P.D. James died over the Thanksgiving weekend. She was a master of the detective novel. The lengthy obituary in the New York Times for this celebrated crime novelist includes a number of quotes from her, among others:
“I came to believe that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the genre and be a serious writer, saying something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.”
James was frequently praised by reviewers for “transcending the genre.” However, she remained a champion of the detective mystery, which she called “a literary celebration of order and reason.”
For those of you following my blog, you know what I am going to say next: I have long believed that it is perfectly possible to remain within the constraints and conventions of the romance genre and be a serious writer. Through the examination of the development of a love relationship it is possible to say something true about men and women and their relationships and the society in which they live.
I also have no hesitation calling the romance novel “a literary celebration of the possibilities of human connection and what it means to find one’s place in the world.” (See The Romance Novel as an Art Form and Beauty Traps)
According to the Times, James assesses the detective novel as “a modern morality drama by virtue of its affirmation of enduring social values.” In turbulent times, she says, people turn to detective stories for reassurance as much as entertainment “because they do affirm the intelligibility of the universe, the moral norm, the sanctity of life.”
It is easy to translate James’s assessment of the detective novel into one for the romance novel. The romance novel is a modern family drama by virtue of its affirmation of enduring social values. In times of societal upheaval, people turn to romance novels for reassurance as much as entertainment because they affirm the possibility of a secure place in the world, the moral norm of the family, and the sanctity of procreation.
Detective stories start with one person taking another person out of this world. Romance novels often end with one person bringing another person into this world.
Detective novels solve the mystery of how, why and who dunnit of a murder. Romance novels are dedicated to depicting the answers to who, how, and why one is chosen as the father of one’s children, whether or not those children are conceived within the time frame of the story.
In a gay romance, there may be a discussion of adoption. If the couple is past the time of childbearing or does not want children, the fact remains that the satisfaction of the story comes from the reader believing that the couple has, indeed, established a solid and enduring bond.
If the translations between detective novels and romance novels are so easy to make, why do detective novels now garner general respect while romance still does not? It isn’t because we don’t have a P.D. James among us. We do. (See: On Silence and Singularity and the Romance Novel)
Could it be that any fertile woman can get pregnant, while it takes someone different, darker, and more special (in a bad way) to commit murder and someone different, darker, and more special (in a good way) to solve that murder? Is it a twist on Tolstoy: romances are all alike, while every murder is special in its own way? I reject the possibility because it feeds so directly into point #2 in Five Myths About Romance Novels. While it is true that in the U.S. this year there were approximately 12.6 births versus .005 murders per 1000 people, let’s think about what we’re labeling special here, in the sense of James’s word celebrating.
The detective novel celebrates order and reason. I’m all for that. The romance novel celebrates security and love. I’m all for that, too. When the two genres get boiled down to their basics and is then true to those basics, I am satisfied that the romance novel is every bit as worthy of literary consideration as is the detective novel.
(Best of both worlds? How about a murder mystery romance novel? I gave that idea a whirl in Suspicious Hearts (affiliate), where I wanted the progress of the romance the solving of the mystery to intersect on nearly every page.)
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen