I Love Romantic Suspense

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.

Romantic suspense has what for me is a perfect blend of romantic involvement and plotty action, creating a kind of double-barreled suspense. And when the book adds in literary references, humor, and a sense of history, I’m guaranteed to be hooked.

A lot of romantic suspense tends to offer dark, brooding, ultra-competent heroes in the Byronic mode–which inspired the Brontes way back when. There’s a Byronic hero in Madam Will You Talk. 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 time it was written: 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 tantalized me: 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 they feel natural. There was even a clue in the reading matter of a minor character: nobody reading Little Gidding is likely to be a murdering dirtbag.

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. Despite its dated aspects, she manages it with wit and intelligence, all elements I look for in newer books.

And I’ve found most of these elements in some newer indie writers on the scene. Like Camilla Monk’s Spotless series, beginning with Spotless, in which I.T. nerd Island Chaptal, who reads romance novels by night, finds herself stalked by a gentlemanly hit man—who is not, by a long shot, the worst of the figures who suddenly start cropping up around her, making her question her assumptions about her early childhood and parental figures.

The narrative voice is both intelligent and humorous, with romance novel quotes at the beginning of each chapter that are hilarious. The pacing is fast, once the story gets going, the tension rising to a pulse-pounding pitch.

There are two more in the series, each better than the last as they ramjet all over the world to fascinating locales, with smart writing full of literary and cultural references, and splashes of other languages. The fourth, Butterfly in Amber, comes out in May. The best of the four, it wraps up the series in non-stop action.

If you like romantic suspense in space opera, with the dangerous hit man hero matched with a heroine who is supremely competent in her own way (especially with a sense of humor) you might enjoy Lindsay Buroker’s Fallen Empire series, beginning with Star Nomad,

Alisa Marchenko, once a pilot for the Alliance, wakes up after the war with the Empire is over, and wants nothing more than to find her mother’s old wreck of a trader to take her back home to her husband and daughter—to discover that her husband was killed in the war.

She ends up with a disparate group of refugees, including a human-cyborg who was once a colonel in the Empire—and who has some fairly dire secrets.

Alisa takes them straight into action, without intending to, which calls for extreme ingenuity as her old trader has no weapons.

Coming out this year a sequel series, set ten years later, The Sky Full of Stars. There are two out so far that I am loving even more, as it’s space opera with psi powers, along with action, romance, and humor. Alisa’s daughter Jelena, eighteen and dedicated to helping animals, commences as a trader—but she manages to find trouble as unerringly as her mother did, especially in the form of the broody, powerful Prince Thorian, ex-heir to the empire. Even though he’s out of a job, both sides of the old conflict are after him . . . The first, Rogue Prince, is only 99 cents.

I love the banter in these, and the lively and imaginative ways the heroines get into and out of trouble, with plenty of fast-paced action, fun characters, and slow-boil romances.

While the next author is not known for a humorous narrative voice, humor still shows up in the interactions between complex heroes and very competent heroines. The author is Melissa McShane. Servant of the Crown, a fantasy series set in a sort of magical alt-Europe with different names, starts off one series.

A countess, Alisa Quinn, is summoned to the court of Queen Zara to do service as a lady in waiting, where she discovers the library of her dreams—and encounters Prince Anthony North, the queen’s playboy brother. Sparks fly, especially when a mystery is uncovered.

McShane also has an entry in a now-popular subgenre, magical Regency, with the terrific Burning Bright. This suspenseful romance takes heroine Elinor Pembroke—who has developed a talent for creating fire—away from London and her grasping family into the reluctant service of the Royal Navy.

Vivid, well-written action, complex characters, and a fascinating magic system that has created some interesting differences between our world and that one make this story one of my favorite romantic page-turners.

It has a sequel, Wondering Sight, featuring another heroine with a different talent–and a third in this series will be coming out soon.

What are some of your favorite romantic suspense novels? What about romantic suspense appeals to you?

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I Love Romantic Suspense — 54 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this! I’m off to Kobo to load up my bookshopping cart for the month.

