Murder and Humor: Oil and Water? The Tone of a Mystery.

In my first post ever, I took exception to incidents (IMO gratuitous) of cruelty to animals in murder mysteries. During the course of that very lively discussion, someone brought up--inevitably--the moral dilemma of whether or not one is LESS upset by the violence done to humans --whether adult or children---than that occasionally done to animals.  Which is, of course, the premise of the  murder mystery, so we can't really do without it!
However, there are all sorts of ways to handle violent death, different "attitudes."  These attitudes, which presumably reflect the author's own, are embodied in the novel by the various protagonists---most strongly by the detectives, of course--but in no small way by other characters as well.

 I am talking now about the TONE of the mystery (and therefor also about the author's INTENT in writing the mystery).  Is the TONE  grimly serious, a social diatribe,  a black humor satire in the guise of a mystery, a  light-hearted travelogue caper,  or post-modern cozy?   (Most contemporary mysteries seem to incorporate elements of different types).   Is it meant to raise your hackles, or only mildly titillate your suspense receptors?  Is it a beach read or a novel that attempts to "transcend the genre?"

Now and then I will enjoy a murder mystery with a whimsical tone--- for instance Jane Langton's series, always delightfully illustrated by the author, ---which are actually quite serious underneath it all---but when I see the word "funny"  or "witty" in one of the book-jacket blurbs, I may not take that one home with me.

I think I did say that I read mysteries for "escape" and relaxation---and that's true, up to a point. I love good ambiance, naturalistic dialogue, a complex plot and spine-tingling suspense; but on some level I believe I'm also reading for the experience of "catharsis." (Maybe that's the suspense---release from terror).  It sounds sort of pretentious to say so---but there you are.

The bottom line is that TONE is very important. How much humor and wit---black or incidental---can a story take before murder becomes trivialized?  Before the suspense is actually diluted ?  Before the corpse, once a living breathing human being, becomes a cipher? Becomes compromised---so that we care less about who he or she was, or why this happened to them?

It goes without saying that we accept the death of the first (and often subsequent) victims as the premise of a novel about crime---but are we moved by it?  And in what way?  How does the writer  manipulate OUR attitude?  Does a story in which a lot of wit and humor is employed suggest that this victim was expendable? Deserved to die?  That we should not care about the person who was murdered, only about how the detective goes about solving the crime?

I'm not suggesting that there is no place in murder mysteries for wit, any more than that there is no place for sex or gustatory pleasures, as a minor diversion, or to flesh out the characters, make them convincing.  A serious story can often use a touch of comic relief. But where do you draw the line?

I should add--maybe the TONE of a given mystery is determined by who you see as your main audience?






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I should add--maybe the TONE of a given mystery is determined by who you see as your main audience?

I think that is true. If the author is flexible enough to adjust to audience considerations, he can either aim for the noir/hardboiled crowd, or the lighthearted cozy group. I'm not. I cannot write the books that sell so well.

As for humor, I tend to follow Shakepeare's example in that a bit of funny stuff tends to raise the impact of the the tragic events.
As for humor, I tend to follow Shakepeare's example in that a bit of funny stuff tends to raise the impact of the the tragic events.

Good point, I.J. ! And if it was good enough for Shakespeare....:)

I cannot write the books that sell so well.


But you write the books that intrigue you, the books you want to write regardless. There are probably any number of writers who turn to mysteries because they DO sell. Not saying that's a bad thing to want---only that it certainly will influence the kind of book one writes.
My books are dark comedies disguised as mysteries. When I write genre my aim is always to entertain. Myself, mostly--and if that works for a broader audience, woo hoo! I get paid! I don't see genre as a very promising platform for emotional depth or philosophical profundity; you wouldn't want to seem to be trying for those things--authors who do so risk coming off as preachy and/or pretentious and/or tedious, which are things you certainly don't want to be. If I want to get at the big stuff, I'll write poetry.

As for trivializing murder/death: a good friend of mine is married to an ER doc, and she is the single funniest person I've ever met. That dark sense of humor is what gets her through the day, it turns out. The same thing applies to cops, often, and soldiers in war-time, and other people with really stressful or physically demanding jobs. The least-funny people I've ever worked with are academics, and that should tell you something. For me, writing about death and dismemberment without the characters cracking jokes on the next page would feel as though I was forcing the emotional heaviosity a bit. We get that murder is bad. We get that death is final and grim. Let's have cocktails!
My books are dark comedies disguised as mysteries

Thought so.

That dark sense of humor is what gets her through the day, i

Yes, I can see how that would be necessary. Except in front of the victim's loved ones... I note that more than one fictional "forensic specialist" has a "dark" sense of humor. Although I was referring to the general TONE of the entire book.

The least-funny people I've ever worked with are academics,

Except when they are the OBJECT of the humor...:) As in Randall Jarrell's wonderful "Pictures from an Institution." And there are certainly more than a few amongst that elite company who have inspired thoughts of murder in their colleagues and staff...

If I want to get at the big stuff, I'll write poetry.


You just won't have much of an audience, (or an income) since the public is generally intimidated by poetry. I've only found two of your poems online (will look further)---but I was impressed.

I don't see genre as a very promising platform for emotional depth or philosophical profundity;


But a few authors have pulled it off.

Let's have cocktails!

