers of history (much of it bloody) in the aftermath of World War II. The long shadow of that war lies over this story.

It’s not just history that tantalizes the reader: in the first four pages, there are references to Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, Kipling, Norse epics, and the famous Chinese painter Ma Yuan. None of this is thrust in as awkward wodges. The references are so much a part of the characters that my thirteen year old self (who only recognized the Alice reference) never flagged in attention or confusion. But in after-years, each reference lit up as I discovered them. (I laughed out loud as a college student when I realized that there was a clue in the reading matter of a minor character: nobody reading Little Gidding is likely to be a murdering dirtbag.)

The strength of the story, though, is in that balance of romantic tension and plot tension, as Charity befriends a boy who seems shadowed by a burden no kid should have to bear. Charity bestirs herself to save the boy from a murderer, which eventually leads her to race through the South of France in a couple of the best car chases I have ever read.

I enjoy stories featuring badass women, but I really like stories like this one, in which an ordinary woman discovers her own agency through handling extraordinary circumstances. She does it with wit and intelligence, which is what got me to reread it over the decades since.

I would love to find more such stories. I am sure, with all the great stuff being published, that there are more out there. But so far I haven’t had much luck in finding them. My problem with many of the books labeled ‘romantic suspense’ now is that so many seem to be about women escaping serial killers,  a storyline that has no appeal for me. Serial killers are boring–they kill people. Usually women. I don’t want to read about them in the news, much less in fiction: if one shows up, my impulse is to skip to the end, until they are either dead or in jail. And tons of detail about police procedure or criminal profiling isn’t my cuppa.

My preference is for conflicts of wit and skill, not the bludgeon of threatened horror.

Another problem I’ve encountered with super-duper badass women (or men) is also that sometimes they read like motorized muscle suits. There is the high octane action, everyone screaming and fighting, blood and guts a-flying, and then . . . either super-charged erotic encounters, or everyone sitting around talking clues until the next fight. I am drawn toward characters whose lives seem interesting even when they are not kicking butt and taking names.

Mary Stewart found the balance that appealed most to me, but maybe this is my age showing, and this sort of story doesn’t appeal to the younger generation. On the other hand, I could be missing some great stuff, because these days it’s impossible to read everything.

Discussion and suggestions welcome!

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Romantic Suspense — 42 Comments

  1. Try Susanna Kearsley (and her alter ego, Emma Cole). My favorites are The Shadowy Horses and Named of the Dragon, but her more recent ones (The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden) might be easier to find and are also good.

    I, too, adored–and still adore–Mary Stewart.

  2. The Moonspinners, also by Mary Stewart was my first. It has always made Greece THE most romantic spot in the world for me. I was also 13, and went on a Mary Stewart kick that summer that’s never been topped. 🙂

  3. Ah, Mary Stewart: really a peerless writer. My mom got me hooked on her and I’ve held her up as a gold standard ever since.

  4. I think my first was My Brother Michael which I found in the library at my high school, but I read them all many, many times. I do read a lot and can’t think of another author who does it as well as she did.

  5. Mary Aileen–thank you. I did try one, and kind of stalled out. It took place in Scotland, and they were digging for roman ruins. It was well written, but nothing seemed to be happening, and so I set it aside.

    I will pick it up again, or grab another.

  6. If you like your romance with a bit of satire, try Elizabeth Peters.
    or Helen MacInnes (fewer strong female characters, but well written). Her husband was Gilbert Highet, of medieval literature fame.

    P.S. I, too, love Mary Stewart. I recently found many of her books available for kindle from the UK store – useful only if you are a UK resident, but this suggests some hope for the US market.

  7. That’s a great description of that distinction within badass women! I’m so much more drawn to women characters who have a life I can relate to, and end up using their ordinary-day skills in a much more adventurous context.

    Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle was among the first heroines I read where instead of thinking, “I wish I were like that” she was terribly familar, and her liberation really resonated with me.

    I haven’t read any Mary Stewart (that I know of) but I’m going to have to make a dash over to my library website now…

    I really enjoyed Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s “Agnes and the Hitman” for mixing up an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances that included a love story.

  8. Here’s the thing: you don’t see “romantic suspense” as such nowadays because that was essentially a marketing category, and that marketing category has mostly been folded into its two parent genres. On one side, you now have the specialty imprints for this sort of thing in category romance (Harlequin Intrigue is one); on the other, this is where a lot of what we now call “cozy” mystery comes from.

