“I have no past, I have no future. I have only the immediate present.”
–from Hunter’s Green, by Phyllis A. Whitney
I was about ten years old when I discovered what was then called romantic suspense, which was a subgenre of the mystery field primarily targeted to women. The covers of the mass market paperback were very distinct; they usually featured a woman with long hair being blown about in the wind (sometimes in a very long dress) usually looking backward over her shoulder with a fearful expression on her face. There was usually an oddly-shaped, spooky looking tree behind her; a mysterious but attractive man even further in the background, and in the absolute rear of the image was, without fail, a spooky looking house with a light in one of the windows. These books were by women, for women, and about women.
“When my aunt Charlotte died suddenly many people believed that I had killed her and that if it had not been for Nurse Loman’s evidence at the inquest, the verdict would have been one of murder by some person or persons unknown; there would have been a probing into the dark secrets of the Queen’s House, and the truth would have come out.”
–from The Secret Woman, by Victoria Holt
My grandmother had a copy of Victoria Holt’s The Secret Woman, which I read one weekend while visiting her while the rest of the family watched football games on television. The book was so well-written and well-done that I began reading every book by Victoria Holt I could get my hands on, and reading her led me to other women writers, all labelled ‘romantic suspense’ novelists. These other women included Phyllis A. Whitney and Mary Stewart, among others; but those three were by far and away the best.
“Carmel Lacy is the silliest woman I know, which is saying a good deal.”
–from Airs Above the Ground, by Mary Stewart
I’ve always been a big reader, devouring every book I could get my hands on. I also wanted to be a writer from the earliest time I can remember—and usually, when I found a genre I liked I wanted to write in that genre. My first attempts at writing were my own versions of the Hardy Boys/ Nancy Drew type mysteries for kids; I think the first one I tried writing was called The Secret of the Haunted Mansion. (Not terribly original, of course, but I was only eight.) When I discovered romantic suspense, I wanted to write it as well. The majority of the books were written in the first person, always from a woman’s point of view, and certainly there was an element of romance in them. Victoria Holt’s novels were more patterned after Jane Eyre; the first half of the book was usually the life story of the heroine, before she found herself either married or involved somehow with a man whose affections she wasn’t sure of; in Menfreya in the Morning, Harriet was a wealthy heiress who was plain and had a clubfoot. Once she was married to the lord of Menfreya, she was never certain whether he really loved her or whether he married her for her money. Holt’s novels were also often set in Cornwall, and often in the nineteenth century.
“I often marveled after I went to Pendorric that one’s existence could change so swiftly, so devastatingly.”
–from Bride of Pendorric by Victoria Holt
I found myself preferring Whitney to Holt. Whitney’s books were often set in some foreign location (St. Croix, Cape Town, Norway, Istanbul, Athens) and Whitney always included a lot of local color and history in her books, which made them even more enjoyable to me. I often felt, though, that her heroines were a bit on the wimpy side, despite the adventures they were having. Her books often featured a strong woman who served as the antagonist to the heroine; sometimes being married to the heroine’s true love (Columbella, Lost Island, Woman Without a Past) and often, the story had to do with secrets from the past coming out to haunt the present (Listen for the Whisperer, Silverhill, Spindrift, Domino).
“It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.”
From The Moon-spinners by Mary Stewart
I never forgot these books or their authors; I often go back and reread them and marvel at how well they are plotted, the richness of the character development, and the strength of the first lines. I have always wanted to write one, to try my hand at romantic suspense and follow the basic template—another mystery writer explained it to me as “Two love interests; one a bad guy and the other a good guy. Which is which?” This is overly simplistic, of course, but when I started plotting The Orion Mask, it really came in handy.
“Now that I have reached the mature age of twenty-seven I can look back on the fantastic adventure of my youth and can almost convince myself that it did not happen as I believed it did then.”
–from On the Night of the Seventh Moon by Victoria Holt
Another popular theme in Whitney’s work—and one I sought to emulate in The Orion Mask—was reuniting of someone, practically a stranger, with a family they’d never known. The reason the heroine had been separated from her family always varied (in Silverhill, her mother had been banished from the family estate and cut-off; in Woman Without a Past she had been put up for adoption; in Listen for the Whisperer she had been given up by her mother and raised by her father; in Domino, her father removed her from her mother’s family) but the drama of someone coming back into a family group after years away was something I really wanted to explore.
So, I created Heath Brandon, a young gay man in his early twenties who is working full-time to put himself through college. When he was thirteen, he found out (by accident) that the woman he believed to be his mother was actually his father’s second wife; his mother had committed suicide when he was very young and his father took him away from Louisiana and his mother’s family. His mother’s family is wealthy, and so every once in a while he would fantasize about reuniting with them and getting help with school. He is at work one night when he is approached by someone who not only knows who he is but has a lot of information about Heath’s family back in Louisiana—and more information about his mother. Soon, Heath is on his way to Louisiana to meet the family he never knew…and discovers that there are a lot of secrets being kept in the family mansion.
And Heath learns the hard way to be careful what you wish for.