Betrayal has such a black-and-white sound, doesn’t it? But like most things, it isn’t anything of the sort. Betrayal of a country, an ideal, a lover, a spouse, a friend. It’s often impossible to be loyal to all. Which loyalty comes first?

Raoul says this to Mélanie in their scene in the library late in Secrets of a Lady. I found myself mulling over these words recently while driving home from a trip to Whole Foods (I do a lot of my best writing thinking in the car). So many of my books deal with betrayal in one form or another. It’s at the heart of four of my mom’s and my Anthea Malcolm Regencies (Frivolous Pretence, A Touch of Scandal, An Improper Proposal, A Sensible Match) and of all four of my linked historical romances, starting with Dark Angel with a wrote with my mom as Anna Grant and continuing with Shadows of the Heart, Shores of Desire, and Rightfully His. It’s the core issue of Charles & Mélanie series. I can’t imagine writing a book about Charles and Mel that didn’t deal with some facet of betrayal.

In a 2003 ARR interview, Rachel Potter asked me about the fact that many of my books have personal betrayal as a theme. It was something I hadn’t really thought about at the time. Thinking it over, I replied, “Personal betrayal goes to the core of what hurts most, what creates the bleakest dark moment, the deepest hurdle to overcome. That’s the stuff of good drama. Trust, I think, is essential to love, so a betrayal of trust is one of the most difficult challenges a love affair can face. Betrayal raises all sorts of interesting moral and ethical questions. ”

I’m particularly intrigued by the moral and ethical dilemmas of characters caught between competing loyalties, as Raoul describes. That’s what I love about Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books (which, pretty obviously, were one of the inspirations for the Charles & Mélanie books). There’s a wonderful scene in the television adaptation of Game, Set & Match (which I wish would be released on DVD) where a number of the characters (most involved in intelligence work in one way or another) are a dinner party and the talk turns to betrayal. They are discussing it in the personal, romantic sense, but the political overtones are there as well. It’s a fabulous scene, rich in subtext.

Themes of betrayal and competing loyalties go hand and hand with stories about spies. Characters in spy stories are always caught in ethical dilemmas, torn between competing loyalties (every episode of MI-5/Spooks seems to contain an ethical dilemma). Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play about spies, Hapgood, is all about betrayal. But so is another of his favorite plays of mine, The Real Thing, which is about marriage, with nary a spy in sight.

The pull between loyalty to a loved one and loyalty to a cause is summed up in Richard Lovelace’s I could not love thee, dear, so much, Lov’d I not honor more, which Mélanie quotes to Charles toward the end of Secrets. It’s a deceptively simple quote, which can seem trite (Mel in fact, is accusing Charles of dismissing her betrayal too lightly when she brings it up). And yet it says a lot about the tension between love and loyalty or between two competing loyalties. Of course, how one defines “honor,” (a word Charles is inclined to invoke and Mel is inclined to disparage) has a lot to do with which loyalty one puts first. As Raoul is pointing out to Mélanie, there’s often no easy, clean, “honorable” answer.

Do you like stories about betrayal? Why or why not? Any favorites to recommend? Do you find yourself noticing common themes within a writer’s work? Writers, are you aware of themes you return to again and again, or are you sometimes startled when someone points them out to you (as I was when Rachel interview me)?

This week’s Fraser Correspondence addition goes back to the exchange of letters between Mélanie and Raoul about loneliness and deception. It seemed appropriate to the topic.