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?