Over to you, Ruth …
Murder exposes the lies society tells itself; love exposes the lies we tell ourselves. Put the two together in one book and you have a crime story that lays bare truths about violence and desire.
I’ve always been fascinated by the dance of frustrated desire between the detective duo. Two strong, flawed characters are forced to work together on a murder investigation, but as they pursue clues to uncover the murderer, they discover another dangerous force, an attraction to each other that makes them realize they are capable of actions they never imagined.
In the great stories, the relationship becomes an inescapable part of the story itself, and we learn that the dance of love is every bit as dangerous and potentially lethal as the dance of murder. The love story is usually forbidden—an inconvenient fiancé or spouse, a tragic backstory, class difference, societal or religious constraints, gender politics, or the pesky fact that one of them may be a murder suspect.
One, or both, fights the attraction, but in the best stories it parallels, interweaves with, affects, and often leads to the final revelation. And it is every bit as compelling as the murder investigation, revealing vulnerabilities, hidden depths, and humor in the detectives. They are suddenly taking risks they’d never have taken before.
For my three favorites, I limited my choices to a male and female sleuth, professional or amateur, equally matched in intelligence and detecting skills, whose relationship develops through a series of books. In a series, readers can watch the detective-lovers learn to trust each other as they confront obstacles. The murder is solved by the end of the first book in the series, but the dance of frustrated desire has just begun.
I chose the first book in each series. Sexual tension a requirement. Witty repartee a plus.
A curious thing I just noticed: all my choices are by women writers. A coincidence?
1) Now You See Me, S.J. Bolton
A Jack the Ripper copycat murderer slashes his way through contemporary London. DC Lacey Flint, a scrappy, enigmatic beauty, is suspected of the murders by Special Operations DI Mark Joesbury. Lacey has an unfortunate habit of showing up at the murder scene on the heels of the murderer, and the brutal kills seem to be personal gift-offerings for Lacey herself. Twist after twist, murder after murder, and the shifting relationship between Lacey, burdened with the secrets of her past, and the turquoise-eyed, ruthless Joesbury, make this a novel to savor on every level.
2) In the Bleak Midwinter, Julia Spencer-Fleming
Snow snow snow, white-cold, winter in Miller’s Kill, a fictional town in upstate New York. A baby is left on the steps of St. Albans Church, and shortly after, a woman’s body is found. Is she the mother? Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne’s investigation leads him, very reluctantly, to the Reverend Claire Fergusson, a former Army chaplain. She’s complicated, sensitive, generous, and the more time the unhappily married Chief spends with her seeking out clues to solve the murders, the more tormented he becomes. This is a wonderful mystery, with a very powerful sense of place, and that rare thing: a relationship between two mature, deeply moral characters who care more about everyone else than themselves, and who try to keep apart … until they can’t.
3) Naked in Death, J.D. Robb
This one might come as a surprise, but true romantic suspense is one of the most difficult genres to write—you’ve got to balance both the romance and the suspense, and in the In Death series, J.D. Robb aka Nora Roberts brilliantly balances both, and amazingly, has managed to maintain the tension of violence and desire through a series that just keeps getting better. Apprentice in Death, #43 in the series, is #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List this week.
I have a particular fondness for the first book, Naked in Death, that introduces the world of Eve Dallas and Roarke in a police procedural set in futuristic New York City. The mystery is gritty, the supporting characters humorous and interesting, and the setting of New York in 2058 tantalizingly familiar yet elusive, but it’s the relationship between Eve Dallas and Roarke that keeps readers hooked.
Eve is a prickly policewoman with tons of baggage, all sharp edges, completely focused on fighting crime. There’s just one thing: a weakness she can’t understand for a criminal billionaire who looks like a fallen angel, is not in the least intimidated by her, and tries to seduce her by giving her what she needs: great coffee. And oh yes, he is a murder suspect in her investigation. Roarke is… well, let me put it this way: Nora Roberts, the Queen of Romance, has said that of all the heroes she has created, Roarke is the only one she dreams of.
In the series, as Eve and Roarke work together, their relationship evolves, and the two commitment-shy sleuths discover that they are stronger together than apart—perhaps the ultimate lesson the detective duo can show us.
For your reading pleasure, here are a few Honorable Mentions: The couple who set the golden standard for all who follow: Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, particularly in the delightful Gaudy Night; Elizabeth Peters’ unconventional Amelia Peabody and Emerson, who meet in Crocodile on the Sandbank; Val McDermid’s eccentric Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, in the brilliant The Mermaids Singing; and a new favorite, Robert Galbraith’s rough and tumble Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, in the outstanding The Cuckoo’s Calling.
BIO: Born in Morocco, Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the novel, The Road to Fez, and the recipient of literary fellowships and awards. Her poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies. She teaches Creative Writing and Travel Writing on Semester at Sea. She is working on her first crime novel/screenplay that features a couple whose dance already promises great frustration, for the author if no one else. She blogs on her website, plus she can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
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