ROMANCE WITH A BULLET
Why isn’t there more romance in thrillers? Obviously I’m not talking about those titles shelved under the nebulous heading of “romantic suspense.” No. I’m talking about thrillers by the likes of Lee Child, Steve Berry, James Rollins, Brad Thor. Let’s explore.
I believe it starts with the fact that the majority of thrillers unfold over a very short period of time—a couple weeks, ten days maybe, often even less. And that’s not long enough to build anything even remotely resembling Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler of Gone With the Wind fame, leaving us mostly with existing relationships that are used as thinly disguised plot points. A kidnapped wife or lover, an ex-girl friend who turns out to be a femme fatale.
In the wonderful suburban terror tales by the likes of the great Harlan Coben and equally great Lisa Gardner, the very nature of love, romance and the integrity of the family find themselves in peril, turned on their ear. Even that, though, often takes a backseat to the maneuvers and mechanizations of some creepy villain who’s pulling all the strings.
Beyond that, thrillers are defined by the fact that lots, the whole world or at least country, is often at stake. And, let’s face it, who has time for romance when you’re racing to save millions of people from some despicable villain’s dastardly plot? It’s a matter of priorities and as far as the kind of books the best and biggest thriller writers are known for, romance doesn’t necessarily make the list.
Sure, there are exceptions; Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle, for example. David Morrell’s Double Image or The Shimmer come to mind too. With thrillers pacing is everything and normally that pacing doesn’t allow for the development of a relationship. But just because the vast majority of thrillers lack traditional romance doesn’t at all mean they aren’t romantic.
Huh? What did he say?
Allow me to elaborate. Great thrillers, like all great books in general, are about emotion, about making us feel something. If we don’t have a reason to care, we don’t have a reason, really, to read. And that reason to care doesn’t have to spring from romance per se. Thrillers, you see, owe their structure to the western motif, the lone hero standing against the evil land baron to defend the frontier.
These tales were almost never traditional romances, but they were inherently romantic. And the protagonists of some of our greatest thrillers today define the nature of the romantic hero perfectly. Lee Child’s wondrous Jack Reacher, for example. Reacher never stays in a relationship because he’s always on the move. His romance is with the great expanse that remains America, traveled in his case mostly by buses and hitchhiking. Reacher doesn’t have to be that way, he wants to be that way because it defines his nature as the quintessential loner hero in love with the anachronistic notion of owning no more than what he can carry. The lack of possessions is his greatest possession of all. Heroes like Reacher exist to defend the innocent and stand up against those who would abuse them. Theirs is a noble quest and that in itself is inherently romantic in the truest sense of the rugged American mythos that birthed the form of the thriller as birthed in the western.
Well, what about relationships, you ask? Good question! And let’s consult no less of an expert than the brilliant literary critic Leslie Fiedler for the answer. Fiedler authored one of the premier works of literary criticism in his brilliant Love and Death in the American Novel which postulated that the greatest relationships in American literature are have normally been between two men. Playing off that western motif again, with a little Huck and Jim tossed in for good measure.
And we can see that same motif on display clearly in modern thrillers as well. James Fennimore Cooper’s Natty Bumpo and Chingotchgook became Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. Or Robert Parker’s Hawk and Spencer, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar and Win, the great James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell.
These relationships span generations, highlighted by the conflicted give and take that somehow strengthens the bond between hero and quasi-sidekick instead of fraying it. Characters just short of life partners who accept each other warts and all while complementing each other’s strengths as well as flaws perfectly. Hmmmmm, sounds like romance, doesn’t it?
Okay, so we’ve got the romantic hero and this whole nature of the bromance. How about one more? Jimmy Cagney once famously said, “Never do a scene with a kid or a dog.” Well, thriller writers are expert at mining both for the kind of emotion normally gleaned from traditional romance. Think about the movie Taken, maybe the simplest story of all time, simple and yet brilliant: a father who’ll do anything to save his daughter.
