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Demystification of romance

The latest novels of Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney, two established authors in the romantic suspense field, illustrate some disappointing changes in this genre brought about by the onslaughts of current permissive attitudes toward sex and drugs and by competition from the currently popular romance genre.

Romantic suspense novels just aren't what they used to be when I began reading them in my early teens. Daphne du Maurier's classic ''Rebecca,'' most of Mary Stewart's romantic suspense novels, and Victoria Holt's early novels, especially her first, ''Mistress of Mellyn,'' all have a magic about them that has not diminished, even on later rereadings.

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These novels create little worlds of their own, set in romantic times or places. Part of the appeal of these books is that they are anchored just enough in reality to make the reader feel that perhaps what happens to the heroine could happen to her also, or could have happened to her if she had lived a hundred years ago or had spent her last vacation on Crete or Corfu.

Now the modern world, with its pervasive social problems, is intruding on this genre and destroying its magic. This is disappointing because romantic suspense novels are read purely for entertainment and escapism.

Phyllis A. Whitney's ''Rainsong'' (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., $14.95 ) has a contemporary setting. The contemporary aspects of the plot and some of the characters' involvement in the music industry, in drug use, and in illicit sexual relationships are superimposed over the traditional elements - assumed identities, a past tragedy, a brooding mansion, and a heroine in distress. The effect is jarring, and ''Rainsong'' simply doesn't work. The contemporary aspects rob the story of any possible fairy-tale qualities the traditional elements might provide. To top it off, the heroine, Hollis Sands, a songwriter and widow of a famous singer, is so incredibly naive, unwise, and unperceptive that she fails to elicit the necessary sympathy in the reader.

''The Time of the Hunter's Moon'' (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., $14.95 ) is a typical Victoria Holt novel. Set sometime in the 19th century, its main character, Cordelia Grant, is a beautiful, intelligent schoolmistress. There are all the traditional elements that Victoria Holt uses to the hilt in her novels - a ruined medieval abbey, a handsome stranger, an arrogant nobleman, and a mystery. There is also a nontradi-tional element in this novel - an attempted rape.

Miss Holt has been displaying a disturbing proclivity toward having her heroines involved in rape or attempted rape in several of her most recent novels. In ''The Time of the Hunter's Moon'' the ''hero'' uses the attempted rape as a means of wooing the heroine. The fact that she later falls in love with him and marries him adds insult to injury. This situation is a staple of the romance genre, and it is disappointing and dismaying to see a romantic suspense novelist, especially one as well-known and respected as Victoria Holt, resorting to this demeaning and degrading practice.

Names such as Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney were once synonymous with good quality romantic suspense fiction. That, unfortunately, seems to be changing. When I need a break from the winter doldrums, I always reach for my well-worn copies of Mary Stewart's ''My Brother Michael'' and ''This Rough Magic.''

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