    Specifically, when I was growing up Elizabeth Peters (and her alter-ego, Barbara Michaels) were marketed as writers of romantic suspense, along with Stewart and MacInnes and Phyllis Whitney. Note here that Peters in particular wrote a lot of excellent stand-alone titles under both the Peters and Michaels bylines before becoming known for the Amelia Peabody books — and before that series was essentially repackaged (and later retuned) for the mystery genre. I have observed before, and will again, that the Dobrenica novels are in many ways very much in the spirit of the Peters romantic-suspense canon — to the extent that if I were DAW, I’d seriously consider trying to get Peters to blurb the series. (Also, I predict that there will eventually be fanfic in which Peters’ “VIcky Bliss” characters will wander into Dobrenica.)

    But let me backtrack a second, to comment further on Phyllis Whitney, who was with Peters/Michaels my introduction to romantic suspense. She did her share of pure Gothics, and there’s a strong “template” quality to her books, but she was also exceptionally clever with plot and vivid with setting, and produced an extremely impressive body of work — both as a writer of “romantic suspense” for adults and as a writer of straight mysteries for middle-grade/YA, although the latter are now increasingly hard to find. I’d definitely recommend Whitney as one of the pioneers — and grandmasters — of “romantic suspense” in the old-school style.

  9. Let me share the love for Mary Stewart–even her Arthurians! Oh how I longed and still longed to go to some of those places in which she set her stories.

  10. I loved Agnes and the Hitman! That one had a lot more sex (of course) than the romantic fantasies of old, but I love the way Crusie handles sex.

    Phylis Whitney! John, that’s interesting. As I was reading your explication, I was thinking of cozy mysteries like The Grub and Stakers–I can’t remember the pseud now (the author had several, as I recall) that were about ordinary folks in a small town in Canada solving mysteries, and romance was involved. I enjoyed those tremendously, even if the writing didn’t reach the image-rich and articulate pinnacle that Stewart’s does.

    Re Dobrenica–you’re right. Mary Stewart was a very strong influence, entirely unconscious. (Well, the first one emerged in one three week session, so nothing was conscious, but I don’t want to clutter an otherwise good discussion blatting my own horn.)

  11. I read a lot of Stewart — her Merlins and The Moon-Spinners come to mind — but never Madam. I also remember liking Airs Above the Ground. Didn’t read as much Whitney, but read almost all of Michaels & Peters, and I agree with John, they have intelligent woman using what they have to solve big problems and find their own place in the universe. The ones under the Peters name also usually have humor.

    I don’t know if I’d consider Agnes & The Hitman a romantic suspense, but I did enjoy it! And Agnes certainly was not afraid to deal with problems in her own special way.

    I’ll look for Madam, thanks —

  12. Mary Stewart….sigh. I remember her, and read a lot of her works in junior high.

    I’m not sure if it was Phyllis Whitney or some other W writer I also read at the same time who wrote a lot of spy mysteries featuring young women working for the CIA and other agencies. Very strong female characters, romantic suspense.

    Or…(sly grin)…you could always check out my heroine Melanie Landreth….my Netwalk book is now out in e-book at Amazon, B&N and elsewhere. I’ve tried to write her in that romantic suspense mold, though that particular story I think isn’t as strong as future ones I’ll be putting up.

  13. Joyce: I know exactly who you mean–and I cannot recall the name, either. I did find one of those as a library discard a year or so back, and discovered that alas, they hadn’t aged well at all. (And there wasn’t any of the magic that Stewart injects into her work to make up for it.) That is, IMO–of course others might find them as charming as we did in the mid-sixties.

  14. Sherwood & Joyce: you may be thinking of Amelia Elizabeth Walden, whom I discovered in my local libraries as a teen myself. As I recall, there was a little bit of series continuity in her spy-related books — if I remember right, the CIA department head was a recurring character by the name of Jim Mack.

    As for the “Grub-and-Stakers”, I think that was one of the several series written by the late Charlotte MacLeod, possibly under her “Alisa Craig” pen name. I didn’t read those, but I quite liked her Sarah Kelling/Max Bittersohn mysteries (antiques, Boston upper crust).