    Mary Stewart was my first introduction to the genre, too; and like you, I’ve long been on the lookout for books with a similar feel (though I too was shocked, on a recent reread, by how much the people smoked – something I’d not noticed especially as a teen).
    I’ve not found many that qualify, but these few might appeal.

    Virginia Kantra: Close up, and Home before midnight. The rest of what she’s written is mostly (hot) romance, but these two have the suspense as well.
    Her Carolina books also have some action (not so much suspense) and tone down the steam a bit, but if you do not want sexual encounters in your books she is not the writer for you. After Mary Stewart as my only experience with romance books (where this only happens off-page during the *** break), this was a bit of a shock for me when I first started reading “romance with action/suspence but not scary thrillers, like Mary Stewart’s”, so I thought I’d mention it, for other newby romance readers ?

    P.J. Alderman: A killing tide, and Phantom river. These are the first two books in an ongoing series, the Columbia River thrillers, but you can read them each standalone; which is a good thing as this writer is very slow in publishing new books.
    She has two more books out, Haunting Jordan and its sequel Ghost Ship, that have a lighter tone (in the present-day bits), a bit more comedy, with ghosts, and a bit less romance (it’s more of a slow set-up over several books IIRC). The history surrounding the old ‘Painted Lady’ mansion and the ghosts that these books delve into are on the edge of too dark for me, especially in the second book. I tend to have very little tolerance for darkness in my books, so it may be just right for others, being safely in the past (which is part of the reason I have trouble with it, as the outcome is already set and nothing anyone does will ameliorate it).

    • Thank you, these sound like fun!

      I don’t mind steam–though if the h/h are constantly lusting after each other and having fifteen-page bashes on the beautyrest, then I can’t really believe in the suspense. It may’s well be an outright romance.

    • You won’t find Star Nomad or the sequel series on Kobo – they’re Amazon exclusives, much to my disappointment. But I definitely need to acquire some of your other suggestions for my Nook! I’ve actually already got A Killing Tide, but I didn’t know there was a second book in the series, so I”m off to get that!

        • S’ok. I did buy the first one in Buroker’s Fallen Empire series to read in Nook’s Kindle app, because Lindsay Buroker! I’m holding out for wider distribution for the rest, though, because I’m against letting Amazon corner the e-book market, just in principle. I don’t want to give them any money that they can use to do that. Also, I don’t like the Kindle interface. I do love Buroker’s fantasies, which *are* available widely, but Science Fiction is my favorite genre, so I’m miffed that I can’t buy the FE series yet.

          For those reading along at home, her Empire’s Edge series doesn’t have much romance, but the Dragon Blood series does.

  2. ‘Madam’ was the first Mary Stewart that I read. The image of the shadow of the tree as Ygggdrasil still resonates in my memory all these decades later.
    I also remember seeing what was her latest novel in the local bookstore and struggling to justify spending the money on it (All of $5.95!) I still have that book. Now a monument to how prices have changed.

    • Oh yes–my crumbling copy was a buck–nobody ever dreamed paperbacks would go over a dollar!

  3. Another Mary Stewart fan here who read and dreamed at an impressionable age.
    The book recs look like a lot of fun!

  4. I just finished Burning Bright and its sequel on your recommendation on Goodreads, and loved them.
    I am another Mary Stewart fan from way back. The other romantic suspense writer I adore, who somehow even now seems less dated than Stewart
    , is Madeleine Brent, whom I learned quite late was actually a man – the author in fact of the Modesty Blaise series, which I’ve never read but have heard are also good. I just re-read several of the Brents: Merlin’s Keep, Tregaron’s Daughter, and Stranger at Wildings, and they are terrific.

  5. Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie

    Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews, though you do have to ignore the cover

  6. Aw, man, none of these are available at my local public library! Thankfully, the county library does have copies of the McShane books, so I’ll start with those.

  7. Anything by Helen Hanson. Most of Doranna Durgin’s stuff (although a lot of it is fantasy or paranormal, most of it qualifies as romantic suspense as well). I’ve recently discovered D.V. Berkom, although her stuff is a little closer to straight-up action/adventure/suspense. Ilona Andrews, mentioned in one of the comments, is a go-to favorite, but I’ve read everything they’ve written so far, and am impatiently awaiting something new from them. And I love, love, love Diane Henders’ “spies” series.

