HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Someone asked me once if I could write a romance without a mystery. I thought about it for a second—then answered—well, if there’s no mystery to solve, what would the people DO? (I know, I know. I laughed, too, after I said it.)
They followed up by asking—could you write a mystery without romance? The fabulous Liz Zelvin faced a similar question—and in her inimitably clever way, she figured out an answer.
Romance in a Doomed Paradise
As a reader, there's nothing I like better than a love story with a happy ending. Since Jane Austen invented the novel in which the heroine doesn't die or screw up her life irreparably, but ends up with the perfect mate, some of us have preferred to close the book on our favorite fictional characters with a smile of satisfaction--or a gush of sentiment, depending on how cynical you are. My favorite couples in genre fiction appear in series, so they get to live happily ever after...and after...and after. I'm not complaining.
I'm always ready to hear more about Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell in Laurie R. King's feminist addition to the canon, Margaret Maron's Judge Deborah Knott and Deputy Sheriff Dwight Bryant, and Julia Spencer-Fleming's Rev. Clare Fergusson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne in mystery; Claire and Jamie Fraser in Diana Gabaldon's stupendous time-travel historical romance series; and Miles Vorkosigan and his wife Ekaterin in Lois McMaster Bujold's brilliant blend of space opera, mystery, and comedy of manners.
As a writer, not so much. Having chosen--or rather, been chosen by, which is how it feels--two very different male series protagonists, I've given them so many problems that they haven't had a lot of time to think about love. Recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler is so busy getting sober in Death Will Get You Sober and dealing with his addiction to his crazy ex-wife in Death Will Help You Leave Him--not to mention falling for a couple of prime suspects in that book and my novella Death Will Save Your Life--that he doesn't meet a potential partner till the third book, Death Will Extend Your Vacation.
Diego Mendoza, my young marrano sailor on Columbus's first voyage, is busy staying alive, between the Inquisition and a dangerous enemy aboard the Santa Maria, in his first appearance in "The Green Cross." There were no women on the second voyage either, though settlers for a trading colony sailed on the fleet of seventeen ships in 1493, along with sailors, soldiers, gentleman volunteers with horses, and ship's boys. Voyage of Strangers is the true story of the first two years of that expedition, with fictional embellishments.
I was not about to spend a year of my life writing a novel with no women in it. In fact, the first half of Voyage of Strangers takes place in Spain. Of the eighteen historical characters in my cast, the only woman was the one you've heard of: Queen Isabella of Castile. But I could create as many fictional women as I wanted. Diego's sister Rachel appeared in my brain unsummoned, delightful personality, distinctive voice, and all. But I actually made up her converso Aunt Marina, a gypsy queen and her granddaughter, and a merchant noble's household in Seville that included a lady and four daughters.
I could have given Diego a flirtation with one of the latter. But Voyage of Strangers is not a costume drama, and it tackles some serious subjects. Diego is well aware that the Espinosa family's kindness could dry up if they realized that he and Rachel are secret Jews. So he doesn't have to suffer a change of heart when the family attends an auto da fe, the public burning of Jewish "heretics," in the same spirit we'd bring to a movie or parade. He also has his hands full between his role in the outfitting of the fleet and his plan to send Rachel to safety in Firenze, where the rest of the Mendoza family has fled, while Rachel is equally determined to disguise herself as a boy and take part in the voyage. Guess who wins.
Diego and Rachel are both in their teens, and if Voyage of Strangers is not quite a marketable YA novel (not fantasy, paranormal, or dystopia, not about kids dealing with divorce, drugs, or sexual orientation), it is certainly a coming-of-age novel. And of course, the major rite of passage from boyhood or girlhood to adulthood is falling in love. I had a convenient--though not at all suitable--lover for Rachel at hand: Hutia, the Taino youth whom Diego met on the first voyage and with whom he has become close friends. While Rachel spends months living in a Taino village, playing batey with the girls and learning several ways to cook a hutia (a rodent of which a few species still exist in the Dominican Republic), the Spaniards have become violent in their obsession with gold. It's obviously going to end badly for the Taino, who have never before seen horses or metal weapons and have a culture based on generosity. Once again, Diego is bound to fail to save Rachel from herself. He and Hutia talk about it.
“She is happy here,” Hutia said.
“Nonetheless,” I said, “it is my responsibility to restore her to her intended life.”
“A life in which she cannot run or play batey or go where she chooses.” Hutia pitched a pebble at the trunk of a nearby tree with such force that it broke the bark. “She has told me.”
I opened my mouth to say, A life in which she can count on being warm and fed and clothed. But the Taino lived in a land that was always warm and offered food in abundance. As for clothing, they saw no need for it.
“It is her life,” I said. “She belongs with her people. Our family longs to see her.”
“She must go where Adonai can hear her voice,” Hutia said. “But Rachel says Adonai is everywhere.”
“I fear there may soon be no more happiness among the Taino,” I said. “Truly, Hutia, I wish it were not so.”
“I fear you are right,” he said. “And I do not blame you.”
Considering the Spaniards were murdering and enslaving the Taino right and left--some took cyanide to avoid these fates, a third of the population was gone by 1496 (forget the comforting explanation that most died of European diseases), and eventually the Taino were wiped out completely, it would be a huge challenge to devise a happy ending for this pair. You'll have to read Voyage of Strangers to find out if I did it and to hear all about Diego's romance with a beautiful young Taino widow.
HANK: Are there any books with absolutely no women? There must be, right?LIz, was it fun (or stressful?) to mix real people with fictional ones?
Elizabeth Zelvin is a New York City psychotherapist and mystery author best known for her series featuring recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler. Voyage of Strangers, her first historical novel, is the sequel to the Agatha-nominated short story "The Green Cross," which first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and introduced the young marrano sailor Diego Mendoza and Admiral Columbus. Liz is a three-time Agatha nominee and a Derringer Award nominee for Best Short Story. She has also released a CD of original songs, Outrageous Older Woman.