Love Is In The Air - A Look At Romance Spy Series
When most people think of a spy and the subject of women are introduced, the natural thought path takes one to James Bond and the success of his love-‘em and leave-‘em style. While he is suave and dashing, handsome and thrilling, able to get the iciest of ladies to swoon, the world “romance” would not be found.
That holds true for most of the spy fictions. A lot of the agents fit snuggly into that hedonistic stereotype of a girl for every mission. New mission, new girl! For a time, it seemed almost a requirement that if you had a cloak and dagger, you had to have your way with a dame and then move on.
It was not always like that but it was close. After the Second World War, the few spies in operation were either gentlemen who did not speak of such things or men who were always busy and perhaps never thought of such things. When Bond came on the scene in the early 50''s, that changed.
Even Bond, though, in his most macho period did not tag-‘em take-‘em and toss-‘em, despite what his reputation may have been. He has been branded the typical male misogynist but his actions were usually far better than that. He seduced the ladies with charm and presence. He really did enjoy the company of ladies and he tried to ensure they enjoyed his company in return. He got his reputation because there were just so many of them.
However, whether Bond deserved his rep or not is immaterial as there would be no one that would claim the Bond books were a romance series. None of the first group would be. Most of those that came out just before, during, or right after the War were involved in the War where not dying was the primary consideration.
In 1956, the first spy series in which romance plays a major role, Julia Probyn, by Ann Bridge, came out. Ms. Probyn was not out for romance, though. She was out for adventure, for travel, for not being fenced in and not being bored. She found romance along the way, a couple of times, but romance was not primary focus and though it exists in every book, the romance was often by support characters, not the protagonist. For this reason, though I mark it as a first, it was more of a proto-romance spy series
It was the next year, 1957, that we get what I consider the first true romance spy series, the four adventures with Sally and Ward Digburn. Here the romance was clearly involving the main characters and was very important to the nature of the series.
It was also in the Digburn stories that the basic flow of a romance spy novel was firmly established. The main character, almost invariably female, must be someone who gets deeply into the thick of the action, perilously close to death, and then with the help of a dashing hero, gets out. Along the way they fall in love and eventually settle down for the rest of their lives. A key word in the description is “help” because in a romance spy novel, there is no “Perils of Pauline” scenario where the damsel is totally helpless. She can use the help of the man, but might not require it. Certainly Sally Dean was taking care of herself long before she came across Ward Digburn and she saved his bacon a time or two as well.
With the creation of the Digburn series came what I am herein calling the Column A of romance spy series. Series fit in this column when the protagonists are the spies.
For the next entrant in the Romance Spy series, we move a half decade forward to 1962 and David Montross''s Remsen series, three books in which the spy, a CIA agent, comes in to save the day and the lady. In each of these books, the lady is young, beautiful, and in trouble and the slightly aging Remsen is there to help them out. At no time, though, is Remsen himself a romantic figure. Father-figure or Uncle-figure, certainly, but never a Lover-figure. Nevertheless, romance plays a major role in these books as the ladies will find the man-of-their-dreams in the younger agents who work for Remsen.
The Remsen series is another milestone for it represents the Column B of romance spy novels in which the spy protagonist is a catalyst to the romance but not the subject of it.
We let the next six years pass without a romance spy series hitting the scene. During this time several series with female leads start up, such as Modesty Blaise, Selena Mead, and April Dancer, but none of these romance novels whatsoever.
It is 1968 and two romance spy series start, one from each column.
Jessica Paull''s Tracy Lattimore is a three-book series which falls firmly into Column A. She is a normal citizen who is put into harm''s way, is helped by an undercover agent, falls in love with him and then proceeds to help him in later adventures.
Johnson Johnson is Dorothy Dunnett''s seven-book series which is in Column B, with a slight twist. Johnson is an agent who travels around the world on missions and comes to the aid of females. The twist is that sometimes the women fall in love with Johnson but there is never any intent on his part to settle down to one place or one woman. Largely the romance is between the female star of that particular book and some other man in the end.
Now we really leap through time as no spy series with romance as a main focus is started for almost two decades. In that time there was a series about Tamara Hoyland, created by Jessica Mann in 1982, which had a great deal of romance, especially in the first and last books, but for the most part, Ms. Hoyland was an operative first and foremost so I mention it but do not count it. She would, however, have been in Column A.
