No one wants to read a happy novel. We read novels because of their conflict. It’s conflict that makes us turn the page, greedy to find out what’s going to happen next.
And two of the most tantalizing stress factors in life: Murder and Romance. Murder is chaos, a breakdown in the order of our world. And romance is, well, it’s chaos too. Even a good marriage has its share of turmoil.
So when you put the two hand in hand, you’ve got a real page-turner.
There are several examples of this. One of my favorite examples is the Hannibal Lecter series by Thomas Harris, which I teach at my college. Most folks focus on the serial killer theme in Harris’ books. But really, “The Silence of the Lambs” and the other novels that showcase Lecter are true romances.
Harris’ books, I believe, would be boring, run-of-the-mill murder stories (even murder can be tedious if the only thing that’s at stake is catching the killer). But introduce Clarice Starling, the FBI agent, and oh how those novels pull us into their worlds!
Clarice must probe Hannibal’s mind to catch a killer. Hannibal, who disdains other people on a regular basis (due to their lack of intellect and their rudeness), finds Clarice fascinating. And that fascination turns into love.
There’s only one problem. Clarice is a Fed; she is the Law. And Hannibal eats people.
Now, if Harris somehow completed their relationship during the stories (either by having them run off together as lovers, or having Clarice kill Hannibal), we’d lose interest. Harris is smart: he sustains the tension between the two lovers (yes, Clarice has feelings for Hannibal!) from the beginning of “Silence” to the end of “Hannibal” (the sequel to “Silence”).
What is it about our hearts that makes us enjoy the excruciating pine of uncompleted love? In the end, we do want our suffering characters to unite and live happy lives together (which of course is where the story ends: we don’t explore the marriage. It’s just not as interesting as the grasping for love). But along the way, we want to feel the tension between the two characters—those who, by their jobs or their opposing lives, should not get together at all. There it is: a murderer and a Fed, falling in love through the thick glass that encloses Hannibal in his cage. They can place their hands on the glass, but they cannot touch.
That’s why I love crime fiction with a romantic twist. It’s a two-for;one pleasure. In one book, we get two themes that twist tightly together. Sure, we want a resolution. In the end, the murder must be solved and the two pining lovers better get together. But we want to feel what they feel: the pain of incompletion. Through the novel we can experience, safely, those things that we don’t want to suffer in our real lives.
Ironic, isn’t it? We escape from the world through good novels, only by seeing our own world through the characters’ pain. Now, that’s a good story!
Two-time Emmy Award-winning Marcos M. Villatoro is the author of six novels, two collections of poetry and a memoir. His Romilia Chacón mysteries have won national acclaim (one named a Best Book of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times) and are published in five countries. He and his wife and their four children live in Los Angeles. For more, visit his website.
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