Tour’s Books Blog

November 4, 2010

What’s Going on with Romantic Suspense

Filed under: Editorial,Romantic Suspense,Suspense,Urban Fantasy — toursbooks @ 2:31 pm
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Obviously, as a mystery reader, I also read romantic suspense.  OK, maybe that’s not obvious.  Not all readers will read and enjoy both genres, but I do, just as I enjoy Urban Fantasy and paranormal with a mystery element.  To some readers – especially male readers – romantic suspense is lame.  Yes it is if you’re looking for noir type stories.  You’d get closer with UF.  My brother hates both genres and he’s pretty picky about mysteries too.  He does like some action thrillers and we both like historical mysteries, but we’re picky there too.  But here’s my problem.  Romantic suspense has been invaded by romance writers who frankly can’t seem to generate any suspense.

As a genre, romantic suspense is very popular.  Some of the best practitioners are Tara Janzen, Roxanne St Claire, Anne Stuart, Jill Shalvis, and Shannon McKenna.  Of all former romance authors, no one has had more financial success or enjoyed the popularity of Janet Evanovich – though she chose mystery light rather than romantic suspense.  She’s possibly the most imitated writer out there right now.  So popular, the trope has gone from fresh and original to cliche in 20 years.

Unfortunately, it would seem the latest crop of romance writers have gone with Jayne Anne Krentz as their model.  With a few exceptions, I always considered her books romance.  They are relationship stories, with a little suspense to spice it a bit, but still, firmly in the romance genre.  Now some excellent authors have turned their hand to writing ‘romantic suspense’.  Maya Banks – erotic romance and mainstream romance, Karen Kendall – contemporary romance are but two examples.  Jennifer Estep went from paranormal romance to urban fantasy – and she did it well.  Why did she succeed when the others seem to be floundering?

It all starts with what makes good romantic suspense.  Well, I guess like pornography, you know when you see it, but some good examples are Blue Ice by Anne Stuart, Out of Control by Suzanne Brockman, The Crazy series by Tara Janzen, or going back in time, Phyllis Whitney, though she is usually listed as a ‘gothic mystery’ writer.  So what IS romantic suspense?  Romantic suspense is a blend of an action thriller, suspense, and romance.  There is some form of HEA, varying degrees of sex, from little to super hot, and lots of action.  The best of the genre are often claimed by BOTH romance and mystery/suspense groups.  Suzanne Brockman and Jayne Anne Krentz are listed on Stop, You’re Killing Me, a mystery, thriller research site.  Tara Janzen, Anne Stuart,  are not.  A. E. Maxwell, the pen name used by Anne Elizabeth Maxwell and her husband Evan Lowell Maxwell when writing an excellent mystery series, and her books published as Elizabeth Lowell are there – but not all.  Her Donovan series (I liked this one), St Kilda series, and Rarities Unlimited series.  She’s written others as Anne Maxwell  (while dated, her Diamond Tiger was really good) and regular romance/historical romance as Elizabeth Lowell.

That line between mystery/romantic suspense and romance with a dash of suspense can be a judgment call.  Jayne Anne Krentz/Amanda Quick books blurred the line at times, having a decent amount of mystery or suspense in them, but to me they remained romance.  Why?  Well, as a die hard mystery, spy, action thriller reader, a twisty plot, a good villain, action sequences, and a breathless pace all make up a good part it.  In fact, I just read two books that illustrated this difference for me.  One was Kade by Cheyenne McCray and the other Edge of Sight by Roxanne St Claire.

Kade is lost in the romance element.  The heroine, instead of getting involved and doing interviews, sits in the hero’s house, makes phone call and obsesses about her attraction to him.  The bad guy is obvious.  The ending ordained.  By page 100, I was struggling to stay interested.  So what’s wrong with what is getting sold as ‘romantic suspense’ these day?  Well, it’s missing the whole suspense part and completely lost in the romance, or in some cases just sex.  That’s what’s wrong with Kade, the third book in Cheyenne McCray’s Armed and Dangerous series.  If I had to keep reading about wet panties and erections that never die (that has GOT to be painful), I’d have run screaming from the room.  Kade was a lame bit of romantic suspense that had zero believability.  It’s a shame really.  Edge of Sight has a real woman in jeopardy feel, two murders, a furious assassin, and a wounded hero all in the first 100 pages.  Edge of Sight pulled me in.  Kade made me yawn.  Way, too much about sexual fantasy, not a lot of suspense or mystery.  To me, Cheyenne McCray’s Armed and Dangerous series is romance and the reason this genre gets knocked a lot.