    • I’ve read several of Doranna’s book, and they are good–I especially love the way she evokes animals. Though some of them veer closer to horror than humor.

      Noting the others, thanks!

      • In the “romantic suspense” category, I especially love the ones Durgin wrote for the discontinued “Bombshells” line – and most of them are available here at BVC, including a couple that never got published before that line got cancelled. I think my favorites are “Hidden Steel” and “Survival Instinct” but the Kimmer and Rio “Rules” books are right up there as well.

    • Is Burning Bright an Amazon exclusive, or not available as an epub ebook in the rest of the world? I can’t find it on Kobo, and it sound like a book I would enjoy.

    • @KarenJG, both Helen Hanson an D.V. Berkom look like thrillers. Are they?
      I’ve been getting at least one book for most of the authors mentioned here (if I don’t own their books already) to try, but I really don’t like scary thrillers so I’m doubtful about those two.
      Are they suitable for thriller-averse fraidy-cats who need positive endings?

      • I’m not sure what you mean by “scary thrillers.” There’s some scary stuff in both, but they have positive endings. Helen Hanson is less grim than D.V. Berkom, and if you want something a little lighter from Helen, I’d suggest you try “Dark Pool.” But, I’d agree, most of her stuff has some scary times for the protagonists.

  8. I still can open Madam Will You Walk and find whole passages that are so familiar I can almost chime along as I read them. I miss Stewart, as dated as she is in many ways. The first time I went to Europe I had to go to Greece specifically because of My Brother Michael and Moonspinners.

  9. They’re historical, not contemporary, thrillers, but Jane Aiken Hodge gave me a similar enjoyment to what I got from Mary Stewart: lots of sense of place rooted in politics and time. Bonus: no one is smoking in that 1950s-1960s way…

      • I’m very fond of Jane Aiken Hodge’s “Strangers in Company”, which was contemporary (at the time) and takes place on a bus tour of Greece. I can’t deny the various implausibilities pointed out by the Amazon reviewers, but the Greek setting just overpowers them.

  10. Thanks for citing my books! I love romantic suspense–or maybe it’s just that I love action books that have a strong romantic subplot. I’ll second the mention of Madeleine Brent, whose books I devoured as a teen. I was so sad to see them disappear from my library’s shelves.

    It’s interesting to me that my husband, who is a reader of straight-up romance novels, is less interested in the non-romance elements to the point that I’ve heard him complain about their intrusion into certain books. I think I should get him to talk about what he finds appealing, and at what point the suspense/action/mystery ruins it for him. (He loves all my books, so I’m not sure what kind of a data point that is.)

    • Romance is a primary draw for me, so it introduces tension when another element/genre messes with that aspect or when the story needs of the suspense (say) are furthered by sacrificing the romance. I bounced on Spotless, for example, because March is downright mean to Island and is never sorry and always gets his way and then, in the end, shuts her down rather (emotionally) brutally. Which I perceived as pretty clearly anti-romance. Star Nomad, on the other hand, was quite lovely because the romance, while a slow burn, actually progresses *through* the plot intrusions and isn’t sacrificed to move plot along. So all the things that push them apart give them opportunity to work together and I kind of love that.

      So I don’t *mind* genre hybrids with romance, so long as I feel like the romance isn’t gimped or given short shrift.

      • Yeah–it’s funny how one thing can light up one reader and another is turned off. I bought into Spotless 1) because of the funny narrative voice, which promised me that Island is going to be fine, and 2) March so obviously had PTSD and Beauty taming the Beast is one of my jams, as is enemies-to-friends.

