I'm honored today to have mystery writer Betty Webb here today.
Romance Is Iffy in Mystery Novels
by Betty Webb
The ability to love comes easily for the heroines of contemporary romances. Not so for the
female protagonists of mystery novels; love can get them killed.
Take my Lena Jones, for example (Desert Lost, Desert Wives, Desert Noir, etc.). Found
lying beside a Phoenix street at the age of four and comatose from a bullet in her head, Lena was
raised in a series of foster homes where she was beaten, starved, and raped. Now a private
investigator who hunts down criminals at the same time she’s trying to find her unknown birth
parents, she approaches romantic relationships with a jaundiced eye. The only person she
completely trusts is Jimmy Sisiwan, her Pima Indian partner. However, Lena sees Jimmy as her
“almost brother,” not as a prospective lover.
Still, Lena does take her chances. In Desert Noir, the first book in the Desert series, she
was romanced by Dusty, a cowboy working on a nearby dude ranch. Two books later, in Desert
Run, she’d fallen for Warren Quinn, an Oscar-winning documentary director. But in Desert Lost,
released in December 2009, Lena and Warren appear to have come to the parting of the ways.
The reason for their split finds Lena emotionally bruised -- if not broken.
The Lena Jones books are noirs -- dark mysteries -- and in noirs, no protagonist has an
uncomplicated personal life. Noir detectives are angst-ridden, both in their workaday worlds and
in their personal lives. Life has usually treated these detectives badly, and they tend to respond in
kind. To give Lena her due, she is attempting to get out from under the loveless cloud hanging
over her head.
Theodora “Teddy” Esmeralda Iona Bentley, the sleuth in my Gunn Zoo mystery series (The
Anteater of Death, and The Koala of Death, to be released August 2010), is a different case
entirely. A California zoo keeper who lives on a houseboat in Gunn Landing Harbor, Teddy’s
weakness is that she loves too easily. She loves her houseboat, the Merilee; she loves the animals
she cares for at the zoo; she loves her many-times-married ex-beauty queen mother; she loves her
swindler father, now on the run from the FBI; and she loves Sheriff Joe Rejas, a handsome
widower who spends much of his time keeping Teddy from getting killed by some murderer
she’s tracked down.
Given that both women -- Lena and Teddy -- have been created by the same writer, why are
there such strong differences between them? The answer is easy.
Characters must suit the tone of their books. The Desert novels tackle concrete issues, such
as polygamy, crimes against children, and battered women. Since the Desert books are noirs, they
call for a damaged, conflicted protagonist with dark-end-of-the-street instincts. Above all, noirs
must be realistic. Given Lena’s childhood in foster homes, her personality definitely suits her
Teddy inhabits the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. She grew up loved and her
non-issue books are filled with light and laughter. Her parents were -- and remain -- rascals, but
both dearly love their daughter. This surfeit of love has made Teddy more emotionally secure
than Lena, and much more able to give love -- especially when handsome Sheriff Joe comes a-
visiting. Besides, how could Teddy look at life on the dark side when that Central Coast
California sun is shining down while she tends to anteaters, koalas, Mexican gray wolves, and
jaguars. No sturm und drang for Teddy. She’d rather dance with the wallabies than cry with
I’m frequently asked how I could create such differing protagonists. No problem, I always
answer. Both Lena and Teddy mirror opposing sides of my own personality. As a former
investigative journalist, I’ve seen the dark side of human behavior, and in my Desert mysteries
I’m still writing about it. But as a freckled, red-headed kid raised on a big cotton farm teeming
with animals, temperamentally I’m as sunny as my zoo keeper.
So I am Lena. And I am Teddy.
Which is why I became a novelist -- to find an outlet for the tears and the smiles that are
warring within me.
Before writing mysteries full time, Betty Webb worked as an investigative journalist, interviewing everyone from U.S. presidents, astronauts who walked on the moon, and Nobel Prize-winners, as well as the homeless, the dying, and polygamy runaways. The dark Lena Jones mysteries, which are based on stories she covered as a reporter, include "Desert Lost", “Desert Noir,” “Desert Wives,” “Desert Shadows,” “Desert Run,” and “Desert Cut." The New York Times has called them "Eye-popping" and Publishers Weekly called them "Mysteries with a social conscience." Library Journal called "Desert Lost" one of the Top Five Mysteries of 2009." Betty's much softer Gunn Zoo series debuted in late 2008 with the humorous “The Anteater of Death.” A long-time book reviewer at Mystery Scene Magazine, Betty is a member of National Federation of Press Women and Mystery Writers of America. She also volunteers at the Phoenix Zoo.
BETTY WEBB: author of DESERT LOST, judged "One of the Top Five Mystery Novels of 2009," by Library Journal. "Eye-popping," The New York Times. "Socially conscious mysteries," Publishers Weekly. www.bettywebb-mystery.com