Rob and Mike watch Edgar Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) at The Projection Booth. “The first big American studio film — and last big American studio film – directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, The Black Cat is, uh, ‘inspired’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story and stars Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in a taut game of life and death.”
Posted June 7, 2012
Recently, I’ve been thinking about danger. Specifically, the kind of danger that runs through a certain subsection of Romance, often called ‘romantic suspense’. These are the stories that drop the hero and heroine into physical jeopardy in addition to exposing them to all the emotional risks of falling in love. When done well, they share the same sense of breathless excitement of a good movie thriller. When poorly written, they’re overwrought, melodramatic, and annoying.
What draws that line? For me the first criteria is that the characters must face real peril. If the threat to their safety and/or lives isn’t genuine, the resolution of it can’t be either. Second, the situation must be more than just the background against which the characters move. The crisis should add to and change their relationship. Immediate physical peril provides natural narrative tension. Skilled writers use that framework to illuminate the depth and complexity of human relationships. Lesser talents… not so much. Here are some of those writers best able to use danger to bring depth to a developing Romance:
The Forbidden Rose, Joanna Bourne
In the time of the French Revolution, William Doyle is England’s best spy. Margeuerite de Fleurignac is displaced noblewoman who smuggles other aristos out of the country one step ahead of the mob. In the languid countryside and the bloody streets of Paris, they foil each other’s plans, save each other’s lives, and fall desperately in love.
This is Scarlet Pimpernel territory: convoluted plots; disguises; daring last minute escapes. It’s also a real war-time romance. Choices are stark, and hard, and weighted in every direction. Bourne gives us all of that in some of the most delightful language around.
Navy SEAL Blue McCoy is back in town for a family wedding, when his stepbrother is murdered, and Blue is accused of the crime. Lucy Tait is the cop assigned to the case. The crush Lucy had on Blue years ago is nothing compared to the way they feel about one another now, but it might not matter. Some pretty nasty people don’t want the truth to come out, and they’re prepared to do just about anything to stop it.
What sets this book apart is that both hero AND heroine have physically demanding and dangerous jobs. Both are routinely prepared to put themselves in harm’s way, not only for each other, but also for those in their care. It adds extra oomph to a short, fun thriller.
Cover of Night, Linda Howard
Cate Nightingale is a widow with two young boys who runs a B&B in a small Idaho town. She knows Calvin Harris only as the soft-spoken handyman who helps her keep her business running smoothly. Then a mysterious guest vanishes in the night,leaving more than a mystery in his wake. First, Cate is attacked in her home by men searching for that guest’s belongings. Calvin routs the gunmen with an ease that shocks her into seeing beyond his quiet demeanor to the tough and competent man beneath. And then things really go to hell.
Although they’re not involved in all the action, Cate’s twin boys are a big part of the story. Motherhood informs all of Cate’s actions and choices, and many of Calvin’s. Plus, there are real world consequences. People die, and it matters.
Dream Lake, Lisa Kleypas
Alex Nolan has a problem. Zoe Hoffman might be part of the solution. But when I saw what Alex was facing my first thought was, “Girl, run! Don’t look back!” Zoe doesn’t, of course, and I’m grateful. I loved this book, which I don’t want to say too much more about, because I read it as an ARC and it doesn’t hit stores until August*. Suffice it to say that not all dangers are external.
Some of our worst damage is self-inflicted, emerging from our weakest moments and ugliest impulses. Kleypas brings us through that dark and tangled forest with her usual grace.
Angels Fall, Nora Roberts
Reece has already survived one horrifying ordeal. So it seems particularly unfair, as she slowly puts her life back together in a small Wyoming town, that she should be the only witness to a murder. In fact, the local police cannot even find the body, and begin to wonder if Reece is quite as recovered as she thinks. The only person who believes her is Brody, a gruff mystery writer who sees past the secrets Reece is keeping to the heart underneath. Oh, and the murderer, of course, who menaces Reece in increasingly terrifying ways.
The is the danger of the stalker, the evil that hides in waiting. Brody, unsociable, impatient and yet intensely curious, is a good foil for Reece, who is a lot less fragile than she thinks. There’s also a lot of good food, which always elevates a story for me.
The Shape of Desire, Sharon Shinn
What if the biggest danger of all is simply the danger of discovery? That’s the basis of Shinn’s powerful new contemporary novel. Maria fully participates in the modern world. She drives a car, charges her cell phone, and charts the landscapes of office relationshiops. She also loves Dante, passionately and absolutely. More than enough to keep his devastating secret: he’s a shape-shifter who spends much of his time in animal shape. But when a string of brutal murders is linked to deadly animal attacks, Maria faces the possibility that her lover may be even wilder than she has ever imagined.
This is the terror of the familiar made strange, of the disjoint between the mundane world and the mysteries that lie in every human heart. Plus, you know, Sharon Shinn.
Issac Rothe is a former black-ops soldier, currently surviving in the undergound fighting circuit. Targeted by an assassin, then accused of murder, Isaac’s only hope is in public defender Grier Childe. Classy, upper class Grier is nothing Isaac has ever experienced, and everything he wants. Grier feels the same, drawn to the shuttered and deadly Isaac in a way she’d never thought possible. But their enemies are anything but ordinary, and dying might be only the start of their troubles.
Crave is the second in Ward’s series about an ongoing fight between heaven and hell, in which angels and demons use humans as proxies. The framing story of supernatural machinations adds an extra layer of danger to this one. Because the good guys aren’t as far ahead as one might like.
*Why yes, I am gloating, why do you ask?
Chris Szego can handle danger. If by ‘danger’ you mean ‘watching the scary parts in movies’ and by ‘handle’ you mean ‘closing her eyes and plugging her ears’.