Now? OK....
Except when they are the OBJECT of the humor...:) As in Randall Jarrell's wonderful "Pictures from an Institution."

Haven't read Jarrell's book, though I've been reading a lot of academic comedies lately. Thinking I might write one.


And there are certainly more than a few amongst that elite company who have inspired thoughts of murder in their colleagues and staff...

That's one way to get through those endless departmental meetings. ..

You just won't have much of an audience, (or an income) since the public is generally intimidated by poetry.

Well, yeah. Which is why I also write mysteries.

But a few authors have pulled it off.

No doubt--and in fact I think I may have, too, a couple of times, mostly by accident. But again, I'm not sure why you'd want to. That's what poetry or lit-fic is for. For me, the first rule in genre is entertain, dammit. Everything else is secondary. Which is not to say there's no room for emotional depth, or artistry. I care very much about the quality of the writing in my work, and I want the novels to ring true emotionally--if it's all farce, then there's very little at stake. I want the reader to root for my detectives, and feel a sense of triumph when the bad guys get what's coming to them. I want them to squirm a bit when the suspense is building; I don't mind giving them a dark image or two for their subconsciouses (?) to play with. But I avoid the trap of the altogether innocent victim: that seems like kind of a cheap way to stir the reader's emotions to me.

Now? OK....

That's what I'm talkin' about.
That's what poetry or lit-fic is for

For me as well. But I do like a good thriller/chiller that will keep me chewing my knuckles. :)

I avoid the trap of the altogether innocent victim: that seems like kind of a cheap way to stir the reader's emotions to me.

I think most readers don't want a victim to be TOO innocent. But if an author begins a crime novel with the brutal murder of a child, for example, a certain tone has already been set, and irreverence has to be doled out with care---as I'm sure everyone will agree.

Haven't read Jarrell's book,

It's hilarious and delightful. I don't even know if it's still in print, but I bet you can probably find it on Amazon or Alibris. I haven't read it in years, but remembered enjoying it immensely. ( At that time I also liked Jarrell's poetry very much---he was a complex and troubled person). And of course the other great "academic comedy" is Pnin...now if you want pathos in comedy, there it is. One of my favorite novels of all time, and one I've re-read often.

Thinking I might write one.


I'd read it! You'd likely be good at it. Your dialogue really is funny. It would have to been an English Lit department though. Art & Art History would be good too (I used to work in one) ---but nothing could be quite as rich as Eng. Lit. The rivalries...the divided loyalties...the minefields....oh, bliss. (Victim was mowed down by a tenure tractor).
The best stories always have some form of humor in it. If its all angst and bad juju--then it turns out to be a literary novel. And god knows those or about as interesting to read as the instructions on the back of a paint can.
-then it turns out to be a literary novel. And god knows those or about as interesting to read as the instructions on the back of a paint can.

Surely you don't mean all literary novels---perhaps only the ones try try too hard and miss the mark? I've read lots of wonderful literary novels. All it means is that a particular novel is good enough to be considered "literature" rather than dross or slush....
IMHO, the best humor always has pathos in it. I think humor definitely belongs in a mystery.
I think humor definitely belongs in a mystery.

I don' argue that. (In fact, I'm not arguing at all). I was thinking more about how an overall humorous, tongue-in-cheek tone might change a murder mystery into something else. Jon says, for instance, that his mysteries are actually INTENDED to be black humor. So then the reader who is looking for a "straight" mystery might be surprised to find himself or herself in the midst of a comedy. Or someone who likes the hard core social expose might be a little put off by the cozy school, batten down the hatches until we find the killer at the B & B approach to death....
I try to make sure my novels are satisfying as mysteries, too, though I do spoof on the conventions a bit. It's true that not everybody gets the joke, but that's okay with me.
I didn't read the entire thread, LOL. But I skimmed through and I just wanted to say that there are different types of mysteries and it mostly goes with the author's style. I think it's perfectly fine to have a serious crime book with some humor. Nothing wrong with a homicide detective and his partner exchanging a few dirty jokes while they're reading a report, LOL. Seriously, I definitely think there is room for humor in crime fiction. I am a naturally humorous person so sometimes that comes out in my characters. I think if everyone is hard-faced and serious in the entire novel it gets tiresome. Injecting humor in spots where folks wouldn't expect it is exciting and a spark that will keep readers' eyes open.

So I think it's room for humor in crime fiction and mysteries. Yes we're moved by it, if the WRITER knows how to write it naturally. I've read some books where the ton was straight serious one minute, then the officers were joking with each other the next. That's human nature and that's realistic. You're supposed to jolt the readers' emotions.

Also humor is a great emotion and it helps people relate to the characters more. Who would you relate to more as a reader? Someone who never smiles, takes every little thing in his world so seriously he's full of stress? Or someone who might be going through the struggles of everyday life and still cracking a few jokes here and there? I think humor is natural sometimes it also lightens up the character and gives them a more human side.

Humor is natural and entertaining to me. A joke or two in a crime novel would be fine and fit well. It depends on how the author displays it. I also like crime novels that are a part of the humorous genre.

You can go into a real police station and you'll see how many of the officers and detectives are joking around. They are some of the liveliest and entertaining folks you'd meet and they do the job of crime fighting for real. Humor is a part of personality and I think it just makes things more interesting.

Best Wishes!

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