Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Lighter Side of Murder

A good crime fiction/mystery is, first and foremost, centered around the crime. As it should be. That’s what separates the genre from other genres. There’s also, though, an important place for wit and humor in the genre. Of course, a good mystery doesn’t require humor, but when it is there, it adds spice to the story and makes the characters more likeable. I think most of us find people with good senses of humor appealing.

Sometimes the humor is in the characters themselves. Agatha Christie’s Ariadne Oliver, for instance, is, in many ways, a humorous character. In fact, many people have argued that Ariadne Oliver was Christie’s own parody of herself. Oliver is sometimes befuddled, and has an almost comical habit of suspecting first one and then another character in the novels in which she appears. She is always experimenting with new hairstyles, and her habit of eating (and spilling) apples adds physical humor to her character. We can see this when she tosses an apple core out the window of her car, nearly hitting Hercule Poirot with it, early in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. In Hallowe’en Party, Oliver’s description of how she met her hostess, Judith Butler, involves a very funny story of her falling into the sea when she misjudged the distance between the shore and the boat she was boarding. However, Oliver is also a shrewd judge of people and sometimes has an uncanny knack of finding out important clues and making important deductions. Throughout the novels in which she appears, we can also see the respect that Poirot has for her.

Another humorous character, Mom, livens up James Yaffe’s series featuring Dave, a Bronx, NY detective who, in later novels, moves to a small Colorado town. Mom, Dave’s mother, is a traditional Jewish mother whose habit of trying to run Dave’s life is as funny as the things she says. Here’s an example from A Nice Murder for Mom. In this scene, Mom is describing modern music:

Today everybody’s yelling, but who can figure out what the words are? It’s like this
younger generation is afraid of sex. You think maybe that’s why the population isn’t exploding any more?”

Yaffe is by no means the only author whose dialogue is funny. Several other mystery authors have that gift of wit. Janet Evanovich writes sassy, funny dialogue richly flavored with New Jersey urban attitude. Here’s an example from To the Nines, in her Stepahnie Plum series:

“Morelli had a coffee cup in his hand. ‘You really tied one on last night.’

‘Did I make an idiot of myself?’
‘Honey, you were at a dinner party with my family. On your best day you couldn’t even
compete in the idiot contest.’

Other mystery authors weave humor throughout their novels. Laurien Berenson’s writing is an example, Her Melanie Travis series, which is told from Travis’ point of view, crackles with witty descriptions and sometimes self-deprecating humor. Here’s an example from Doggy Day Camp:

“Once upon a time when I was younger and more foolish, I thought that new puppies and
new babies had a lot in common. I must have been deluded, or maybe just oversimplifying. Because now it’s clear to me that I was insanely wrong.”

Some mystery writers, of course, don’t focus on humor. They have other, equally important skills. My writing is in that category. I don’t have the sense of timing and snappy sense of humor that allows for easy wit in my novels, and I’ve never thought that forced humor was funny. However, I do try to lighten things up, so to speak. I like to use humor when I give names to places. For instance, two restaurants that figure in B-Very Flat are The Alarm Clock (a coffee shop/café) and The Garden of Eatin’ (a gourmet specialty food store). I also like my characters to have a sense of humor, so I avoid stilted dialogue. I admire those who have the gift of wit; it can add much to a mystery novel.

How do you feel about humor? Does it detract from the suspense of a mystery novel? Does it add to the novel? Who are your favorite humorous mystery novelists?

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