Clue Me In
Clue Me In - Say what? Okay, those of you who are playing #rombkbingo with me this year know what I mean by that. It's my catch phrase for everything romantic mysteries, suspense and romance with a suspense subplot.
One reason why I picked this prompt is because that's what got me into reading romance in the first place. 11 years ago I came out of a binge read of everything crime and suspense fic that lasted years, and at the time I was very tired of a lot of things in the genre. The ever-present damsel in distress getting rescued by the big, strong manly man. The hard action for said manly man, always white and cis and never queer, leaving broken hearts behind from book to book. The constant tension and action, death and psychological twists and turns (I’ve read a lot of Scandinavian thrillers and crime novels for a while there) without an emotionally satisfying pay-off at the end most of the time. It was pure chance that brought me to my first romantic suspense series - one F/F and two M/M - that opened this whole new world to me and eventually got me into reading all kinds of romance, but rom suspense has a very special place in my heart ever since.
Part of it still is the thrill of the hunt, the search for clues, the excitement when the main characters, no matter if amateur sleuth or seasoned detective, try to solve riddles, puzzles, stick their noses into every nook and cranny of all the dark corners of the human mind. But the guarantee I have in rom suspense is that at the end of the book, no matter how dark, gritty or dangerous it gets, the characters I care about will be alive, happy and have a future together. And admittedly, in romantic suspense I also have such a weakness for the dangerous situations that result in explosive character and relationship development. Intense, extraordinary situations that require the MC to trust somebody else with their life. Spontaneous declarations of love or lust, soul-rattling realizations in the face of the worst scenarios imaginable, adrenaline spiking action leading to… other things spiking.
You know who is a queen in that department? Katrina Jackson. Her erotic romantic suspense series The Spies Who Loved Her is how I thought James Bond should be. Just in the U.S., with a bigger set of characters and with WoC who not only get each other in the end, but the guy on top if it, too. Literally. Unapologetically queer, incredibly sexy, with the most impossible situations ending in the hottest scenes that by all means should have me rolling my eyes - because WHO DOES THAT IN THE FACE OF IMMEDIATE DANGER - but I haven’t rolled my eyes yet. Not even once. I fell in love with it the moment I picked up Pink Slip, the first installment in the series. Two U.S. spies are married and happy and so very much in lust with their receptionist. But I do love every single book in this series more than I can say, every new couple making me fall in love harder, and the books I know are to come have me at the edge of my seat already.
Honestly, I have a thing for series in general. Partly because it is so much easier for me to keep slipping back into universes I have visited before. It doesn’t matter if the series follows one couple or several, although I love it when the individual books are connected to each other and have characters from previous books reappearing in the sequels. Piper J. Drake does that wonderfully in her True Heroes series. All books are connected through the dog training kennel some of the heroes work at, all of them are veterans and friends who each find their HEA in their respective books. It is a thrilling series, fast-paced, with a good balance between the suspenseful and romantic elements. They can be heavy at times and need CWs for gun violence, assault, SA in the first book, past intimate partner abuse in the second, a murder attempt with a bomb in the third, and death of side characters. They are bloody and violent in parts, but never too much to bear. And (SPOILER ALERT) the dogs always live, for those of you who are like me and need to know that from the beginning. I really appreciated how the stories dealt with traumatic experiences and the aftermath in general, and also with PTSD and CPTSD.
I do have a special soft spot for series that span multiple books all around the same MCs/couple. It’s my weak spot because I love the slow development of relationships over the span of multiple story arcs, with internal and massive external conflicts pulling at the MCs and their bond, some hurdles only being revealed over time. And in addition these series give me the chance to believe in HEAs of couples that might have come together in the heat of the (dangerous) moment, but their connection will get tested repeatedly over time.