That’s romantic heroism without being romance, because Liam Neeson’s Brian Mills is fighting for something he loves and nothing more. Steve Berry recently featured Cotton Malone’s sixteen-year-old son in an entry in that terrific series, while in The Innocent David Baldacci turns assassin Will Robie into a runaway teenage girl’s protector. James Rollins and Grant Blackwood recently went that one better in The Kill Switch that features not just bookdom’s greatest modern day canine hero, but also scenes from that dog’s POV. No, it’s not romance but it’s emotive; it makes us feel which is the same thing romance does.
And that’s the point. Great books, thrillers and otherwise, make us feel something so we’ll respond on an emotional level. And emotion is not synonymous with romance. My female Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong is never going to get with her lover Cort Wesley Masters on a full-time basis, no weddings or babies in their future, because in order to be together they need to be separate. Theirs is a non-traditional romance based on the limitations they’ve accepted in each other, and the maternal instincts Cort Wesley’s teenage sons bring out in Caitlin is emotional gold in my mind. It defines a relationship at its strongest when those boys, or themselves, are threatened by violence.
So let’s finish with an example of me practicing what I preach, specifically a simple father-son scene from STRONG DARKNESS that takes place in the elevator of a New York City building between Cort Wesley and Dylan.
He snatched the card from his father’s grasp and angled it in front of a lens higher up on the panel Cort Wesley had taken for a security camera. As Dylan held the black access card near it, though, the lens glowed blue and the elevator doors closed. A moment later, the car was in motion, streaking for a floor that shouldn’t have existed with the two of them as the only passengers.
“Those jeans are too tight,” Cort Wesley said suddenly, not exactly sure why.
“That’s the way they’re supposed to fit.”
“Well, son, it looks like you already outgrew them from where I’m standing.” Cort Wesley stole another glance, in spite of Dylan’s caustic stare. “I can almost tell the last number you dialed on that throwaway cell phone we grabbed down the street.”
“Oh, man,” the boy muttered, as the elevator continue to zoom upward, making no other stops.
“I saw your credit card statement. How is it they cost so much when there’s so little to them?”
“They don’t cost that much, dad.”
“That’s because you’re not paying.”
Dylan gave his father a long look, as if sizing him up. “You look naked.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re not carrying a gun.”
Now I’d like to hear what YOU think! How about coming up with your favorite example of a relationship packed with feeling and emotion, but not necessarily romance? I’ve got a bunch in mind already, so let’s compare notes.
DEBS: Great excerpt, great question!!! REDS and readers, how about some examples? I'm with Jon--I can think of some great ones right off the bat!
And if you want to know more about the new Caitlin Strong book, here's a peek:
1883: Texas Ranger William Ray Strong teams up with Judge Roy Bean to track down the Old West’s first serial killer who’s stitching a trail of death along the railroad lines slicing their way through Texas.
The Present: Fifth Generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong finds herself pursuing another serial killer whose methods are eerily similar to the one pursued by her great-grandfather almost a century-and-a-half before. But that’s just the beginning of the problems confronting Caitlin in her biggest and most dangerous adventure yet, starting off when the son of her reformed outlaw boy friend Cort Wesley Masters is nearly beaten to death while at college.
The trail of that attack at Brown University leads all the way back to Texas and a Chinese high-tech company recently awarded the contract to build the nation’s Fifth Generation wireless network. Li Zhen, a rare self-made man in China and the company’s founder, counts that as the greatest achievement of his career. But it’s an achievement that hides the true motivations behind a rise fueled by events dating back to the time of Caitlin’s great-grandfather. Because the same era that spawned a serial killer who has impossibly resurfaced today also hides the secrets behind Li’s thirst for nothing less than China’s total domination of the United States.
His fiendishly clever plan is backed by all-powerful elements of the Chinese underworld that will stop at nothing to insure its success. Up against an army at Li’s disposal, Caitlin and Cort Wesley blaze a violent trail across country and continent in search of secrets hidden in the past, but it’s a secret from the present that holds the means to stop their adversary’s plot in its tracks, even as a climactic battle dawns with nothing less than the fate of the U.S. at stake. Because there’s a darkness coming, and only Caitlin Strong can find the light before it’s too late.