The other evening I popped into an online book discussion group being held by the Carnegie Library, hosted by Jennie Ellis. I only found out about the book club at the last moment, and joined because while I hadn’t read the featured book, I had read other books by the author, Julia Buckley, and she was going to be present.
What ensued was a delightful hour in which Ms. Buckley described her writing process, and how she came to create her various series, including the Hungarian Tea House Mysteries. She also fielded questions about the publishing industry, her past projects, and what to expect from her in the future.
Toward the end of the discussion, the subject of cozy mysteries in general came up. I lamented that many publishing houses had dropped their cozy lines, and the consensus was this was an inexplicable decision on their part because like romance readers, cozy readers are voracious.
That got me to thinking about the other ways in which romance and mysteries have commonalities, and it occurred to me during the discussion that one of the biggest things the two genres have in common is their contract with the reader.
There’s only one hard-and-fast rule in Romance: there must be a happily ever after (HEA) or at the least, a happily for now (HFN). That means that no matter what happened during the course of the story, we should have either a declaration of commitment between the couple or some indication they are going to be together in the future. It does not mean there must be a baby in the epilogue, though this is an addendum many authors and readers enjoy. It also doesn’t mean that the entire story must be fluffy and light without any angst or difficult storylines. Sometimes the reward of the HEA is all the sweeter for the suffering that took place before reaching that point.
I was having this discussion with my husband this morning, and he brought up (on cue) Romeo and Juliet. Everyone brings up R&J! Shakespeare’s play is not a romance but a tragedy. I went on to say that one of the reasons people take exception to Nicholas Sparks’ books being labeled as romances is the frequent lack of a HEA. Romances have ONE rule.
“Okay,” my husband said, “but what if the purpose of breaking the contract is to get you to look at something from another point of view?”
“Then categorize it as something else,” I countered. “Put it like this: suppose you bought a sci-fi story based on the cover and the blurb. You had every expectation of reading a military space opera based on these things, but instead, you get a romance. You’d be disappointed, especially if you were in the mood for something different.”
“But the Murderbot books aren’t just science fiction,” he offered. “They explore relationships, what it means to have friends, to be human.”
“Themes science fiction explores all the time. Romance has one rule. HEA. How you get there can vary in a million different ways but you have to get there.”
Which brings me to the rule I believe mysteries–or at least cozy mysteries–have: justice will be served.
Like romances, the route at which you arrive at justice can take many forms. I can recall reading an old Ellery Queen novel once in which Ellery figured out who the killer was, but for various reasons, couldn’t go forward with the conviction. At the time, the ending enraged me so much, I threw the book across the room. As a much older and wiser person, I can see the ending made sense, and that the authors had not broken their contract with me, the way I thought they did when I read the story.
It was the frustration of my expectations that angered me so much when I read that story.
The contract should be sacred in my book.
In a mystery, you’re presented with a crime of some sort (not necessarily a murder, but that is often the case). There may be a romance as well–certainly I was more invested in Lord Peter Wimsey’s investigations when they included Harriet Vane–but the romance isn’t central to the story. The central story is the puzzle, the “whodunnit”, behind the shady activity. A mystery writer should make all the clues available to the reader as well, not holding back vital information that the sleuth has access to but the reader does not. It’s part of the deal: providing enough information for the reader to connect the dots while hopefully obscuring the solution until the very end.
The one rule of mystery? The good guys win.
I think this is why the mystery genre has its devoted following. It’s the same concept as it is with romance: you have certain expectations when you enter into the story. You picked up the story because you were in the mood for something specific. Perhaps you chose a romance because needed to hear that love conquers all. Or perhaps you went with a mystery because you needed to believe that crooked bad guys would someday get their comeuppance.
When I choose to read genre fiction, I do so because I want a certain kind of story with expectations of it ending in a certain way. Let me tell you, with the stresses I’ve been under the past few years, I select my entertainment carefully these days. I don’t read as much sci-fi as I used to because the storylines are often darker and less likely to end well. Am I coddling myself a bit right now? You bet. At some point, when life doesn’t hurt so much, when my mental health is more stable, I’m sure I will go back to stories and movies with darker themes.
While I fully believe there’s a place for having your beliefs challenged, or your insight expanded, I think that can still be done within the confines of a contract if you’re writing genre fiction. Not writing genre fiction? The sky’s the limit! Torture your protagonists! Throw them off a cliff. Let the bad guys win.
But call it something other than romance if your story ends in sorrow, and something other than mystery if the murder is never solved. Your readers will thank you.