I read a lot in that subgenre and department and could rec for hours. JM Redman’s Micky Knight series (contemporary F/F which arguably is more suspense than romance), Jordan L. Hawk’s SPECTR series (which is M/M/Drakul PNR suspense that is also polyam, but with a twist), their Hexworld and Widdershins series (historical M/M PNR with amazing side character I adore), Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCops series, also contemporary M/M PNR between a cop and a cop with extra skills. I just started Cari Hunter’s Dark Peak series, which is thrilling, gritty contemporary F/F, and I loved Lissa Ford’s Doubleback series (contemporary M/M that is trope-y second chances, with a dash of enemies-to-lovers, lots of angst and some lovely romantic and steamy scenes. CW for cancer in the later books though, and some pretty graphic suspense scenes). And I adored Layla Reyne’s Agents Irish & Whiskey series, an action-packed FBI romance series between two new partners who bring *baggage* with them, some of it biting them in the butt hard over the course of the series. I loved every book and novella in that a lot. I’ll stop now, but this is my *jam* and I could go on for pages.
A very special place in my heart though has the Criminal Intentions series by Cole McCade. This series means a lot to me. Not just on a personal level, but also because it is everything I ever wanted in a romantic suspense series and more. Told in episodes and structured like a TV show, you have two Baltimore PD detectives, one Persian American Mizrahi Jewish seasoned wolf and his new, younger partner, a Korean American transfer from the FBI, both queer, both with their own baggage.
The intensity of the romance is incredible, the burn is slow, the enemies-to-lovers trope strong in this one. I love them both together, and I love the police procedural and the hurdles that come with ever new book and case just as much as the slow and steady relationship development over the course of this first season. McCade tells these stories with so much compassion and empathy, some sharp looks at the law enforcement system in the US as well as social issues and oppressive systems at play in so many crimes, and he does so with so much depth between the lines, and adds an overall suspense story arc that is not only very personal to the MCs, but is also as gripping as the romance is. I am just so in love with this series. Plus, the cast of side-characters is amazing, including my favorite non-binary computer whizz Sade. And every episode comes with a detailed list of trigger and content warnings for the series in general, as well as each individual episode.
Putting aside my love of series, there are quite a few stand-alones I really liked. One of my most recent reads is Under His Protection by LaQuette. The suspense subplot is really just the frame for the romance. And it’s a very simple, but really effective formula that made this work so well for me. Take one cop who just got back on the job after recovering from an assault, one attorney who is investigating some really bad people, and force them together in a safe house for protection. Only these two are not strangers, but more The One That Got Away to each other. There’s lots of tension, hard feelings and old wounds to talk through, among… other things. It does get suspenseful and dangerous towards the end, but overall this one is more focused on the romance, in parts on an almost saccharine level, and it was a lovely surprise for me by an author I hadn’t read before.
Another stand-alone I really liked is Pumpkin Patch by Kade Boehme and Darien Cox. I’m recommending this book with caution, because it does need a set of rather heavy content and trigger warnings. There is a sick parent to take care of who is fighting cancer. Also a murder happened that gets discussed in semi-graphic detail. Same goes for sexual assault, exploitation and abuse of a minor in the past. It is not graphic in and on itself, but it does get talked about, both with the survivor and the perp.
I mostly liked this one because it was… unusual. The tension and suspense comes from the fact that the murderer is more or less obvious for the reader pretty early on and now we know something the MCs don’t. And while the romance develops steadily - a lovely hurt/comfort story arc between the grieving recluse and town pariah, and the guy who came home to take care of his mother and gets hired as additional security for the other guy’s pumpkin patch - the mystery twists and arches, not even always the focus point of the story, but still always present, just not always tangible, and an emotional rollercoaster in the way it gets resolved.
