Posted On September 28, 2012 by Print This Post

Love and the Crime Fiction Sleuth with C. Hope Clark

The lovely (don’t you love her smile?) and talented Hope Clark is with us today to offer a sleuthy spin to romance. As a straight contemporary author who only dabbles in the mystery genre, I’m looking for the clues to unlock the secrets of matching both genres in one book. 

Love and the Crime Fiction Sleuth

By C. Hope Clark

Once upon a time, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and a few other gents came up with the idea of noir mystery, years after Edgar Allan Poe created Auguste Dupin, the first amateur detective. A sleuth dominated these stories, obsessed with solving puzzles. Through rain, cops, shadows with guns and yes, even femme fatales, these guys persevered to solve the caper. Nothing got in the way, especially love, because after all, how can someone care about a woman and still think clearly? Besides, hard-core sleuths are broken, flawed, so intent on crime busting that they have lost their way in the world of amore.

I could cover the evolution of crime fiction to include Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner in the 20s and 30s, then Marcia Muller, Sara Parestsy, and Sue Grafton in the 80s when female sleuths came into their own. There’s no denying that mystery protagonists can be either gender. However, only in recent decades, especially since 2000, have mysteries inserted true love. The result has been romantic suspense. In reality, however, this partnership of logic and emotion, inserting love in a mystery, requires an adept hand, because after all, the mystery comes first . . . unless it is a romance. There is a line in the sand.

The mystery is Plot A.

Every successful, novel-length story these days has multiple plots. These layers add complexity and involve the reality of life being more than one-directional. Clues aren’t supposed to line up. Romance is now another aspect of layering. The protagonist has a relationship he (or she) must maintain, encounters a love interest that he cannot ignore, or manages a close friendship that could easily cross into something serious. That romantic interest is Plot B or Plot C. The mystery is numero uno.

However, the author can choose for the romance to be a close second in commanding attention, drawing it closer to the romantic suspense category. Or it can be a distant third or even fourth priority for the protagonist pushing it closer to a mainstream mystery or hard-core suspense. That ultimate level is extremely important in determining your story’s label on a bookstore shelf or Amazon’s list, or the readers who’ll honor you for the long haul. Jeffrey Deaver and Lisa Gardner hold fast to the mystery being a strong lead and the romance remaining on the fringe. JD Robb brings the relationship closer to the forefront, but still, it’s undeniably secondary. James Patterson, however, can confuse the serious mystery lover to the point of frustration.

The draw of the mystery sabotages the romance.

A romantic interest can exist at the story’s opening, with the mystery stepping in to take over, disrupting a couple’s synchronization. To remain a mystery tale, however, that’s exactly what must happen . . . the mystery wreaks havoc on the character’s world. And it still is secondary to the mystery, adding to the downward spiral. Sometimes the romance is salvaged, and other times not. As a minimum, it’s scarred. The only happy-ever-after that’s important in a mystery is that of the crime being solved.

The draw of the romance sabotages the mystery.

I much prefer these in my personal reading. The mystery raises its head. The sleuth analyzes the facts, studies the players. Suddenly one of the players becomes more than a chess piece. He (or she) fights to deny the relationship, but can’t deny the person’s involvement in the crime, keeping the two ever entwined in the case. By the end of the story, the protagonist can ditch the person, the characters going their separate ways since their professional use for each other has expired, or they can dare to make a go of that fledgling personal bond.

Series abound with these types of couples, those who meet in the heat of a dangerous situation and extrapolate that tension into a challenging love interest. The difficulty arises in sequels to keep the relationship keen while at the same time not letting it overwhelm the mystery, keeping it at a respectable distance while allowing it to chafe.

The mystery wins.

The romance is always optional. Whether you kill the love or help it bloom, as an author, you remain true to the mystery. The reader has to wonder more about the red herrings, clues and answers than whether two characters hook up. If they don’t, fine. If they do, fine. But don’t screw up the mystery’s plot for the sake of having two characters attracted to each other.

The risk of becoming cozy.

Mystery readers often want their protagonists to stand on their own two feet, not in the least needy for a significant other to be deemed worthy. The sterner, tougher and more stubborn the protagonist, the more hard-boiled the mystery. Much of the internal conflict comes from keeping emotion in check. Tears, temper tantrums, and moodiness are acceptable in small doses in relationship to the danger, suspense, tension and climax of some high-strung jeopardy. But insert those same emotions into a love interest and your readers may start tossing “sappy” and “distracting” into your book reviews.

In reality we juggle work and love. One can uplift or tear down the other. Cozies are remarkably successful because they are more forgiving of this reality. Those mysteries depict nice, fun, relatable characters. Authors omit gore and explicit adult situations. Love interests are expected. The mystery can even take a back seat to the everyday lives of the characters. The more you allow openly expressed emotion to happen within your mystery, the more you risk the cozy designation. Be very cognizant of showing the tears.

