Romantic Mystery Objects
by Deborah L. Cannon
What is Romantic Mystery?
Lucy Waring, a young, out-of-work actress visits her sister on a Greek island and finds a suspicious object at the bottom of a pool inside a cave. As she steals it, she sees its owner coming and there she is—stuck with his precious package for which he had murdered twice—with no way to escape while the man she loves has gone to the mainland for help.
What does Mary Stewart’s novel This Rough Magic have in common with Romancing the Stone, Raiders of the Lost Ark, North by Northwest, The Maltese Falcon, The Moonstone, To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)? They are all romantic mysteries involving a mysterious object.
Romantic Mystery is a broad term that crosses over into many genres. But the classic tale contains an unexplained object, and an intertwining love story.
Why Mysterious Objects?
Two mutually attracted historians go into the past and one of them brings back something she’s not supposed to. To say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis is a time travel story that sends Ned and Verity to Victorian England to hunt for an object. Science fiction, yes, but also a romantic mystery involving two mysterious things—the bishop’s bird stump and a stowaway. Some things are best left unfound; they can only lead to havoc. But that doesn’t stop one of the historians who returns to the future with a cat instead of the bishop’s bird stump. And that begs the question: why the bishop’s bird stump?
The strange or unexpected hold our interest. Despite the uncanny glow of the emerald in Romancing the Stone, and the unknowable secrets inside the Ark in Raiders, Joan Wilder needs the emerald to pay the ransom and Indy wants the Ark because it belongs in a museum.
The reasons mysterious objects show up in romantic mysteries are manyfold, ranging from their personal or cultural value, their monetary worth, their effect on future events to their uncanniness. Sometimes the pursuit is encouraged by love (to impress Cheryl) as in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The coveted object is a photographic negative. What is on Negative 25? The answer to that question keeps us riveted.
The Romance of Mysterious Objects
Rachel, a young aristocratic woman is given an Indian diamond brought to 19th century England as spoils of war on her eighteenth birthday. When the stone is stolen, suspicion falls on her housemaid, a troop of visiting Indian jugglers, the man she loves, and on Rachel herself. Rachel knows who stole the diamond and the detective knows she knows. Why won’t she tell?
The fact that an object can embody myth, be cursed or steer us into the dark secrets of the past infuses it with romance. The diamond in The Moonstone has all of this. What’s more, Rachel won’t betray the thief because she loves him, and when we learn that the thief stole the diamond in a drug-induced hypnosis, we know her feelings are justified.
As well as being the perfect foil in a love story, mysterious objects can make dreams come true. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark gives its owner absolute power. In Romancing the Stone, the giant emerald represents freedom. For Jack Colton that is the ability to buy a sailboat; for Joan Wilder, it is the ransom for her sister’s release from kidnappers.
In Lily King’s Euphoria, a novel loosely based on anthropologist Margaret Mead’s personal and professional life, the cryptic object is a sacred flute, ultimately stolen from a New Guinea tribe by the heroine’s egotistical husband, a metaphor for his threatened masculinity and the reason the heroine falls for the other man.
And in North by Northwest the hollow statue itself matters more than what is actually hidden inside it. Which makes it doubly romantic. Everyone is after the statue, but by story’s end we still don’t know what is on the microfilm. And this adds to the allure, suggesting that love is compatible with adventure—a high-octane dash into mayhem—that risks life and heart.
Curiosity killed the Cat
When an object is mysterious and romantic it promises that things will work out, and because of this it can’t help but make us curious.
Detective Sam Spade accepts a kidnap case brought to him by a beautiful stranger. When his partner Miles Archer investigates, he and the suspect end up dead. Meanwhile Spade is approached by a sinister character who demands he locate a priceless statuette, and Spade realizes he must find this thing they all seem to want—the Maltese Falcon.
Readers and movie goers are drawn to stories that create suspense by taking advantage of their natural curiosity. Strange relics intrigue because people are curious by nature. This gets them into deep trouble. After all the confusion, puzzlement and deaths, our curiosity is rewarded when we learn why these men died for the statue and why a woman was willing to kill. Underneath the covering of black enamel, the statue is encrusted with jewels. Once again greed corrupts, and has throughout history; and people will resort to murder to possess the Maltese Falcon.
