Romance novelists know the secret to making the bestseller lists. Their compelling heroines, to-die-for heroes and page-turner plots certainly help sell the books. But novelists who came up through the romance-writing ranks use a literary weapon more powerful than great characters and clever plots: family. Not apocalyptic scenarios, not exploding arsenals of munitions, not characters who thwart world disaster and domination. No. Family.

Beginning with their blood kin -- if they're available -- but including friends, business associates, stray pets, orphan children and anyone else in the immediate vicinity, romance heroines build their own clans. The heroes join in as well, often acting on the same impulses. To make the mix a challenge, the characters are quirky and eccentric -- in these books alone we find a bush pilot who names her business Lunatic Air, a pistol-packing grandmother, paranormal pyrotechnicians, con-artist parents with a monkey named "Spank," and a lawyer who works for free.

In other kinds of books, fiction and nonfiction, relatives mean trouble. In mysteries (as in real life), relatives often commit the murder. In memoirs, they might enable the author's addiction or otherwise head the list of problems that must be overcome. But to romance novelists a happy family is lure and goal. The code of the clan is that you belong, no matter how odd you are.

Into Thick Air

Nora Roberts began her career in the early 1980s writing for Silhouette Books after Harlequin shortsightedly turned her down because the publishing house already had one American romance writer and claimed not to need another. In writing scores of short Silhouette romances, Roberts developed her style and learned the intricacies and possibilities of the courtship plot at the heart of traditional romances. Later she added a suspense plot but held onto the values of the romance: the importance of making a family at the end of courtship, and the corresponding faith in the power of love.

As J.D. Robb she writes a series of bestselling murder mysteries featuring New York homicide detective Eve Dallas (Naked in Death, Glory in Death and so on through the 19th, Visions in Death) and set in the near future, with a strong romantic sub-plot as well as a variety of other variations on the romance. Although the plots can stray quite far from the courtship plot, the values do not, and the family that our heroine gathers around her -- fellow police officers, a psychiatrist, a few friends and her (to-die-for) husband -- fills a need on the part of readers to enjoy vicariously relationships that actually work.

In Northern Lights (Putnam, $25.95), Roberts takes us to Lunacy, Alaska, along with the hero, Nate Burke, who is reporting for duty as the new chief of police. But apart from his move, his life is on hold. His partner is dead. His wife has divorced him. Enter Meg Galloway, a native Lunatic and bush pilot whose father disappeared when she was just a girl and whose mother is not exactly June Cleaver. The courtship between Nate and Meg shares the pages with a police procedural as Nate finds himself conducting the sort of murder investigation that he thought he was leaving behind as a former Baltimore cop.

Roberts is among the best popular novelists currently at work, and this novel displays her considerable talent. The setting is economically but beautifully evoked, the spare style balancing the breathtaking grandeur of Alaska. Pace, dialogue and scenes are cunningly shaped, and the the police procedural skillfully dovetails with the romance. Wit abounds.

The cheerfully cantankerous Lunatics become part of the extended family. This inclusion doesn't seem cute or sweet; they appear to be people genuinely committed to each other despite their fierce independence. Including the sex, of course. After Meg and Nate's first steamy encounter, Meg speculates on the ripple effect: "Everyone in a hundred-mile radius of this bed is lying back right now, smoking a cigarette." This re-energizing of cliches is one form of local pleasure on offer in this shapely hybrid of the mystery and romance.

Justice can be lonely, a reality to which the bleak ending of many mysteries attests. But pair it with love, and you can end up not only with a cleansed community but also a newly formed family -- the ingredients for a happy future and a bestseller.

Overworked and Going to the Dogs

Pick up The Rocky Road to Romance (HarperTorch; paperback, $7.50) and witness Janet Evanovich perform "Swan Lake in a phone booth" (the phrase is Nora Roberts's evocation of writing a short, brand-name romance). Evanovich is well known for her mystery novels about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum (One for the Money, Two for the Dough on through Ten Big Ones), in which Plum's family and love life provide comic relief and steam, in somewhat equal measure.

This reprint of a 1991 Loveswept romance paperback shows where Evanovich honed her considerable talents. Daisy Adams is an overcommitted grad student in psychology who is simultaneously finishing her dissertation, volunteering at an old-age home, serving as a crossing guard, doing five-minute radio spots based on her book, Bones for Bowser, and working away at her newest job, broadcasting traffic reports for WZZZ, a Washington, D.C., radio station managed by hero Steve Crow. Suddenly someone launches a series of attempts on her life. A grandmother with the gun in her handbag, the hero and his dog, the heroine's brother and of course the heroine act like a family long before the courtship resolves.

Evanovich alternates scenes from the mystery part of her plot with scenes from the romance. After the would-be killer tries to run Daisy's car off the road, for example, the whole family, including the bodyguard cop, treks to an amusement park. Her characteristically eccentric characters, plots and dialogue keep the tone light but tense. Juggling this juxtaposition is Evanovich's forte, as much in evidence in this short book as in the Plum series.

If you have ever sneered at a "supermarket romance," do yourself a favor and read this one. It will tide you over until the next Stephanie Plum.

The Mating Game

Linda Lael Miller has written her share of Silhouettes and Pocket historical romances as well. In her latest, Never Look Back (Atria; paperback, $12.95), Clare Westbrook has inherited a fortune from the father she never knew. She's rich enough to give up charging for her legal advice and open a pro bono storefront practice for indigent clients. In trying to help those less fortunate, Clare says she can "slip into her inner phone booth and become Super-Lawyer." A passionate affair with homicide detective Tony Sonterra unfolds as a killer stalks Clare, delivering death threats in the form of creepy dolls stripped naked and blindfolded with rubber bands. In the course of this sequel to Don't Look Now, where Miller first introduced Clare and Sonterra, the orphaned heroine finds herself called upon to save the family she has assembled.

Scorching Heat from the Paranormals

Relative newcomer Christine Feehan published a LoveSpell romance in 1999, but, treading the path paved by writers like Roberts and Evanovich, she now writes action-thrillers with a twist. In Mind Game (Jove; paperback, $6.99), her main characters have paranormal powers. Dahlia Le Blanc is telekinetic and an energy magnet; Nicolas Trevane is telepathic as well as telekinetic. Dahlia is unable to control her powers, the result of a series of misguided experiments conducted on her when she was a child. She is on the run when Nicolas finds her, afraid that her natural ability to combust spontaneously -- resulting from an uncontrolled release of energy -- will hurt others.

The plot is classic action-adventure, with chase scenes, exchanges of gunfire and daring rescues, but the relationship between Dahlia and Nicolas provides a fascinating counterpoint to the pursuit scenes. Fueled by the added intimacy of telepathic and psychokinetic lovemaking, their encounters produce not just steam but, literally, flames. Dahlia must reconnect with others like her -- with her family -- in this inventive reimagining of the possibilities of humankind.

Some Like It Hot

Carly Phillips writes sex scenes that border on erotica, a skill polished in her recent (1999) work for Blaze, Harlequin Books' sexiest line. In Under the Boardwalk (Warner, $18.95), she pairs plainclothes detective Quinn Donovan with college professor Ariana Costas as they work seemingly at cross purposes to explore a corrupt Atlantic city casino. Ari's twin, Zoe, has disappeared, and Ari leaves her classes to return home to her family of con artists to search for her missing sister. The raw passion sizzles, and the crime unfolds, but the family issues, which provide the values in this narrative, get a bit lost in the mix. *

Pamela Regis, who teaches at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., is the author of "A Natural History of the Romance Novel."