Know your readers and decide who you aim to please.

Mystery readers know how much amore then can tolerate in a who-dunit. You will not please them all. Some want that one steamy sex scene. Some roll their eyes at the detour from plot. Most, however, will agree to the following: When the relationship is vital for the reader to understand a character, especially in a continuing series, it’s good.


So how do you balance the sexy with the sleuthy?

On Monday, Handsome Hansel is back to give us the man’s eye view on romance.


Hope will give away a copy of “Lowcountry Bribe” to a lucky commenter!

A killer wants to make certain she buys the farm. Threats, a missing boss, a very dead co-worker, a high-level investigation and a sinister hog farmer: Lowcountry Ag Department manager Carolina Slade is a bean-counting civil servant in hot water. Carolina Slade is a by-the-book county manager for the Department of Agriculture-a civil servant who coordinates federal loans for farmers in the coastal lowcountry of South Carolina. When one of her clients, a hog farmer named Jessie Rawlings, offers her a bribe, Slade reports Jessie to her superiors. The next thing she knows, she’s besieged by Resident Agent-In-Charge Wayne Largo from the Feds’ IG Office in Atlanta. He and his partner have come to investigate Slade’s accusations, and if possible catch Jessie in the act of handing over money. However, the IG isn’t telling Slade everything. The agents are also investigating the disappearance of Slade’s boss the year before in connection to possible land fraud. And when the sting on Jessie goes bad, the case is put on hold and Wayne is called back to Atlanta, leaving Slade to fear not only for her life and job, but for her childrens’ safety.


C. Hope Clark is author of Lowcountry Bribe, a mainstream mystery with just a hint of a romantic interest. The first in The Carolina Slade Mystery Series, Lowcountry Bribe just won The Silver Falchion Award at the 2012 Killer Nashville Conference for mystery and suspense authors. The sequel to Lowcountry Bribe is due out in early 2013, tentatively titled Tidewater Murder, published by Bell Bridge Books, one of the best mid-sized publishers on the planet and well known for its mystery, romance, women’s fiction and Southern fiction. / Hope is also founder of Her weekly newsletters reach 45,000 readers. Writer’s Digest selected for its 101 Best Websites for Writers for the past twelve years.

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18 Responses to “Love and the Crime Fiction Sleuth with C. Hope Clark”

  1. Hi Hope,

    Dashiell Hammett did a great job with the Maltese Falcon. It’s a great mystery with plenty of sex appeal. The movie is exceptional too. Humphrey Bogart was considered a romantic leading man after he made it.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 28, 2012, 6:07 am
  2. Hi Hope. Thank you for being here. I write romantic suspense and I’ll admit sometimes weaving the internal and external conflicts together drives me a little batty. It’s so much fun though!

    I’m a plotter by nature so my first draft is usually all about the external plot. Once I have that down, I go back and beef up the romance. I seem to have to concentrate on either the romance or the suspense on each draft.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 28, 2012, 7:10 am
  3. I wrote a romantic suspense that was heavy on the romance and lighter on the mystery. In every revision I strengthened the mystery and toned back the romance until I finally got the balance right. The mystery really needed to come first.

    Posted by LD Masterson | September 28, 2012, 7:49 am
  4. Morning Hope!

    I love the JD Robb novels. Just finished her latest one. I think she does a heckuva job keeping the romance alive while using such intricate plots. In her books, I think the romance gives me a break from the intensity of the plot, and shows a human side to Eve that’s needed after the sometimes horrific things going on in her life.

    Thanks so much for posting with us today!


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 28, 2012, 8:00 am
  5. Great post, Hope! Thanks! I’m currently venturing outside of my typical genre and writing a romantic thriller. Would the same rules apply to that genre, too?

    Posted by Roxanne | September 28, 2012, 10:41 am
  6. Great post, Hope! I shared the link at Barnes & Noble’s Mystery Forum. I’ve been a mystery fan since I was a kid, but many of my favorite books combine mystery and romance. After I discovered the romantic suspense genre as a teenager, my bookshelves overflowed! I’m looking forward to reading your book!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | September 28, 2012, 11:00 am
  7. Thanks for the detailed information. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the right genre, especially when you like to blend. I did a guest post for Buried under Books on “What’s In a Name? The Trouble with Genres”:

    Posted by Kris Bock | September 28, 2012, 1:29 pm
  8. Hi Hope,

    A hot sleuth in a hardcore or cozy mystery is fine with me as long as the character has depth and is true to himself.

    I enjoy the twists and turns in a mystery, but the plot must be plausible, and more importantly, the author needs to give me enough background info on secondary characters to understand their motivation.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 28, 2012, 1:54 pm


  1. […] fantastic post from C. Hope Clark on suspense and romance. (Ya know how I LOVE this […]

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