In my opinion the one thing that unites the majority of crime fiction, apart from murder most foul, is comedy. Whether it be through the throw away one-liners that characterise the hardboiled detective era, the double act interplay of Holmes and Watson, or the elite society badinage of Mayhem Parva, death, it seems, is comedy gold. Or at least it used to be. Today I’d like to explore why crime fiction got so serious.
Such things are all conceits, at least in a literary sense, but they all lend themselves naturally to humour. Mayhem Parva novels are perhaps best characterised by large manor houses filled to the rafters with guests, all of whom had equal means, motive and opportunity to kill the victim, who is usually presented to the reader in the first chapter. The interplay between those characters and the investigator generates dialogue that is funny, despite the presence of murder. Detectives and their assistants, or sidekicks, are generally hewn from different material, and it is precisely the difference in their characters that makes their exchanges funny.
Similarly, the hardboiled detective era and its distinct, noir style of writing which so perfectly leads a character into a wisecrack, has humour, dark humour I grant you, at its heart. This, from The Long Goodbye (1953) by Raymond Chandler,
He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel. Over the phone anyway.
Dark, yes. Funny, absolutely. The problem with all this is not that murder isn’t funny but that parody isn’t funny, at least not if it is over done. Dialogue in the hands of a very skilled writer, can be both funny and frightening at the same time. One of the very best examples is The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970) by George V. Higgins. In film, I think that Tarantino’s command of dialogue is stunning, and whilst you may argue the violence in some of his work is gratuitous or that it celebrates bloody murder in a manner that is dangerous to society, I think his balance between crime and humour is very well done. As for the celebration of murder and its impact on society, I hardly think this is a criticism unique to Tarantino. We, particularly the British, have long been fascinated by murder, and crime fiction novels dominate bookshops and download charts in a manner which suggests it is the readership that drives the genre, not the other way around.
There is however, a fine line between homage, parody, spoof and downright unfunny, and once the lines are blurred I think humour seeps out of the genre. Do it right, as in the case of L.A. Confidential (both the 1990 neo-noir novel by James Ellroy and its Academy Award winning 1997 film adapation) and the results are truely stunning. Go too far, push the boundaries too much, introduce too many clichéd armchair detectives and the result ends up being a confused mixture of parody and homage that scratches too deeply at the original subject material. Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid (a 1982 film by Carl Reiner) is a good example.
Any genre has a way of responding to this though and finding examples from crime fiction is not difficult. Whether it be The Silence of the Lambs (1988) by Thomas Harris, or anything from the serial killer canon, or pretty much any Scandinavian crime fiction there is a clear pattern of crime good, humour bad. There is also a pattern in the astonishing amount of commercial and critical success that these works have generated, and continue to generate today. These are all good, stunningly so at their best, but they do lack humour. Now I don’t believe this is a bad thing, nor do I believe that for a crime fiction novel to be successful it must contain humour, but I do think it is an interesting point on which to reflect.
There is, if you are interested, a relatively unknown body of work available which seems to be putting some of the humour back into crime fiction. Authors like Malcolm Price (Aberystwyth Mon Amour, 2001, Last Tango in Aberystwyth, 2003, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, 2005) and Charlie Williams (Deadfolk, 2004, Fags and Lager, 2005) are extremely talented writers not afraid to challenge the genre, return it to its roots in the sense that there are elements of homage to certain styles and genres in both sets of works, but also to adapt these styles and drive the whole genre forward. This, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth,
The train slowed down at the approach to Shrewsbury station and glided between the eleventh-century abbey and the stadium of Shrewsbury Town Football Club. Two sacred arenas where men chanted and waited for a miracle that never came.
You don’t need humour to make the genre work, but when done right, when done like that, it is so very powerful.