The year 1987 was a good one for the return of romance spy series with three appearing; two were absolutely romance driven and the third was a mixture of romance and mystery mingled nicely with a lot of spying.
The mystery series is that of Ingrid Langley, penned by Margaret Duffy, a fascinating series that has the main character recovering from the murder of her second husband who died while seeking the help of her first husband and then going on to avenge him and fall back in love with her first. A bit confusing and a tad forced in parts but the romance angle to the series is prevalent and definitely qualifies for inclusion as a romance spy series. It also easily qualifies as a darned good mystery series and a fun spy series. This series, which has lasted over two decades, is a hard one to firmly classify but is fun to read and try. Column A gets Ms. Langley as she is decided an agent as the series progresses.
Jennifer Heath by Alison Tyler (aka Elise Title) who is a businesswoman who is on a buying trip to Europe when she becomes entangled in a spy case, meets a dashing agent and falls in love. The second book continues her love affair as she again helps him resolve a nasty situation. Spy work is well in play but it is the romance that is the primary consideration. Column A also has Ms. Heath.
Kay Hooper''s Hagen Rides Again starts a new column, C, and clearly creates a genre which would not really take off for nearly twenty years but when it did, boy, did it!. Column C series involve an agency which has a constantly changing cast of characters because each book has a different romance. The series'' lead is Hagen, a spy master who heads his unnamed American Intelligence bureau and who picks which agents, male or female, to put on a mission. During that mission, the chosen agent will meet or re-meet someone, clash with that person, and eventually fall in love and live happily ever after. The last is supposition and wishful thinking only because we never hear from the characters again. Next book equals new characters with just Hagen to maintain the continuity. In the two years Ms. Hooper had Hagen be almost a matchmaking spymaster, she wrote of nearly a dozen such adventures.
Move ahead eight years to 1995 and the romantic series about Allison Alexander, aka the Jewel series, by Lynn Gardner. This Column A series has the heroine meeting an old boyfriend after many years, learning he is really a secret agent for an international organization devoted to promoting peace, falling in love again, and marrying him. After the marriage, which occurs at the end of the first book, she joins him in his assignments.
Three years go by before another series with romance as its primary theme. First published in 1998, this series, a Column B entry about Linda Howard''s John Medina, has the former Seal working for the CIA. Though Medina is the star of the series, though, he is not the star of any of the three books in the series. That position is filled with women who meet and fall in love during the course of the adventures with Medina as more a man in the shadows. Three books equals three heroines and three different romances.
Still, after a long hiatus, at least romance was back, briefly.
In 2001, Debra Webb, through the Harlequin Intrigue imprint, presented the Colby Agency series of books, a series still ongoing with 35 as of this writing. This series is not one of those I include as a spy series because the Colby operatives were private investigators or bodyguards and seldom come close to espionage but many listings put them in with many others listed here so I include it for informational purposes. As popular as they have been, they are not spy novels but if they had been, they could definitely be in Column C. More on them, though, in my summation.
Two years pass this time before a new romance series, B.L.I.S.S., gets published in 2003 and it is a Column C series in that each book has its own set of characters falling in love as they save the day, all under the auspices of a female spymaster known as Y. These three books were unique for they took on a spoof style for fun, written by three different experienced romance writers taking on the Bond style of “romance” and turning it upside down.
THE FLOODGATES OPEN!
The next year, 2004, ushers in the start of a new era in romance spy series. Some of the ones about to be mentioned do not qualify as true series as I would define them as they do not have a recurring character and fit more within a publishing publicity department''s dream but I include them here for accuracy sake. I indicate when I do not feel they are a spy series.
The style of books that Kay Hooper created nearly twenty years before came back with a flourish and it has remained for many years, up to the writing of this article. In this style, each book has a unique set of characters. In some cases there might be a recurring character in the background or a common agency for which they work but the idea of a protagonist fighting numerous bad guys over the course of several books is not here. Each is a stand-alone and the series concept is sometimes a very ephemeral one.
In 2004, we were given four series.
The first by Wendy Rosnau went by the name Spy Games though I listed it by the name of the agency the operatives worked for, Onyxx, and it was most definitely in Column C as each book had different agents and different love affairs. The men generally worked for Onyxx while the females often were employed by a company called Euro-Quest. Something that made Onyxx/Spy Games unique was a recurring character, the Chameleon, a bad guy.
