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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Any book that lacks humor altogether is a hard, dry read; mysteries are no exception. That's not to say violence or killing should be treated as humorous or trivial, but events surrounding them, and things that happen to, and are perceived by, the characters might be funny as hell. Just like life.

As Chandler said in The Simple Art of Murder, It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.
Good quote!
I loved the Marlow books. Great noir.
The mystery story that I'm writing has lots of elements of dark comedy and satire. The detective is sort of a parody of the suave dashing wealthy adventurer, he has the money, but he's awkward, nerdy, and tries to avoid getting involved until dragged into it.

The main themes tend to be satirical, making fun of people's obsession with image, tabloid gossip, and the entertainment industry in general. The trick is to keep the humor natural, and not to let it overwhelm the story.
I'm new to this site, but I'm going to jump right in because I write mysteries that are mostly lighter with a little humor.

My feeling is that there's absolutely nothing funny about murder; however, you can find some humor in the person who's solving the crime, in the other characters, and in the situations they are involved in. I appreciate an author that can be respectful of the victim and still create some fun with the other parts of the story. I find that more and more I'm reading for entertainment because there are so many ugly things in our lives already that I don't want to bring more in by way of a too serious book. That's not to say I never read drama, but my preference at this stage of my life is something with a little humor.
Hi Marja--welcome to crimespace.
Thank you! It's good to be here. And it looks like there are some interesting discussions.
I'm new to this site, but I'm going to jump right in

That's what I did--and now I'm no longer the "newest kid on the block!" :) Welcome!
These discussions really open up a lot of ways to think about crime fiction---and also, I'm discovering interesting and talented new writers to read.

Well, I think we all do agree that " there's absolutely nothing funny about murder" and although I read mysteries for entertainment as well, I have always had an intense curiosity about the psychology of murder---not just serial killers---about why anyone would commit the most terrible of crimes. Take those risks, destroy the lives not only of the victim, but of others as well. Pre-disposition? A sociopathic personality? Greed? Passion? Opportunity? All of the above?

For this reader, the most intriguing and suspenseful stories are those in which the subject is approached fairly seriously. (I don't mind a little levity amongst the characters now and then, but I like a more sombre approach, and the promise of hackle-raising suspense.

Not long ago I read Amanda Lamb's "Deadly Dose," the TRUE story of the case of Ann Miller Kuntz, who, with the help of a lover, poisoned to death (with ARSENIC) her young husband Eric. It was of particular interest to me because the couple had been AIDS researchers at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, the town where I lived and worked for many years. So my curiosity was two-fold. When murder happens "right next door," so to speak, to people who seem utterly normal and ordinary, you just can't help wanting to know more. The murder was pre-meditated, carried out over a period of months, and as cold and calculating as anything you could ever imagtine. And the couple had an infant daughter a few months old---adored by her father, who was by ALL accounts a kind, gentle person who had a promising career ahead. Yet his wife decided he had to die. I had been curious about this case for several years. Well, the book did answer a lot of questions, and I literally could not put it down. It's fascinating on every level--including the procedures of law and the courts. ....I digress...sorry! :) If you can't digress a little on a forum....anyhoo.

Back to what I was saying before: Not every mystery (perhaps none, really) can fully answer the question of WHY, but it's like a puzzle you keep going back to, to see how many ways there might be of solving it. Every murder will be a little different.

The ultimate satisfaction is in the resolution.

Even in stories where conventional justice is not always achieved ( I think immediately of Ruth Rendell/ Barbara Vine's haunting "A Fatal Inversion"--- IMO one of her absolute best) the ending is not only stunning but ultimately very satisfying in its closure. There's not really any humor in it at all, that I can recall, per se --although it is in no way dry or dreary; there is a lot of sensous pleasure in the evocation of place and of a brief, nostalgic time of youthful, idyllic "dolce far niente" which goes terribly wrong because the protagonists are too young and immature to make the right decisions). So the TONE of the novel is nostalgia overlaid with chlling fear: the past has just been uncovered, and is threatening to destroy the lives of three people who believed they had put it behind them forever.
Another recently read and, to me, very effective psychological mystery in which the tone is very serious is Laura Lippman's "What the Dead Know." Also quite believable, and with a very satisfying finish.
Thank you for the welcomes I've received here!

One of the things I enjoy most when writing is determining the "why" of it all. There are so many crimes committed in the name of passion or greed, or whatever, but the ones with a deeper psychological meaning can be so much more than just jumping in and firing a gun out of anger, or pushing someone in front of a train out of frustration.

You can combine drama, suspense, mystery, humor and psychology all in one book and still come up with a good story. Even an entertaining story. I've read several that cover it all.

For my first time here, this has been quite an interesting discussion.
the ones with a deeper psychological meaning can be so much more than just jumping in and firing a gun out of anger, or pushing someone in front of a train out of frustration.

Yes! And those are the ones that make the best murder mysteries, IMO.

But passion and greed can run quite deep---masking other "problems." What makes one person greedy enough to kill? And what happens when passion turns to brooding obsession, but the person never shows it at all on the surface? Ann Miller Kuntz hid her secret passion very well---from her husband, and from almost everyone else, for a long time.

Ruth Rendell deals with theme that so well. (I'm always bringing up her name, as you may have noticed :) ---she's a great favorite).

this has been quite an interesting discussion.
Makes me want to read everyone's books---my list is going to be a pretty long one! I make no promises....but I think it's quite exciting to "talk" with someone and then go and read what they've written.

Fun and stimulating, isn't it!
Welcome, Marja!
"I appreciate an author that can be respectful of the victim and still create some fun with the other parts of the story"

That may be the best description yet. Respect for the victim is imperative to helping to build empathy between the reader and the protagonist. A lot of things can be funny in a story, laugh out loud funny, even, but the acknowledgment of the act of murder has to show deference to the seriousness of the offense in some way.
Respect for the victim is imperative to helping to build empathy between the reader and the protagonist

Now we've come full circle---because this was really what I was getting at in my post.

The question of whether or not, when the overall TONE of a mystery is too playful or humorous, that respect for the victim is compromised. And if that happens, murder is trivialized. It's just something I think an author has to think about---because his (or her) readers certainly will notice when STYLE takes over. It's important for a main character to be convincing---but I still maintain that too much of a good thing lessens the impact of the serious crime and the suspense.

Or when the method of murder (as in some fiction) is improbable or ridiculous. That too, is a form of humor I've seen in some mysteries. They almost become spoofs. Or when the victim himself (or herself) is portrayed as a stereotype, someone everybody hates, etc. You know the scenario I'm talking about. So yes. Respect for the victim! That's it.


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