  15. I went through all of Mary Stewart’s books when I was twelve–thirteen; I recently picked up Madam Will You Talk and found there were whole paragraphs I still remembered–not well enough to quote, but well enough to recognize each word. Stewart was my gateway drug to the world of gothics; at least four a month showed up on the spinner racks of my drugstore, and once I learned the names of the better known writers (Helen McInnes, Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney) I started hitting the library.

    I went to Greece in part because of My Brother Michael and Moonspinners, which Stewart set there.

    BTW: Phyllis Whitney specialized in high-end Gothics, in which a young woman comes to a house with a family of more social or financial status than hers, meets with creepy opposition from family and friends, and ultimately wins all including the love of the hero. Sounds like the basic plot of every Gothic–but Whitney’s heroines were always (to my mind) soggy and dumb.

    I really liked Isabelle Holland, whose heroines seemed to be working women in real jobs (as opposed to governesses/companions/something you could be without training or much work).

  16. And a follow-up; if you liked MacLeod, two more writers to look up might be J. S. Borthwick (the Sarah Deane mysteries, mostly set in Maine) and Donna Andrews (the Meg Langslow mysteries and a second series featuring ‘Turing Hopper’, a detective who’s actually a self-aware computer personality).

  17. There’s only a bit of romance in this, because the protagonist is grieving, but “Folly” by Laurie R. King is one of the few suspense novels I love. I don’t read many of them because they’re often too violent for me; I do prefer a clean battle of wits. That said, “Folly” gets pretty violent, though not too graphic with it.

  18. I actually like almost everything else by Charlotte MacLeod better than the Sarah Kelling books – the Grub-and-Stakers, Peter SHandy, and the hard to find Madoc Rhys books.

    Actually Coronets & STeel reminds me more than a little of older Elizabeth Peters books – the ones before she started writing longer series.

  19. What was it about being 13 and romantic suspense! That was about when I found Mary Stewart as well as Georgette Heyer, and they have been my standards for historical romance and romantic suspense ever since. If you read my bio on my webpage you will see they were my inspiration for becoming a writer, a goal I have just obtained in my retirement years.

    I have written two historical mysteries, set in 1879 San Francisco, that as self-publsihed books have been unusually successful (the first Maids of Misfortune is currently in the top ten of romantic suspense on Kindle)

    I think my success has come because I tried my best to duplicate both Heyers and Steward, and at least among my generation, this is still the standard to which all other romantic suspense novels must be held. For a while last week I was in the top 10 of all mysteries–and all the other books were thrillers, or hard-boiled detective novels, with garish covers and blood dripping off weapons. My cover has Victorian Wallpaper, a 19th century illustration of a mistress and maid, and I think that for a segment of the buying public, that made it an attractive alternative!

    Sorry for the blatant self-promotion, but the whole subject of the blog post seemed so apropos.

    M. Louisa Locke
    author of Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits
    http://mlouisalocke.com/

  20. I have also really liked Mary Stewart, except for her last 2 novels. A romantic suspence writer I loved as well is Madeleine Brent. These novels can be hard to find as I haven’t found any in print for some time. Luckily my library has all of hers so I have been able to.read them recently.

  21. Madeleine Brett was a pen-name of Peter O’Donnell, of Modesty Blaize fame.
    I love Mary Stewart — in fact, I’m currently rereading This Rough Magic. And I second the recommendation of Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. I prefer her Michaels books, but Devil may Care, under the Peters name, may be my favourite romantic suspense ever. (It also has the best comedy dog.)
    If you can find her books, I also highly recommend Veronica Williams, who published 8 or 10 novels in the late 70s/80s, and has the same gift for context and atmosphere as Stewart. She’s the mother of the wonderful Liz Williams, too.

  22. Not quite what you’re looking for, but SHARDS OF HONOR by Lois Bujold is a close cognate over in SF. As are the Francis Lymond books by Dorothy Dunnet, over at historical fiction’s house.

  23. Sherwood: The Kearsley books don’t have a lot of action, true. (The one with the Scottish archaeological dig is The Shadowy Horses.) They actually remind me more of Barbara Michaels than Mary Stewart, because they usually have at least a hint of the supernatural.

    I second the recommendation for Madeleine Brent.