As for Jennifer Estep, well her Elemental Assassin series might not be heavy duty noir, but she created kick ass heroine who rescues others in Gin Blanco, AKA The Spider.  Kalayna Price has good one in Alex Craft in her new Grave Witch series, Chloe O’Neill with the Chicagoland Vampires, Sue Anne Jaffarian with her Fang-In-Cheek books, Faith Hunter, Ilona Andrews and on and on.  All have strong female leads who have sex and enjoy it, but the book is not about sex, it’s about the story.  That’s the balance I’m looking for in romantic suspense.  Love and sex are a part f it, but that’s not the whole story.  At least that’s my opinion.  What’s your’s?


While few writers in this genre get the technical details right, most of the errors are ‘literary license’, some of it is limited understanding and an obvious discomfort with generating believable action scenes.  Sex works, they understand that, that can do relationships, but persist in using military/police/spy type heroes and they just can’t seem to work with that skill set.  It would be like me writing about quasars or black holes, subjects I am wonderfully unqualified to discuss.  I was, however, raised by father who was a small arms instructor, paratrooper, sharpshooter, and lifelong hunter and fisherman.   He’d snort derisively at some scene in a western or action flick and go back to his Field and Stream magazine.  After the 25th lecture, you realized asking why he snorted was a BIG mistake, because you got all the details about how the gun worked, the recoil, how many rounds it carried – and why only an idiot throws away a gun even when out of ammo.  Whether you mean to or not, this information get stuck in your brain – oh, not the details, but the general sense of it all, and it filters in at the oddest times – like in the middle of a police drama or action thriller with all the staged fights.

When you read Barry Eisler’s John Rain series, he has the martial arts part really believable for all but the really knowledgeable – which I’m not.  The same for the Connor Burke series by John Donohue.  Both are martial artists and Eisler worked for the CIA, so is at least familiar with spycraft.  Get into most romantic suspense, that reality falls away.  Tara Janzen does well with muscle cars.  Suzanne Brockman makes a host of errors about how SEAL teams work, but it is literary license, and she kept the tension up in her earlier books, though that has fallen off and I’ve lost interest.  Elizabeth Lowell researches extensively and it shows, again more so in her older books, especially the ones originally published as Elizabeth Maxwell.  Now, anything with guns and fights and flights ends up equaling ‘romantic suspense’.   It sells well, but mostly it’s average to awful.  I guess I need to stick with my equally incredible, but more suspenseful action thrillers, UF and the writers that are usually good.

As a genre, romantic suspense is eroding to romance with guns


  1. As a rule, I’m against romance with guns. 🙂 I have kind of the opposite of your problem. I prefer “quieter” RS with explosions and car chases kept to a minimum – basically a mystery with a strong dose of Romance. I started out reading Mary Stewart and haven’t warmed up to the modern actiony RS. Karen Robards’ One Summer and Linda Howard’s After the Night are what I look for in RS though I think they were published as plain ol’ contemporary romance.

    DearAuthor had a Top Ten post about RS a while back that included Roxanne St. Clair. I’ve seen Elisabeth Naughton and Kate Brady recommended as well. I’m afraid Brady might be too intense for me but that might make her just right for you. 😀

    Comment by MaryK — November 5, 2010 @ 1:22 am | Reply

    • Out of Control is a favorite of mine as well, with a nice balance of character, suspense, romance, HEA and supporting characters. I’ve read most of the others as well. Never did like the J.D. Robb series, just not my thing. Marliss Melton blows hot and cold.I have several Elizabeth Naught books on Mt TBR, Kate Brady (It is VERY intense.) and Roxanne St Claire ( usually carries a nice balance of suspense and romance and would suit you better than Kate Brady. I think you’d like Tara Janzen as well. Definitely try Anne Stuart’s Ice series, very much in the Out of Control class.

      Comment by toursbooks — November 5, 2010 @ 7:55 pm | Reply

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