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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Some of the darkest books can still have you laughing one moment and cringing the next - Allan Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Helen Fitzgerald - all of them write very dark books that are also very funny - sometimes in an "oh my god, I can't believe I just laughed at that" type of way. I love humour in crime fiction from the little touches of sly humour that Daniel Woodrell includes, to the out and out joyous fun of Donald Westlake's books. Just because they're funny, doesn't mean they trivialise murder. Murder's not funny, but life is. There are books without one iota of humour that trivialise murder and leave me with a bad taste. And there are books that take themselves too seriously. And I don't mean they're serious books - it can be a serious book without taking itself too seriously. If that makes sense...well, it does to me :o)
. Murder's not funny, but life is.

Sometimes, anyway!
Can't speak for the others, but yes, Ken Bruen is a master at that.
Looked at his website....so many books! Any suggestions about where to start? Do you have a favorite? (Anybody is free to suggest).
I was thinking I didn't really need recommendations---I check out my SYKM newsletters---but I'm starting to think this would be a better way. Except I am going to end up with a VERY long list! :)
I only like the Jack Taylor series, but those, I think, are superb. Irish noir. Check Amazon to see which is the first. I think it's THE GUARDS.
Allan Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Helen Fitzgerald -

I'm jotting down all those names--authors I haven't read yet. Thank you!
Oh, Donna--just left you a little message--didn't have space to say much. Re: Nancy Drew/ Carolyn Keene---I found out years later---you probably know this: Carolyn Keene was a whole LOT of different writers! No such person at all!
Yeah, we outgrew Nancy. Sad, but it had to happen. :) I used to get all those mysteries from the library across the street---I loved the titles, (The Secret of Lilac Lane?) and the little black and white illustrations. I would eat them up, along with the Trixie Belden stories, and get all fired up to write my own. That usually went well for a couple of hours. I'd come up with an appropriately tantalizing title---and the cover illustration (girls with flashlights, sneaking through woods, etc.) and then lose interest. :) But, once a mystery fan---always a mystery fan! (I never followed anyone, though!)
LOL! That was how I approached the writing of my first mystery story--made up the title and drew the cover before the first word was written. Of course, I was nine at the time, so it made perfect sense to do it that way...

It was a joint project, written with a friend, and came out to around 40 typewritten pages. No murder, but attempted ones, very Hardy Boys-ish in nature.

I don't mind humor in a mystery, as long as it's appropriate to the story. But it really does have to be a natural outgrowth of characters and situations. If it feels forced, I'm less likely to want to finish reading the book.
came out to around 40 typewritten pages.

That's pretty impressive for a 9-year-old. Or even two. I must have been about that age as well.
As it turns out, I had (have) no gift for plot. (I always though it would be terrific fun to write mysteries---I just don't have a clue how to start, ha ha. ) I was great with titles, though! I could make up a dozen at a time. And I loved to draw. (Still do).

i'm sure if I had written a mystery then it would have been funny all right---though maybe not in a way I'd intended! :D

Of course there weren't any bodies in Nancy Drew, as I recall. They were mysteries--about things gone missing, "treasures" hidden in old clocks, all very clean and a little bit scary.
I can't remember one other single thing about them except that Nancy had the car and Ned had money. And George....today, she'd had been the real sleuth!
Come to think of it, the Jack Frost series by R.D.Wingfield does this wonderfully well. A disreputable detective who steals his snotty superior's cigarettes and fiddles his car expenses but who has an incredibly soft heart for the victims' families.

Those books deserved a great deal better than they ever got from critics and awards juries. Proof once again that fame (even the fame that comes with Edgars) has nothing to do with the quality of the books.
fame (even the fame that comes with Edgars) has nothing to do with the quality of the books.

It's pretty much the same with poetry and with visual art. Jurors/juries, awards panels, often have their own agendas---"political" ones. Which is not to say that quality always goes unrecognized---but it may not be getting as much attention as forms that satisfy other "criteria." :)

Thanks for the recommendation.

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