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?