I am not romantic. Wait. Happy Valentine’s Day. (Pause.) I am not particularly romantic. But a guest blog on the 14th of February was too much to resist. And, while I don’t read many actual romance novels – maybe two in the last year – I don’t mind a romantic subplot in my mysteries.
In SCOT MIST, Last Ditch Motel Mystery No.4, there is quite a bit of lerrrve sloshing around along with the blood and sarcasm: strangers’ eyes meeting across a crowded forecourt; new lovers cautiously opening their hearts; happy couples saying tender goodbyes for the duration of the lockdown; and some sexting. (Off the page, you’ll be relieved to know.)
If I’m honest, quite a few of my books have romance in them, sorta kinda, and that got me thinking about whether the books I read do too. About whether, in fact, I’ve got any right to say I’m not romantic or if I have to put my hand up to being a big mushy sucker after all.
Tell you this much, it was suspiciously easy to compile a Top 5. Here, in “progress of a relationship” order then, are my favourite cupid-pierced mysteries.
Number 1: Agatha Christie’s THE MOVING FINGER (meet cute)
No, not the fact that Jerry Burton falls in love with 20-year-old Megan only after a part Pygmalion (more Pretty Woman) make-over trip – that’s borderline creepy – but the fact that Joanna Burton falls in love with the local doctor when she assists him at a difficult birth. (He’s already made overtures by showing her a photograph of a diseased spleen.) It’s more often a vet and a cow than a doc and a human, at least in your actual rom-com, but it’s very nicely handled by Dame Agatha. Witnessing such an elemental event gets under Joanna’s frivolous surface and allows her to admit that the dour Doctor Griffith is worth ten of her usual type. Awwww.
Number 2: Belinda Bauer’s EXIT (the girl next door)
This is a new book, out last year, but an instant favourite. Grieving widower Felix Pink is well into his old age – at the “don’t buy any new underpants; these will see me out” stage – but he’s still working. He’s an Exiteer: one who sits in companionship with people who’re choosing to end their lives. Until this one day when . . . but that’s the crime plot. I’m talking about the romantic sub-plot. Felix’s next-door neighbour is Miss Knott, who is very often to be found tending the plants in her front garden when Felix steps out to walk his dog. Funny that. Over the course of the book, Felix’s blindness to the second chance, literally kneeling before him, is one of many laughs. And Miss Knott gradually proving that she’s someone who will almost literally help hide the bodies? She made me want to punch the air.
Number 3: Misha Popp’s MAGIC, LIES, AND DEADLY PIES (Darcy or Wickham?)
This is even newer! I just read a galley to write a quote for the release in May. It’s the debut “Pies before Guys” mystery, in which bad boyfriends are taken out by means of Daisy Ellery’s ethical (trust me) murder pies. It’s a lot of fun and the love triangle is a decent wedge of that. Daisy is torn between Melly – the purple-haired feminist activist who is a lot, bordering on too much, and Joel – the apple-orchard-owning farm boy who is sweet but maybe not quite enough. Daisy’s indecision is beautifully balanced and I never knew which lover I was rooting for. (Thinks: that might be because at that age I was Melly, placards, marches and all. And I fell for Joel the farmboy, or Neil the agriculture student anyway.)
Number 4: Dorothy L Sayers’ BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON (Wedding bells)
The only question here is “Is it a sub-plot?”. Or is the aftermath of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane’s marriage the real story and the murder of Mr Noakes the interruption of the romance? I dunno, but I can’t resist the conclusion of one of the most fraught and awkward courtships in any kind of fiction. He (Lord Peter, toff) saves her (Harriet Vane, crime novelist) from hanging for a murder she didn’t commit. He proposes. She can’t face a life of that much gratitude. She refuses. He digs in for four more books and then . . . here she comes in a gold lamé wedding dress, scandalising his posh relations and not giving a damn. And how they love one another, this pair! It’s irresistible. There’s a bit of bittersweetness if you know that DLS herself was unhappily married to a disappointing loser, and was writing this bliss as an escape. I wish she had been happier, but this is some good lemonade right here.
Number 5: Dashiell Hammet’s THE THIN MAN (Happy ever after).
Who else? Nick and Nora are the quintessential happy couple and not just in mystery fiction either, if you ask me. They bug each other, they wind each other up, they seem to know that some annoyances are there for life. And my God do they ever enable one another’s dysfunctional drinking! But they make each other laugh, give each other space, jointly dote on the Schnauzer and generally have a whale of a time. I reckon they’re about the most realistic happy couple I’ve ever met on the page or on the screen. Which might say more about me than about them. But I told you I’m not romantic, didn’t I?
Now, as ever, when I think up a top five list, I am preparing to hear what I missed. Let me know your favourite romantic sub-plots and, once again, Happy Valentine’s Day!
March 2020 and Operation Cocker is a go! The owners of the Last Ditch Motel, with a little help from their friend Lexy Campbell, are preparing to support one another through the oncoming lockdown, offering the motel’s spare rooms to a select few from the local area in need of sanctuary.
While the newbies are settling in, an ambiguous banner appears demanding one of them return home. But who is it for? Lexy and her friends put a plan into action to ward off the perpetrator, but the very next night, a resident disappears and a message scrawled in human blood is found.
As California shuts down, the Last Ditchers make another gruesome discovery. They tried to create a haven but now it seems as if everyone’s in danger. Is the motel under attack from someone on the outside? Scary as that is, the alternative is worse by far.
National-bestselling and multi-award-winning author, Catriona McPherson (she/her), was born in Scotland and lived there until immigrating to the US in 2010.
She writes historical detective stories set in the old country in the 1930s, featuring gently-born lady sleuth, Dandy Gilver. The latest of these is 2021’s THE MIRROR DANCE. After eight years in the new country, she kicked off the comic Last Ditch Motel series, which takes a wry but affectionate look at California life from the POV of a displaced Scot (where do we get our ideas, eh?). Book 4, SCOT MIST, came out in January. She also writes a strand of contemporary psychological thrillers. The latest of these is last year’s A GINGERBREAD HOUSE.
Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA, Society of Authors, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime. www.catrionamcpherson.com