The second was the Code Name series by Christina Skye, a series that I chose not to include (as of yet) in this collection because I could find no recurring agency, agent, or antagonist but for a romance series with a spy theme, it does deserve mention. Each of the five books has different men and women fighting and falling in love.
The third, another Column C, is harder to nail down exactly what the group is. Known as the Athena Force, this group is like a fraternal order for those who attended the Athena Academy, an elite school for gifted women designed to bring out the very best in their talents. There were a large number of these books published over the next few years, all written by different authors. It had what it called continuities with a dozen books in the first, a small handful in the second and another dozen in the third.
The fourth is a Column A series about Melody Beecham by Jasmine Caswell, a rich and independent woman who, trying to avenge the death of her mother, discovers there is a spy organization in need of her help which can help her in return. She joins and stays.
In 2005, an impressive eight series were started.
First was a decidedly romance series but also one filled with a lot of action fairly reminiscent of James Bond because they concerned the diaries of Miss Moneypenny. As we learn much about this interesting woman, besides her first name being Jane, we find that she can do more than answer phone calls and keep 00-agents in their place – she can defend the realm, too. And she can continue her unrequited love for James at the same time. Column A without a doubt.
Second is Office 119, a series which seems like it should be a Column C entry as the name of the series refers to the secret agency the characters works for but it actually is a Column A because the main character, Renate Bachle, stars in all three books. Romance plays an important part in the books success but it is included here largely because so many reviews and classifiers put them down as romance as the author, Rachel Lee, was known for that genre. It could as easily not been included in this article as be here.
The remaining six series all are Column C entries as they all deal with different characters for each book and the only thing that unifies them is either the agency for which they work or the author/publisher assigning them a series name.
The Crazy series, a name given by the author as well as several reviewers, is also referred to by the author and publisher as the Steele Street books, is without a doubt a Column C series as each book has a different agent and a different relationship but the series does have a recurring character of the Special Defense Force''s leader, General Grant.
The Bureau of American Defense series, known as B.A.D., was written largely by Sherrilyn Kenyon but several of the books were actually anthologies with some novellas written by other authors as well. A Column C entry, there were no repeat characters, just the agency for which the agents worked. It is of special affection to me because of its motto, listed on website for these books, as being “Veni, vidi, nates calce concidi” which my translation makes it “We came, we saw, we kicked butt” (really!).
Very similar is Elizabeth Bevarly''s OPUS, or Office for Political Unity and Security, another Column C series where each of the three books, sharing the word Male in each, has totally different characters in each adventure.
Cindy Dees'' Medusa Project is not really a spy series as much as it is military specials forces one with the Medusas being highly trained female soldiers given dangerous and exotic missions all over the world. Being a Column C entry because no character is heard from more than once, it has the distinction of having the female side of the romance being consistently the agent protagonist. It is interesting that the ladies seem to take pride in being called a Medusa.
Also a military series so also not a spy series but one which is often listed as such, Catherine Mann''s Special Operations is similar in nature to the Medusa Projects except the operatives are male.
Finally for the year, prolific romance writer Dee Davis introduced a series called the Last Chance trilogy which seems to be about a bureau going by that name which offers operatives with less than stellar records a last chance.
As if so many new romance thriller series in one year left the publishing and reading world a bit breathless, 2006 had none that I could find and 2007 had but one. That was a series the Mission Impassioned series revolving around the Lazlo Group, an international investigative agency run by Corbett Lazlo, a man of much mystery. These agents are the cream of the crop and must be able to hold their own in the dankest dungeon and swankiest restaurants dealing with both low-lifes and high society, which are often one and the same. All six books in this series came out in the same year but all were by different authors. It was definitely a Column C series.
2008 brought three new Column C series to the shelves.
Allie K. Adams had a short, two-book series about a counter-terror agency with the initials NASSD. It would be interesting to find out why only two books were published.
Cindy Gerard created a private corporation handling the nastiest of covert assignments in the Black Ops, Inc. series. There have been seven books so far with two coming out each year. They seem a tad grittier than normal but it might be my imagination based on the name.
Lora Leigh wrote a six-book series about an unofficial, totally off-the-books small group called the Elite Ops, formed by Captain Jordan Malone and comprised by only five other operatives. Each book deals with a different one of this team. The team members are decided international in nature as all are former agents of intelligence agencies around the world.
