I’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places…and finding it in mysteries and thrillers!
For the last five years, I've run the green room at Book Expo America—the national trade show for the book industry. Authors come through the green room before their book signings. For a bookworm like me, it's sheer heaven—a chance to meet and greet some of my favorite authors. For two or three days each year, I’m as giddy as a teenager stuck in an elevator with a major crush.
Since BEA is the largest book show in North America, I’m not only star-struck fan in the place. Still, the only time I’ve seen a line form in the green room, authors lining up to meet another author, is when Dennis Lehane came through.
Lehane is probably best known for his books that have been made into movies—Mystic River, Gone, Baby Gone, and Shutter Island. While I've read all his books, Mystic River is the only one of his movies I've seen. I didn't go to see Shutter Island because it's my least favorite of his books. But in the case of Gone, Baby, Gone, I didn't go to see it because it's one of my favorites.
Great authors like Lehane create characters and scenes that are so vivid I can literally see them in my mind. While I appreciate that these same images are what inspire filmmakers to turn such books into movies, I’m reluctant to trade in my vision of a book in for someone else’s. (I'll never forget when the trailer for the first Harry Potter movie came out. Catching sight of the movie's version of Hagrid's beloved three-headed dog, my young son cried out with dismay, “Oh, I got Fluffy all wrong.”)
Sure, it’s great if Colin Firth is your ideal of Mr. Darcy, but when movie versions of a book don’t match your imagination, it’s the visual equivalent of getting mold in your mouth when you’re eating a sandwich; even if it’s just the corner of the bread, the whole thing is ruined.
So what is I’m afraid of losing if I see Gone, Baby, Gone? Believe it or not it’s the romance.
Gone, Baby, Goneis part of a detective series which includes, in no particular order, Prayers for Rain, A Drink Before the War, Sacred, and Moonlight Mile. Set in Boston, they are gritty and dark, and feature a tough pair of detectives, Patrick Kenzie (the narrator) and his partner, Angela Gennaro. And yet they are also deeply romantic.
Lehane fans are probably cringing at the thought of his books being considered romances. Yes, even though romances represent by far the largest segment of the commercial fiction market, to paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that books written primarily for women and read primarily by women, particularly romances, must be mindless trash…
Romance fans are probably dubious at the thought of well-written romance by a man. Indeed, it often seems like male writers are so scornful of romance that they toss it into the plot like an afterthought—a prize for the hero for a job well done. (I'll never forget the scene in movie The Bourne Identity, where Jason Bourne crashes through a window kills several men, a sight that makes the heroine vomit, and then they make love. Really? I'm willing to bet a woman didn't write that scene.) Want more? Google The Guardian's “Bad Sex Award” and see how many of the nominees and winners are men (really famous ones, too, like Phillip Roth and Amos Oz.)
So what is it that sets Dennis Lehane apart? What does he get so right in writing romance? As everyone knows, the seemingly simple formula of a romance is boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, but only after overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
One of the critical differences between good romance and a bad one is the author’s ability to create a believable reason that two people who are obviously meant to be together, can’t be. And having created it, creating another, equally believable reason they can. If either of these reasons isn’t credible, the story fails.
Patrick Kenzie is hopelessly in love with his partner, Angie. They’ve grown up together and she is his best friend. Unfortunately, so is her husband, Phil. Patrick’s and Angie’s loyalty to Phil makes it seem impossible they will ever be together. Yet Lehane manages to find a way that isn’t a betrayal of Phil and doesn’t cheapen their love. Moreover, as the series progresses he continues to create compelling and conflicts that challenge their relationship. (Gone, Baby Gone, is a brilliant example.)
Another romantic note that Lehane strikes perfectly, is the way his hero sees and loves the heroine for exactly who she is.
In one of the reader’s first glimpse of Angie, Patrick describes her as having, “…an unyielding jaw with a near-microscopic brown beauty mark on the left side, an aristocratic nose that didn't fit her personality at all, and eyes the color of melting caramel. Eyes you’d dive into without a look back.”
In these two sentences, Lehane encapsulates what every woman wishes for in romance. A man who notices even the minutest detail about his woman—right down to a microscopic beauty mark. (Clearly this isn’t a guy who is going to miss a new haircut.) But Patrick doesn’t just see Angie’s beauty; he knows her well recognize that her aristocratic nose (a frequent romance cliché) doesn’t fit her personality. And finally, with all he that he sees and knows about her, he’s still so hopelessly in love with her that he’s willing to dive into her eyes without a look back.
Now that’s romantic.
Before turning her hand to writing commercial fiction, Joanna Novins spent over a decade working for the Central Intelligence Agency. She does not kill people who ask her about her previous job, though she came close once with an aging Navy SEAL who handed her a training grenade despite warnings that she throws like a girl. Published in historical romance by Berkley, Joanna also writes YA spy novels as Jody Novins.