Wednesday, December 1, 2010

I've Got Something I Can Laugh About*

When people get to know each other well, they often develop “inside jokes.” These are running jokes that sometimes poke fun, but aren’t meant to offend. These running jokes can help keep a group of people connected and give them a sense of belonging. In crime fiction, running jokes serve a few purposes. One is very important comic relief. After all, murder is a tragic, horrible thing; a running joke can ease that sense of tragedy. Running jokes also serve as a nod to the regular reader. They let the reader in on the joke and include the reader. Because of that, running jokes are best handled delicately. An “inside joke” that’s not explained can leave the reader feeling excluded. One that’s explained in too much detail takes away from the plot and can be condescending. So a subtle touch often works best.

Agatha Christie makes use of running jokes in several of her novels. Many of them are at the expense of Hercule Poirot. Poirot is fastidiously neat and he likes things well-ordered and organized. And square. In fact, one of the running jokes that’s mentioned in several novels is Poirot’s wish that hens could be taught to lay square eggs. Although no-one could accuse him of false modesty, Poirot takes these jokes in stride. That ability of his makes him more human.

And then there’s Christie’s fictional detective Ariadne Oliver. She may be a little eccentric, but as Poirot points out, she’s a shrewd judge of character, and she’s intelligent. But she does have her oddities, and they’re the basis of a few running jokes. One of them is her love of apples. When we first meet her in Cards on the Table, she, Poirot and two other sleuths solve the stabbing murder of the very unusual Mr. Shaitana. In that novel, there are several instances where Mrs. Oliver is eating or has just been eating apples. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Oliver works with Poirot to solve the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her landlord. When Poirot first encounters Mrs. Oliver in that novel, he’s actually hit by an apple core that she throws out the window of her car. When she gets out of the car, a large bag of apples she’s been eating falls all over the road.

Another running joke about Mrs. Oliver is that she’s constantly experimenting with her hair. Her hairstyles range from severe to whimsical and from elaborate to very simple. She often forgets, too, which sort of style she’s chosen, and has a habit of ruining the style by running her hands through her hair when she’s perplexed or upset.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series about Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir also has a few running jokes. One of them has to do with her secretary/assistant Bella. Thóra and her law partner Bragi are trying to establish their practice in the face of limited funds and plenty of competition. So they want to have as professional a practice as they can. Bella, however, seems to do everything possible to sabotage that. She smokes regularly, although she’s been told not to do so in the office. She doesn’t take messages, she’s rude and surly to clients and to her employers, and she spends more time idle than she does doing work. Here, for instance, is a bit from Last Rituals, in which Thóra works with German banker Matthew Reich to solve the murder of Harald Guntlieb, the son of one of Reich’s client families:

“’Someone phoned,’ Bella mumbled, glued to her computer screen.

Thóra looked up in surprise from hanging up her coat. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘Do you have any idea who it was?’

‘No. Spoke German, I think. I couldn’t understand him anyway.’

‘Is he going to call back?’

‘I don’t know. I cut him off. By accident.’

‘In the unlikely event that he does ring back, would you mind putting the call through to me? I studied in Germany and I speak German.’

‘Hmph,’ Bella grunted. She shrugged. ‘Maybe it wasn’t German. It could have been Russian. And it was a woman. I think. Or a man.’”

Under any other circumstances, a secretary like that would be fired. Thóra and Bragi can’t fire Bella, though. She’s their landlord’s daughter, and one of the conditions of their lease on the office property is that they have to employ Bella.

There are also running jokes in Martha Grimes’ series that features Inspector Richard Jury and aristocrat Melrose Plant. Plant and his aunt, Lady Agatha Adrdy, have a difficult relationship, and one of the running jokes in Grimes’ novels is the way in which these two feel about each other. We first meet Melrose Plant and his aunt in The Man With a Load of Mischief, in which Plant works with Jury to solve the murders of two men, apparently strangers to the town of Long Piddlington. Here’s a snippet of what I mean about their relationship. In this scene, they’re a part of a group discussing the murders:

“’Don’t expect compassion from Melrose,’ put in his aunt righteously…. ‘Living in that enormous house all alone…it’s no wonder you’re antisocial.’

And yet here he was at tea, being terribly social. Melrose sighed. His aunt always could fly in the teeth of the evidence.

Running jokes are also threaded through Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series. One of them is in the person of Officer Agatino Catarella, who works with Montalbano at the Vigàta Questura. Catarella is

“…frankly hopeless. Slow to think and slow to act, he had been hired by the police because he was a distant relative of the formerly all-powerful Chamber Deputy Cusumano...”

