Sunday, June 14, 2009

How much humor in a mystery?

by Ben Small

Personally, I'm repelled by sleuths cracking jokes while they solve a crime, because murder is serious business, but that doesn't mean there's no place for humor in a mystery, does it? I mean, can't humorous things happen to a sleuth while he or she is on the case, and the mystery still be serious business?

No, I'm not talking about wise-cracking cats or flatulence-causing recipes. I mean like some mechanical or electrical idiot -- like me -- partially frying him-or-herself while trying to cut off an alarms system during a sleuthing episode, or missing a nail with a hammer, both of which can be funny as hell while the sleuth, albeit injured, is deadly serious about what he or she is doing. Or how about a perp trying to shoot a victim, forgetting about a safety. Heck, just yesterday, I was at the range trying to shoot a new Romanian AK-47 only to find normal AK mags didn't fit like they should, making the gun useless.

These things happen to the most serious of people.

I'm reminded of the scene in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, where Bogie is debating whether to reach under a rock where he's hidden his stash, when his two partners saw a gila monster crawl under the rock. Funny to them, not so funny to Bogie, who after sweating and cursing, finally decides it's best to be cautious and trust them. You see him reach, hesitate, reach, hesitate, studying all the while their grinning faces, and then deciding it's not worth the risk. Something like this provides both suspense and humor.

Good stuff. Wish I'd thought of it. But then, I'm not that old. First come, first serving.

Or what about the perp who stabbed Monica Seles in the back being hit by the bounce of an errant serve and having the knife knocked out of his hand. Yes, it could have happened, but alas, it didn't. Sure he would have had to have been behind her, perhaps just ready to leap the wall, when BLAMO, the guy is nailed. Good stuff. Too bad it didn't happen. After all, if I remember correctly, the whacko jumped her in between games. But we as writers aren't limited to reality.

We can make stuff up.

One of the things I love about Harlan Coban books is the humor he lays on as his protag is working through the mystery. The guy knows how to make his protag look foolish even while we know he's on a serious mission and eventually will succeed.

On the other hand, there's James Bond, who's always cracking jokes even while his "package" is about to be lasered off at the hands (pardon the pun) of Goldfinger. How realistic is that?

Don't get me wrong: I love James Bond in all his iterations. But Bond's joking in that situation was just stupid. Or maybe I just think so because I'm a guy...

How about you? What and where do you think humor is appropriate in a mystery?


Jean Henry Mead said...

Humor is a great ingredient in a mystery/suspense/thriller novel to keep the book out of the melodrama zone. When the protag and his sidekick or associate are discussing the case, a little humor can successfully be added. Or, as you said, when the detective screws up in his investigation.

Chester Campbell said...

I saw first-hand how cops crack jokes to ease the tension while on a ride-along with a homicide detective. Turned out the case didn't amount to anything, but they picked up on humorous aspects and got a laugh out of it. I like subtle humor and use it frequently between Greg and Jill in my McKenzie mysteries.

Unknown said...

Good point, Chester. Cops do use humor, just as pathologists do, like referring to burn victims as "crispy critters." And it does help break the tension. I was really thinking more about amateur sleuths, real people who are sleuthing a murder either because of some connection to someone who is suspected, because the victim was a relative or friend, or maybe a neighbor. Cops have to be tough to withstand what they see everyday on the streets, and humor is a good way to ease the tension. Good catch!