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 think it's perfectly fine to have a serious crime book with some humor.

Yes. Given. I was talking about tone. But there have been lots of good responses. And you're right---much depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

For the most part, if I want humor, I won't look under M for Mystery.

Although some black humor mysteries/crime novels work exceptionally well---I'm thinking of the Dexter series. They're both darkly funny and very suspenseful--- cleverly forcing the reader to SIDE with a killer because he has a moral code, and gets to be the "good" guy because there's someone much WORSE out there!
Very questionable logic in that particular manipulation, and I, for one, didn't buy it. Dexter was repellent to me. (I'm referring to thye book). There are all sorts of moral codes and the one that says you should kill those who in your view deserve to be killed is highly dubious. It implies that we admire people who think they are the chosen ones and better than other people or organizations.

But in any case, those books only work because they follow a serial killer about, and not for their moral stance.
one that says you should kill those who in your view deserve to be killed is highly dubious.

It seemed to me that the point of the Dexter series---and of course it was meant as black comedy--- was to make readers or viewers remember that maybe we've all had a fantasy, at least at some time or another, about killing someone who was a real pain....
And of course as someone I know who is a psychotherapist pointed out---Dexter couldn't have been a true psychopath or he would never have been able to have any feelings at all for his girlfriend and her children, and of course---the "inhuman" Dexter did exactly that.

Oh, I think the moral stance is shaky too!

But there again---we come to that question of how much humor does there need to be in a murder mystery before it turns into something else.
I.J. and I have argued this since day one here, seems like, but in my view the compelling moral stance isn't necessarily the one that confirms what I already think. That said, fetishizing the serial killer is problematic, but more because it's already kind of a cliché than because of the moral problem it presents. Even Thomas Harris's later books felt like self-parody, so it's hard to see how subsequent serial-killer-as-hero books wouldn't seem even more derivative. But hey, I write detective novels, and that's never been done before. Heh.
fetishizing the serial killer is problematic, but more because it's already kind of a cliché than because of the moral problem it presents.

And of course we know it's fiction---that we aren't really fetishizing a REAL life killer, like the BTK. Besides, hashing out these issues probably makes you better writers, in that it makes you look at your genre more closely, no?

I always think it's good to be exposed to things you don't like, or aren't sure about (in writing as well as in visual art) because it helps you clarify what you do like, and why you should keep doing it.

Even Thomas Harris's later books felt like self-parody,

Agree. That dining table scene was really gross....and did he not sell out Clarice in a big way, "rehabilitating" his monster and thinking GIVING him the girl? But in the movie, they just couldn't bring themselves to stick with the book ending!
And Jodie Foster, to her credit, refused to play the part. Silence of the Lambs was a wonderful book; hard to catch lightning in a bottle, I guess.
Jodie Foster, to her credit,

A very intelligent woman. And actress. She brings grace and dignity to every role she plays.
Too bad Harris couldn't have left it where he did.... after "Silence." But I think he probably just got too caught up in trying to explore/ explain/justify the monster he'd created. Based, as you probably know, on the (never caught) Monster of Florence. Another fascinating true story about a mutilating murderer as well as the appalling corruption of the legal and the judicial Italy.
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?
Well, hmm. Mostly I like a fairly "human" (AND humane) detective. It's certainly OK for them to give in to stress sometimes, when the case just gets to be too much for them. That also draws the reader in: weary detective, why can't I break this case , what am I missing? That generates suspense too--out of sympathy/empathy.

Sherlock Holmes, a perennial favorite, was not exactly known for his personal sense of humor....but then, he had Watson. :) Having a good sidekick is very important in a good detective novel, for sure! (As grouchy Morse had .... to leaven his bad disposition....what's his name, it just slipped my mind!)

Of course Sherlock had other forms of relaxation, and was a bit too highbrow for the average policeman. Still, he WAS a kind of trickster, with the disguises he often liked to assume. But without humble Watson, we might not have liked Sherlock quite as much!
Exactly. Conan Doyle made the right choice in picking Watson to narrate--and humanize--the Holmes books. Of course, he stole that trick lock, stock and barrel from Poe.
Of course, he stole that trick lock, stock and barrel from Poe.

Love Poe!
My husband thinks he was the greatest writer of all.
And did he know how to manage the chills!

But don't all writers (and artists ) steal? (Borrow? Steal)
Or, maybe we should call it----carrying on a tradition! :)

And speaking of firsts and prototypes--- there was a mighty fine detective in Dickens' Bleak House, too! Kind of an early Columbo type---self-effacing but persistent.
Holmes's dry wit surfaced from time to time, usually when he noticed something that showed him the culprit thought himself to be clever. There are quite a few asides to Watson tat show tis. Of course, I can remember none of them now. Once again, I choke under pressure.
The problem with the story is that it's locked within the pages of a single, small book, where you read it with myopic vision

I think you've hit the nail on the head.
It's a microcosm---a coded image of a world, not the real one.


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