Romantic Thrillers – What’s the Formula?

I think I mentioned in my first post that I liked books with good covers. Well this predilection led me to pick up a novel which I guess falls into a sort of romance/thriller crossover genre – The Reef, by Nora Roberts. It was a particularly grey day in August, and on popping into an Oxfam shop in Penzance (of all places), I spotted a fabulous cover with palm trees and sparkling blue sea which promised tropical adventure. The battered pages suggested that it had been well loved, probably on a holiday somewhere, so I thought why not?!

I forgot about it for a couple of months and then thought I’d give it a go, fancying a break after reading a sequence of rather taxing novels. I discovered a page-turner of an adventure with glamorously-named leading characters ‘Tate Beaumont’ and ‘ James Lassiter‘ on the hunt for sunken treasure in the Caribbean. Roberts it seemed, had crafted something like Sunset Beach meets Indiana Jones – the perfect combination for my distracted mind! Which set me thinking…what are the key ingredients that make for a fun adventure novel like this? Well this is what I came up with:

Rule #1 – Set your book in an exotic, sunny location –

Lets face it, where’s the romance in a wet weekend in Bognor Regis? I speak from experience! The beauty of a novel like the Reef is that it is set in paradise – our fantasy location. When the novelist transports us to far away shores, we imagine ourselves on holiday, at our most relaxed, bronzed and frisky – and we can believe that we too could find love and adventure on a Carribean island with lots of treasure to boot. I suppose you could argue that there’s the English variety of romance so heartrendingly depicted in Graham Green’s The End of The Affair. This suits a grey day on Hampstead Heath, and really is beautiful, but also is terribly complicated and painful. Then there’s On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan – I don’t want to give away the ending to anyone who hasn’t read it but it’s not exactly cheerful – I blame it on the weather! The rainy english climate doesn’t exactly lend itself to dreamy leading men stripping off their tops all the time and frolicking in the sea – they’d catch a cold. Yes, yes, yes – we do have Colin Firth in that lake scene but I know that my boyfriend is far more likely to get his kit off on a hot sunny island and I’d rather be on a ship in the middle of the Carribean than smuggling peanuts in the North Sea.

Rule #2 – An element of mystery –

You know what clinched it for me when I saw this book? As well as the gold embossed serif font on the front, the blurb promised hidden… and get this… cursed treasure! “but one treasure has always eluded them: Angelique’s Curse – a jeweled amulet heavy with history, dark with legend, and tainted with blood.” Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by 80’s adventure movies like Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I love a bit of mysterious treasure. Nora hooks you with the idea of a fascinating, priceless object that’s got a dangerous side, and keeps you guessing if its power is real.

Rule #3 – All good characters are American. Baddies are European –

This is surely one of the key tenets of any thriller – whether it be Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs or James Bond’s arch-enemy Blofeld. Ms Roberts outdoes herself with leading evildoer Silas Van Dyke who has a “European” accent and to cap it of has a bit of French totty who turns out to be a complete uber-bitch in complete contrast to the peppy, feisty Tate “Red” Beaumont.

Rule #4 – A “Shocking” Twist –

Every thriller has to have that moment, about a chapter from the end of the book when you’re lulled into a false sense of security and then hit with a short-lived come-back by the bad guy who attempts to spoil everything with a last minute hijack of the happy family scene. I have to say, I almost didn’t see this one coming until I reached what seemed to be something of a cheerful conclusion and then noticed I had a good 20 pages left – silly me!

Rule #5 – The Classic Happy Ending –

Secretly, we all love a happy ending and we want to see the baddie and his evil henchmen brought to justice, riches and love for our leading stars, and hard-won happiness for those that have fallen off the wagon or simply been led down the wrong path. It’s quite amazing how quickly after the suspensful final twist, a skilled author can bring all these threads together and leave you with a nice warm glow.

I can poke fun, but I picked up this novel exactly because I thought it would be formulaic. And yes, it did follow certain patterns and had a cast that would make stilton look un-cheesy by comparison, but if it had been a bad novel I would have just put it down. Instead I was gripped! I may have expected a happy ending, but Roberts’ knack was that she got me there with a real knack for storytelling… via palm trees and tropical sunsets.

One response to “Romantic Thrillers – What’s the Formula?

  1. Pingback: Booking Through Thursday – Recent Fluff « Novel Insights

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