        • I agree with Jacob. I just finished Spotless, and it reminded me of Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series (which is available as ebooks from Kobo), not of Mary Stewart.
          The tone is light enough that it didn’t repel me, but the hero is very violent (and damaged) and there is a very great deal of killing going on. The heroine is coping, but if you stop to think about what’s happening it’s really awful and unlikely in reality.
          Mary Stewart’s books have some violence but it’s much more plausible and focused, and her heroes tend to be trying to stop it, rather than being a primary source of it themselves.
          Also, there is a personal, small-scale human motivation for Mary Stewart’s villains, instead of a giant powerful source of evil directing the bad guys. In combination with romance, which is of necessity focused on the small scale and personal, the intrusion of large and powerful evil empires or global criminal organisations as enemies works less well for me. It may be because of the more lighthearted, distancing writing style necessary to not be overwhelmed by all the violence, but it feels like it makes me need to change focus, keep more of a distance from the protagonists. This is not what I want in a romance, where feeling for the protagonists is at the core.

          I can definitely see people who like Camilla Monk liking Lindsay Buroker, and vice versa.
          I’ll finish it, but it won’t be a rereader for me. I tend to want to get completely absorbed in my favorite books, and though with all the action and the light writing style these are a compelling read, the emotional distance they give is not what I seek.

          • You’re right. That first one especially did edge toward my own boundaries for violence–it was the narrative voice that kept me reading.

            But I’m not into, for example, the romantic suspenses with serial killers preying on women, and one keeps coming after the heroine. Those, while very popular, are beyond my tolerance level.

            So I guess everybody has degrees. And for me, a funny narrative voice will push my boundaries out farther than usual.

            I also think that Camilla’s craft improved with each of her books.

      • Have you ever read Lois McMaster Bujold? Both her fantasy and sf series always have a strong romance subplot. Her Sharing Knife series [the first one being _Sharing Knife: Beguiled_] is the one where she had romance as the primary plot, rather than secondary or tertiary.

    • Is Burning Bright an Amazon exclusive, or not available as an epub ebook in the rest of the world? I can’t find it on Kobo, and it sounds like a book I would enjoy.

      If they are, would you consider making them available through other ebookstores as well, after the period of exclusivity runs out?
      I read that Lindsay Buroker is planning to do that with her SF series (the Star Nomad an Rogue Prince books), so I’m waiting for that to happen with the first series – I think I read that Amazon has the exclusive rights for a year, so the Star Nomad might be becoming available more widely soon.

    • I’m the exact opposite from your husband! I get miffed when the sex scenes keep interrupting the plot. While I love a well-written love scene as much as the next gal, to many of them and I start skipping ahead to find where the plot picks up again.

        • yep. And the sports reporter narrative in such scenes frequently crops up. Throws me out of the book and the book straight into delete. (Can’t throw the kindle at the wall – too expensive. One more reason for physical books)

  11. I’ve read most of the ones in the article and enjoy them. Added a bunch of the ones in the comments to my tbr list.

    Here’s a few that come to mind and haven’t yet been mentioned:
    – the Fatal series by Marie Force (I don’t always agree with the actions of the characters and sometimes want to hit them, but there’s plenty of mystery with the romance)
    – Hunting by Andrea K Host. The plot never ties together 100% for me, but the characters are awesome.
    – Breath of Earth by Beth Kato, fantasy/mystery in an alternate 1900s California
    – Reaper by Janet Edwards, futuristic mystery where almost everyone is frozen with their consciousness in a game world. The romance is slow burning.
    – The Naturals series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. This is sort of YA but also quite dark. More suspense than romance.

    • Noting these. I loved many of Andrea K. Höst’s stories–And All the Stars is sort of romantic suspense for YA, with a science fictional overlay.

      Then there’s the Touchstone series, and in fantasy, the Medair duo.

    • Looking these up now! The next up in my TBR file was a freebie that turned out to be a big disappointment, so I’m looking for more try-out authors. Of course, I’m ALWAYS looking for try-out authors, so that’s not really news…

  12. Thanks, Sherwood, for another trove of reading ideas! I haven’t read all the responses above, but will say that Mary Stewart was an early influence of mine as well. It was mostly her wonderfully described, exotic settings that hooked me — especially the ones set in Greece, like “This Rough Magic.” (Which as a bonus includes a friendly dolphin as well as all the Shakespeare references.) Yes, I like the everyday women who find themselves in dangerous situations and must use their hidden resources.
    Later Stewart wrote the Merlin series, also wonderful.