Talking about unusual: Clue Me In as a catch phrase also gives room for me to talk about books you would normally not categorize as a romantic suspense novel, at most as a romance with a crime or suspense or mystery subplot, if that. What I like about those books is that they don’t necessarily start out with a mystery, a crime, a riddle or puzzle you and the MCs want to solve. But over the course of the book things develop and suddenly there *is* something to be solved. It’s not the main focus of the book, but it is there nonetheless. I love those books, especially because they tend to be less heavy, less dark, not as filled with tension that comes with the territory when you pick up a book that most definitely is a mystery, no matter how cozy it is. A great example of that is Alyssa Cole’s A Princess in Theory - what a wonderful contemporary romance you’d probably never categorize anywhere near rom suspense and yet… There is a mystery, one that does get solved in the end, and with rather high stakes for Naledi.
Another example of a book I loved very much that did not start out as a mystery in any way or form is The Queen’s Game by Carla de Guzman. A #romanceclass contemporary romance between two royals who do not want to be together, but fake a relationship for political reasons. And those political reasons, the going ons behind them, the intrigues and complexities at court do result in a high-stake situation in which the heroine has to choose between flight and fight. I have… pages upon pages of recs for books in this special category, but these two (and maybe also Bad For the Boss by Talia Hibbert) are always the first and favorite ones that come to mind as soon as I think about it.
Of course there is also the other side of things, the books that are heavier on the suspense aspect with the romance going on more or less in the background. Like E.A. Gray's Irrational Numbers, a contemporary F/F suspense novel with a very interesting romantic subplot. Or E.M. Lynley’s One Marine, Hero in which a Marine helicopter pilot struggling with survivor’s guilt, PTSD and alcoholism is thrown together with a journalist who just got downsized from his hard-news position. They both uncover political intrigues that are way more dangerous and far-reaching than they imagined. The romance is great, slow-burn, hurt-comfort, lots of communication and passion (closed door bedroom passion too), but the focus always returns to the mystery as the center of the story.
To round it all up, one last foray into the hybrid category. You know, for the books that hit more than one box and just grab you no matter what category you put it in. One of those books that I just listened to this month is Polaris Rising by Jesse Mihalik. I would call it a space soap opera with a suspense plot because WHEW, this book. It has all the ingredients to be one of my favorite reads of the year that is *full* of suspense, of thrilling moments, fast-paced action and fight-or-die/get captured moments (with a great meet-disaster btw). Everything you expect when a daughter of a high house and the most wanted criminal of the whole galaxy escape a prison cell together and try to not only disappear, but find out why there might be a war looming in the not so far distance. I *loved* this book. The awesome heroine, the mystery they have to solve, the political intrigues and complexities at play, the scary action and the rescue missions (yes, plural), the slow enemies-to-lovers burn, all of it. It was an exceptional ride full of fiery passion and action. Aaaand it’s also the perfect book to end my post on.
So, these are my current favorite books I will rec to everyone who is willing to listen to me long enough when it comes to everything that fits under my Clue Me In umbrella prompt. What are your favorite sub categories and genres in the suspense and mystery romance department? Do you prefer the plotty romances or the ones where the suspense subplot is only the framework? Which are your favorite series or do you prefer stand-alones? Let me know and @ me on Twitter @maria_reads and don’t forget to add #RomBkLove so we can all share the love!
How to participate?
Readers: Respond to the prompts! Share your favorite books, characters, scenes, or thoughts on tropes. Make sure to include the #RomBkLove hashtag with your tweet! If you have read and loved a book by LGBTQIA+, Disabled, and/or Authors of Color that fits the prompt please, please mention it. You might think everyone has heard of the book but I can guarantee you there are lots of people who still need to hear about it.
Authors: You are welcome to participate too, as fellow readers. The tag is not meant for self-promotion. Boost fellow authors, celebrate the community but do so in a way that respect reader spaces. Respect the conversation. Join in to rec the books you love that fit the theme/trope/prompt. Yes, you can say “I wrote a book with this trope” but please don’t spam the hashtag with generic promo.
For a list of all of these month's prompts and archives go to: https://www.anacoqui.com/2019/04/rombklove-may-2019-celebrating-inclusive-romance.html