As 2009 arrived, it brought two series which really stretched the concept of a series. Both are more a publishing concept than any truly cohesive series as there appears to be no connecting character or agency or such. Catherine Mann wrote about Dark Ops, a three-book group dealing with pilots involved, apparently, in testing new fighter aircraft (although I could be wrong). Nina Bruhns had the three-book group called Passion For Danger with each character being in a totally different line of work, though all three were truly dangerous. I do not count either of these as a series but others do so I mention them.
In 2010, we were given several series, a couple of which really qualify for series status and a couple which are more in name than in practice.
The Kelly Group International (KGI) books by Maya Banks talk about the brothers of a strong willed woman who each has his own adventure and finds love along the way. There is no real agency in the traditional sense that I can find and the characters seem more like detectives than anything else. This means it is not a spy series but it is definitely a series as it has a connecting thread (brothers).
The other non-spy series which looks at first glance like it might be is Shadow Force by Stephanie Tyler. This four-book set deals with people connected with the shadowy world of black ops, whether it is Delta Force, CIA, or Seals. The fascinating element to Ms. Tyler''s books is that they are extensive works with several subplots going on while the main one takes place.
Jo Davis delivered three books about agents in the Secret Homeland Defense Organization, or SHADO. A Column C like the rest, this did have a central bureau for which each man worked.
Dee Davis returns with a new series, this one called A-Tac which deals with a CIA black ops team masquerading as Ivy League faculty. Here again we have a clandestine agency as the central theme that makes these books a series though it is still a Column C like the others.
NUMBER CRUNCHING TIME
Of the 35 series I mentioned in this article, 25 fit into my personal classification of what would really be a spy series and 10 did not, though they were close enough to be so classed by others.
Since I am going to be comparing spy series, I am going to omit the 10 that did not truly fit and concentrate on the 25 that did.
25 spy series in which romance played such a crucial role that each would be easily referred to as a romantic spy series. That is out of 590+ spy series. A quick calculation gives romance a position of just under 5% of all the series. 25 yes, 565 no. With this statistic, it is obvious that when considering the writing of a spy series, 95% of the time the “generic” writer would not consider putting a predominantly romantic twist to the theme.
Another aspect to consider, though, is who did the writing. Of these 25 series, 2 were written by men and 23 were by women. This would indicate clearly that women were far more likely to take a romantic road than men. I doubt anyone would argue.
An interesting question, nevertheless, is out of these 590+ series, how many, romance or non-romance, were created and written by women. The answer is 46. So, knowing that number in total were female-originated and 25 of that 46 were romance oriented, it is apparent that if a female decided to write a spy series, it would have a greater chance of being a romance spy series than not be.
Something else to consider in this number crunching that I found interesting is the number of entries in the different Columns.
Of the 25 romance series, 10 were Column A (female as the recurring agent), 3 were Column B (the recurring character was not the romantic interest) and 12 were Column C (the agency was the recurring element and each book dealt with different characters). Looks almost like a draw between A and C.
Except! I marked 2004 as a watershed year for romance spy series. Prior to that year, the numbers were 6 – 2 – 1 for A – B – C. After that point, it was 4 – 1 – 11. And if you were to include the 10 series mentioned above that I personally do not count as spy series but which others seem to, the numbers 4 – 1 – 21. A major change.
In the last ten years, there has clearly been a drastic shift in the way romance is injected into spy series. Considering how few times prior to then that there were romance spy series at all, it may be understandable. With the Column C device, the “finding the one love of your life” is achievable. Without it, the found love interest must leave which would spoil the romance, be a part of the adventure which is often hard to carry off, or die which is tough on everyone.
It would be interesting to know, if such things are even knowable, who had the greatest influence on the prominence of Column C series: Kay Hooper who introduced the idea with her Hagen Rides Again series a good 17 years before the explosion or Debra Webb and the Colby books which were not actually spy books but which showed the success potential.
I would credit both, Ms. Hooper for coming up with it and Ms. Webb for resurrecting and perfecting it.
I do hope that, should the Column C style of series continue, future authors take a couple of pages in each book to offer more continuity. It is not hard to do, it improves the feeling of connection, and it makes me happier. And that is kinda romantic. Sorta.