The Significant Other Conundrum

by James Scott Bell

Today’s post is about a quandary faced by the writer of a series character. I’m anxious to have a robust discussion with our community of sharp readers and writers about it. Simply put, the problem is love.

Readers enjoy a romantic subplot in thrillers and mysteries. The dilemma is what to do with that love interest long term.

I’ll approach this from the standpoint of the male, hardboiled hero.

Once a woman is in the picture, the lone wolf is no longer alone. He must deal with the fact that his walk down “mean streets” may have to be tempered in order to protect his love from bad guys.

If the two become one, either through marriage or cohabitation, the wolf must be domesticated to a degree, which automatically means less hardness in the boil. But if that hardness is what made the hero popular, what now?

One method, of course, is to have the love interest killed off. James Bond’s wife, Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, didn’t even make it out of the book.

But what if a love interest develops over several books? I suspect most readers will bond with her to such an extent that her death would be met with howls of protest.

Let’s consider John Sandford’s Prey series (32 books and counting). In Winter Prey (#5) Lucas Davenport meets and falls for plastic surgeon Weather Karkinnen. She remains in the books. They get married. They have kids.

Many fans of the series feel this resulted in “Decaf Davenport,” or “The Weather Problem.”

Weather Karkinnen…has been a thorn in the author’s side for years, but only for reasons relating to how thrillers are constructed. It almost resulted in Weather getting killed off.

[The problem] can be summed up with three simple points:

  • Readers want a romance of some sort,
  • New romance is much more exciting than old romance,
  • Therefore, long-term relationships should not happen to main characters.


Weather is important, if only as a target for the bad guys. Lucas and Weather’s relationship will therefore play a more important role, but it’s still going to be stable. But since it’s stable, it’s boring.

Worse (the thinking goes), Lucas is no longer the lovable bad-boy rogue he used to be. He can’t go out and “have fun” because then he’d be unfaithful, and that’s not acceptable. The presence of Weather mellowed him out, smoothed him out, and turned him into Decaf Davenport Lite.

Or at least, that’s what some readers feel has happened.


One half [of readers] think that Weather is the best thing to happen to Lucas, and while they loved the bad boy Lucas of old, he’s grown up, and it would be unrealistic for him to not grow up, and he’s a better person now, and more believable, and there should be more sections dedicated to the wonderful loving family relationships between Lucas, Weather and Letty, Sam, and Gabrielle.

The other half of the fanbase basically want Weather to get hit by a train. Like, yesterday.

Then there’s Robert B. Parker’s Spenser (50 books, and counting, even with Mr. Parker dead. Now that’s a writer!) and his love, psychologist Susan Silverman. In sum:

Not every Spenser fan likes his romance with Susan…TV executives weren’t sure what to do with her either, dropping her character from the “Spenser: For Hire” TV show after the first two seasons. Readers who like Spenser’s wry quips, quick right hook, and noir-esque philosophical musing are sometimes put off by the perennial declarations of love and fidelity between the two, which can seem out of place. But love, and the ability to love, is a cornerstone of Spenser’s moral code. He consciously differentiates his own violent behavior and moral compass from that of his peers with his ability to love Susan. (He also thinks much more highly of anyone who he perceives to be capable of a genuinely loving relationship.)

One solution to the Significant Other Conundrum is to make the love interest an “equal partner” in the plots, a la Joelle “Joe” Frye in the Louis Kincaid novels by our own P. J. Parrish. She’s equal in that she is the only female homicide detective in the Miami-Dade Police Department and thus can carry her own plotline.

But if that’s not the solution the author has in mind, how shall this conundrum be handled?

Thus, the questions for the day:

  1. Do you want to see a love interest in a thriller series?
  2. If that love interest develops into a significant other for several books, what would be your solution to the “decaf” problem for the hardboiled hero?

Love and Murder

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After a wee bit of drama last week and the flooding of the downstairs of our house, I am finally back to blogging – and I love that I get to blog on Valentine’s Day! It’s not just because I am a hopeless romantic, it’s also because I think writing an emotion such as love is one of the trickiest things to do well.

In crime fiction ‘love’ can connote a whole range of things from sexual chemistry and romance to justification for murder. To make such a complex emotion believable can be a major challenge. I’ve lost count of the number of crime novels I’ve read that were great on action and suspense but a real let down when it came to love. Handled badly, it’s an emotion that can be soppy and overwrought or just plain gag-worthy. Handled well and a reader can’t turn the pages quickly enough. Love is compelling. Just look at the novel Twilight by Stephenie Meyer – for all it’s flaws, it handles the emotional angst and pain of teenage love skillfully and readers have responded accordingly.

One crime author that I believe handles love exceptionally well is Tana French. I have read all three of her books, In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place. Each, I feel, really handles the facets of love to great effect. In her book Faithful Place, she captures the sweet yearning of young love and the devastation of loss – making the crime in the novel all the more poignant. I think that many mystery and thriller writers could take note of Tana’s use of emotion to make their own books richer.
What does she do, that helps propel her evocation of love beyond the banal?

Well, in my mind it is her ‘evocation’ that is all important. She doesn’t simply tell you about the emotions stirring within her characters, she shows you it in every observation and interaction.

So on this Valentine’s Day, I thought I would offer just a few tips on writing about ‘love’ –

  • Make it unique to the characters. Avoid the cliches ‘eyes like deep pools’ or the stock standard ‘hate at first sight’ approach. Make the characters emotions uniquely their own. Think of the subtleties involved in falling in and out of love.
  • Be restrained – Crime fiction is not romance fiction and I truly think most mystery readers prefer ‘love’ to take a back seat to the crime aspects of the story. That being said I think a well-drawn relationship can add depth to a mystery and there’s no doubt that love is one of the greatest motivations for crime as well:) Nonetheless, I do think that the standards are different and that emotions can be more heightened in a romance novel than in a mystery or a thriller. It’s a fine line between ‘heightened’ and ‘overblown’ and I think to be successful in describing ‘love’, less is often more!
  • Evoke the sense of love- nothing indicates depth of emotion that heightened sensory awareness. I love reading novels that bring these senses to the forefront so the reader starts to suspect a character’s emotions from their sensory appreciation of sight, sounds and smell;

  • Have realistic sex scenes. The most amazing sex ever starts to get a bit dull even in the best of books – far more interesting to make the event as realistic as possible (though not many readers probably want to read about truly boring, horrible sex!).

What other tips would you add to the list – which crime novelist do you think handles the emotion of ‘love’ best?

Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day!