  24. I loved Devil May Care! It’s one of my favorites! I also loved Summer of the Dragon (which gets put up accidentally in Fantasy on occasion) and I really liked Wait For What Will Come, although that last isn’t quite as strong as the others. But I love Peters. I’m behind on hers — life got involved, and her current Amelia books are complicated.

    I enjoyed Crusie’s Wild Ride recently, too. It’s not really romantic suspense (Mab is entirely too tough to be even momentarily in distress) but seeing Crusie take on paranormal romance and pin it with humor was fun.

  25. The romantic suspense novels I loved the best, even more than Mary Stewart’s, were Madeleine Brent’s. She always had really interesting heroines with odd backgrounds–they were borderline badass, but not entirely implausibly, and they certainly took control of their own situations as they could.

    It was only a few years ago that I learned that Brent was actually Peter O’Donnell, the guy who invented Modesty Blaise. Pity that all of the Brents I have seen are well out of print.

  26. I loved “Madam Will You Talk” and “Nine Coaches Waiting” but especially “Touch Not the Cat,” of Mary Stewart’s work, precisely for that gothic romantic element. Maybe they are old, but my dad collected books and I found these waiting for me in his study as a teen–which explains so much about my own work, come to think of it.
    Several people have mentioned this author, but I found “Tregaron’s Daughter” by Madeleine Brent to be one of the best in this tradition. I can’t seem to find any others by her/him, but for this, the use of forshadowing, the details in the narrative, and above all, the characterization and tone of Cadi make me envious and enthralled, however many times I have read it. And it is findable, Sherwood, I got a copy off Amazon used a couple months ago for about $6.

  27. Thank you for these recommendations!
    I too love Mary Stewart, and was very happy to find her books for sale as ebooks on Kobobooks dot com. They sell to European buyers, not limited to the UK, and as Kobo is originally a Canadian company they may well be available to (North) Americans as well.
    I also liked all of Helen MacInnes, Charlotte McLeod and her pseudonym Alisa Craig, and Elizabeth Peters, and most of Jennifer Crusie’s books.
    Also Dorothy L. Sayers, though precious few have any romance in them (only Gaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon, and the continuation by Jill Paton Walsh in Thrones, Dominations has some life after marriage).
    Elisabeth Cadell is more romance than suspense, though there is often a bit of a mystery or puzzle to be solved to make the story more interesting. My favourites are Out of the rain, Honey for tea, and Remains to be seen. They’re old, so the romance is mild, and you’d have to find them secondhand.
    Sorry I can’t contribute any new names, but I’ll be very pleased to try out all your good suggestions.

  28. The Madeleine Brent works bear close reading if you are a fan of Modesty Blaise — and vice versa. O’Donnell was a total wizard at remixing and recycling. Plot bits and chunks get used, turned around and and deftly reused on an entirely different set of characters, and then their hems let out and reused one more time in a totally different historical period. He ran two separate Modesty universes — the comic strip and the print novels — in addition to the Madeleine Brent material. Somewhere someday someone’s going to write a great PhD thesis about the interplay between those three.

  29. I only read Mary Stewart’s Merlin books, but from what you describe in a female lead, you might like Lillian Stewart Carl’s Fairbanks/Alaister novels,

  30. I also read my way through Mary Stewart starting at some point in junior high. Also Helen MacInnes and a lot of Victoria Holt. I find that Stewart has held up better than the others, for me. “Airs Above the Ground” is probably my favorite but I’m fond of “The Moonspinners” and “Madam Will You Talk” as well.

    There were two books published in the 90’s that I really enjoyed and thought had much the flavor of Mary Stewart. The author was Caroline Llewellyn and the books were “The Masks of Rome” and “The Lady of the Labryrinth.” Both out of print, alas.

    I don’t suppose Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books count, but I think “Caravan” does.

    I haven’t read any Madeleine Brent, will have to look for some.

  31. M. M. Kaye has a marvelous series of romantic suspense books, one for each place she lived with her husband while he was stationed with the army. They start with “Death In Kashmir” and continue with other “Death In…” locations. In addition to the romance and the suspense, they are notable as beautiful travelogues…you can really picture yourself in each of the places where she sets her stories.

  32. Forgot to add, within the SFF realm, I found Steven Gould’s “Blind Waves” to have a good romantic suspense feel.

  33. Sherwood, there’re at least half a dozen Madeleine Brent titles over on half.com under $5.00. There’s even one on ebay with an opening bid of .25!