Whenever Catarella has a message to relay or gets involved in any conversation, regular readers know that something is going to get muddled. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a ‘phone conversation between Montalbano and Catarella, in which Catarella telephones Montalbano at home:

“’Hello’ [Montalbano]

‘Whoozis I’m speaking with?’

‘Tell me first who you are.’

‘This is Catarella.’

‘What’s the matter?’

‘Sorry, Chief. I didn’t rec’nize your voice as yours. You mighta been sleeping.’

‘I certainly might have, at five in the morning!...’”

Readers of this series know to expect some sort of comic misunderstanding when Catarella makes an entrance.

There are lots of other running jokes in crime fiction, too. For instance, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum has a habit of wrecking cars. M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is one of the most reluctant constables in crime fiction. His wish to be left alone and not go to the trouble of investigating – especially when the fish are biting – is a running joke in that series. Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is not what you would call particularly domestic. Her – er – adventurous cooking is a running joke in the novels that feature her.

Those running jokes can add welcome comic relief and can warmly include the reader in the story. Which are your favourite running jokes?

On Another Note…

If you’re celebrating Chanukah, I wish you a very happy festival. May the candles remind you of the miracles that happen in all of our lives. Oh, and don’t worry; potato pancakes and jelly doughnuts have no calories or fat content if they are eaten during Chanukah – I told you there are miracles ;-).

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Good Day Sunshine.


  1. Humor is always a plus, in crime fiction, in any drama.

    I agree. Miracles can happen in our lives. They've happened many, many times in mine.

    Have a great week!
    Ann Best, A Long Journey Home

  2. Ann - You are so right!! Humour is a very welcome touch in any drama. It relieves the tension and allows the reader to take in the rest of the story.

    And I'm glad you've had your share of miracles :-). They really happen for all of us.

    Enjoy the week, yourself.

  3. I love inside jokes, and watching Poirot and Ariadne Oliver work together is always a joy. Also love how Poirot goes weak in the knees when he encounters Vera Rossakoff which cannot be too often for me.
    And isn't there something about him throwing a vegetable marrow over the fence in 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd' - loved that scene. In fact, I love all the inside jokes in the Poirot series.

  4. Running jokes is an interesting topic because it really varies how many times you can introduce it. Often TV shows beat it to death because they invest so few traits into their characters. You know if you the character walks into the room, there is going to be the joke about them being sloppy, or whatever. But used judiciously, it can be a welcomed break from the narrative.

  5. Rayna - Oh, those inside jokes really are terrific, aren't they? And right you are about the vegetable marrow in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Poirot retires to grow vegetable marrows, but he doesn't have much success with them. He gets infuriated and throws one over the fence - directly at his neighbour. It's a really funny scene! And you know - I'd like to see more of Vera Rossakoff, too.

    Patti - You are absolutely right! For "flat" characters, the running joke can get tiresome. TV shows are good examples of that, I think. They don't develop characters, so we never see anything about them but whatever the joke is. When characters are "fuller," as they are in a good book, then a running joke can, indeed, be welcome.

  6. Hmmmm .... I might just have to convert to Judiasm for the season. No calories? I'm in!

  7. Stephen - LOL! And homemade latkes (potato pancakes) are sinfully delicious :-).

  8. I like the running jokes. I think they make the characters that much more realistic. I was thinking of Myrtle as I was reading your post. She definitely fits in.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. Mason - I agree! There's something more authentic about characters when their little foibles become running jokes. And I just love Myrtle Clover! She's a terrific character, isn't she??

  10. I'm with Rayna; any time Poirot gets into a bind with his marrows or his mustache amuses me to pieces. Have a joyous Chanukah and there's no such thing as too many latkes!

  11. Elspeth - Thanks for the good wishes :-). I have to agree with you about the latkes, too ;-). And yes, Poirot is so funny about his moustaches, isn't he? Thanks for that reminder!

  12. In Carolina Garcia Aguilera's Lupe Solano series, the outlandish clothes and workup obsession of Lupe's cousin (who works for her) is a recurring joke. And there are those colorful parrots outside her office window...

  13. Patricia - Oh, that is a good example! I like the idea of a recurring character like that who brings a welcome touch of comic relief. Whenever a character like that makes an entrance, you know something interesting will happen, and as long as the character's developed, it adds much to the plot.