The Power of Mysterious Objects.
Some objects, especially ancient relics, have great power even if that power is not supernatural. They reveal secrets and affect peoples’ interactions in love, family, friendship and work, bringing them together or splitting them apart.
In the Indiana Jones quartet, Indy’s excessive pursuit of cryptic artifacts endangers his loved ones: Marion in Raiders, Short Round in The Temple of Doom, his father in The Last Crusade and his son in The Crystal Skull.
Rachel’s dilemma in The Moonstone has strong implications for her happiness. Should she marry her heart’s desire or choose someone with matching values? And when the evidence points to the man she loves as the thief, should she betray him or let someone else be blamed? This decision will make or break her life.
Joan Wilder endangers her sister when she falls for adventurer Jack Colton who tricks her into procuring the buried emerald despite the warnings of the kidnappers. Quiet, unobtrusive Walter Mitty daydreams about Cheryl until he goes on a mission for Life Magazine. In his hunt to retrieve Negative 25, he is forced to confront bigger-than-life challenges, ultimately boosting his confidence and enabling him to ask Cheryl for a date.
These are actions with life-changing consequences that happen when characters pursue mysterious objects.
What Makes an Object Mysterious?
People are unnerved by uncertainty, which drives them to seek explanations. But just because we want to know doesn’t mean it will be explained. By the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark we experience the supernatural power of the Ark. But In North by Northwest, the hero is framed for murder, and thugs and government agents pursue a Mexican statue filled with microfilm, which leads to mayhem, all the while our hero is aided by his romantic interest, a woman spy who ends up clinging to the edge of a cliff. The statue contains microfilm but the content of that film is never revealed. What’s important is that the hero escapes and the lovers reunite. As for what’s on the microfilm? By the end of the movie, we no longer care. That is one powerfully mysterious object.
The mysterious object and the mysterious character
In Romantic Mystery the search for the mysterious doesn’t end with the mysterious object. Characters are mysterious too. You know what to expect when an outspoken person gets into a jam; you wonder what the quiet one has got up their sleeve. In Lily King’s Euphoria we always know how Fen the husband is going to react—with brute action. We aren’t quite sure how the thoughtful Nell will react. The more information you share about yourself with others, the more power you hand over. Hence Brigid in The Maltese Falcon and Eve in North by Northwest remain powerful enigmas—until their motives are exposed.
In fiction a character’s world is a place of cause and effect. Once Joan Wilder is out of her comfort zone, abandoned in the jungle, the result is disaster and she responds by hiring Jack to be her guide. This action shows logic as she reacts to her predicament. But sometimes the world is random and Joan suddenly loses control of her life when thugs go after her and the jewel. The mysterious object becomes an element of randomness, which is why, if our hero can get hold of the object—be it the emerald, the Ark, the statue, Negative 25, or the bishop’s bird stump—order is restored. And all is once more right with the world.
Variations of romantic mystery revolving around a mysterious object have been around since Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel The Moonstone. It is not only the first hard-boiled detective novel but also the first romantic mystery with a mysterious object. From the 1950s to mid 70s Mary Stewart consolidated the genre. Recent iterations like the Paramount TV series Blood and Treasure and fiction series like the Sam and Remi Fargo Adventures created by Clive Cussler have evolved from detecting to action, but remain at heart romantic mysteries. Still others have segued to cozy romantic mysteries like Hallmark’s Garage Sale Mysteries. How the genre will evolve in the future is anyone’s guess, but one thing remains for certain, there will likely be a couple coming together and a mysterious object to pursue.
About the Author
From Europe to the Far East to the South Pacific, Deborah L. Cannon travels for work and play. Her fascination with mysterious objects led her to earn university degrees in Anthropology and Museum Studies. Her first job was to sketch a 2,000-year-old skeleton, dug up in a shell midden, holding obsidian blades in each of its hands. Years later, while working as an archaeological illustrator, she learned the blades were stolen. That was when she turned to writing fiction. Now author of the romantic mystery series FRESCO NIGHTS, she lives in Hamilton Ontario with her archaeologist husband and two dogs.