Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Genre Boundaries, Not: Mysteries, Thriller, Suspense ... and "Romantic Suspense"

Summer's waning here in the mountains. The daytime temperatures still rise to about 80 on sunny afternoons, but as soon as the sun sets, we're in the 50s, with a few nights even chillier. We haven't yet pulled the down comforters back out, but sweatshirts for morning walks make sense.

It's a season of change. So every now and then, I take time out and plunge into a book by an author I haven't yet explored. This week, Dave handed me a paperback copy of Elizabeth Lowell's 2006 THE WRONG HOSTAGE. Mystery? Suspense, as the front cover says? Within a couple of chapters, I was edgy and tense, telling Dave, "This is a thriller. Period."

It's a question of pace, of risk, of threat. Plot pushes way past character. Dangers slice fast and sharp. To me, a thriller is the exact opposite of what Dennis Lehane creates in his dark, moody Boston detective novels (and he has a new one coming out later this season -- I've read it, it's good, and I have a lot more to say about it, but not yet). Lehane's character disturbances are so deep and compelling that he can hold the plot entirely on idle for months of the timeline, letting the paradoxes and pain soak in. In Gone Baby Gone, that's exactly what he does when the kidnapped four-year-old Amanda McCready is known to have died in a quarry, and Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro agonize over what they could have done differently. Unbelievable though it is for the investigators, life does go on -- and so does the book.

But in THE WRONG HOSTAGE there are no pauses, no hesitations. At most, the cascading threats pause just long enough for Grace Silva and Joe Faroe to wrestle against the throb of an old romantic passion for each other. And the twists of their possibilities are so intimately braided into their attempt to rescue Grace's teenage son -- held hostage -- that solving one dilemma will almost surely resolve the other. This is what I found described in a post by Jayne Anne Krentz on Running With Quills, the blog that she shares with Elizabeth Lowell and five other romantic suspense authors:
How does one define romantic-suspense? I think the best definition I ever heard comes from our own Elizabeth Lowell. She once said that in a novel of romantic-suspense the relationship between the hero and heroine must move in lockstep with the development of the mystery/suspense plot. Every twist in the mystery should create a twist in the relationship and vice-versa. 
That said, I definitely did not find the "romance" track in THE WRONG HOSTAGE to be a distraction from the international thriller aspects of the book. 

FYI: Elizabeth Lowell (pictured above) is, in the photo, the female half, Ann Maxwell, of what's actually a wife-and-husband writing team, with Evan Maxwell. The team wrote more traditional mysteries in the 1990s but most recently has stuck with "romantic suspense" as shown by the following list under the authorship of Elizabeth Lowell (and no, I haven't yet read the newest, but I like the cover so I imported it above -- and I really will get to it):
  • Death Echo (HC Jun 8, 2010)
  • Blue Smoke and Murder (HC Jun 2008 — PB Mar 2009)
  • Innocent as Sin (HC Jul 2007 — PB May 2008)
  • Whirlpool (rewrite of The Ruby) (Nov 2006)
  • The Wrong Hostage (HC Jun 2006 — PB May 2007)
  • The Secret Sister (Nov 2005)
  • Always Time To Die (HC Jul 2005—PB Jun 2006)
  • Death is Forever (rewrite of The Diamond Tiger) (Dec 2004)
  • The Color of Death (HC Jun 2004—PB Jun 2005)
  • Die in Plain Sight (HC Jul 2003—PB Jun 2004)
  • Running Scared (HC May 2002—PB Jun 2003)
  • Moving Target (HC Jun 2001—PB May 2002)
  • Midnight in Ruby Bayou (HC Jun 2000—PB May 2001)
  • Pearl Cove (HC Jun 1999—PB Jun 2000)
  • Jade Island (HC Sep 1998—PB Apr 1999)
  • Amber Beach (HC Oct 1997—PB Oct 1998)
  • Tell Me No Lies (PB 1986)

I'm especially intrigued by the boundary issues all of this brings up, because NPR recently issued its listener-weeded list of the top 100 "thrillers" of all time -- and among them is THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, a YA speculative fiction delight that I would never ever have called a thriller. But obviously, somebody -- a lot of somebodies -- thought it was and is. Here's the NPR explanation:
David Morrell, novelist and co-editor of the recent anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, defends such choices. "A lot of people see 'thriller' and think 'spy book,' " Morrell says. But a book like The Last of the Mohicans is "unquestionably a thriller — filled with chases and derring-do." Morrell also mentioned Dracula ("take away the supernatural elements and it's a serial-killer novel") and The Count of Monte Cristo. "As long as you have that breathlessness and sense of excitement," Morrell says, "then they're in."
For the full list, and more discussion, check it out here.

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