Lenny Bruce said that all of his humor was based on destruction and despair and nothing less can be said of the following writers. They have melded the two seemingly polar opposites of crime fiction and humor into intelligent tales of people at their best and their worst. By meeting the darkest moments of their lives with humor, their characters show a resilience and humanness difficult to emulate with purely straight fiction. For the reader, the droll remarks and absurd situations keep novels from the unrelentingly somberness of other types of crime fiction.
Colin Bateman does not slap you in the face with one-liners or incite chortling with quips that seem as though they should be followed by a rim shot. His characters go through our worst days times ten, with all the grace of a hippo in tap shoes. Then they stand back up, say something snarky, and get slapped right back down. His novels will have you thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I", while sniggering by the light of your reading lamp. As Francois Truffaut says, "When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, it's just wonderful." Colin Bateman is just wonderful. And he doesn't even have to try to be wonderful.
"I don't build anything intentionally. I write without a plan, which can lead you up blind alleys, but it's the only way I can do it. I do a lot of film and TV work now and my lack of a coherent plan drives producers mad, because they like to know what they're getting. So I guess that makes the humour inherent. Some books, like my fourth, Empire State, start out as serious thrillers designed to attract the big bucks and Bruce Willis, but I always shoot myself in the foot by letting the humour in; Empire State was so politically incorrect that it became the first of my books not to be published in the States! And I haven`t been back since!"
In many ways, humor is truth. Bill Fitzhugh is a truth teller of vast and painful proportions. His characters are hilarious and thought provoking as they seemingly blunder into the oddest situations.
"I think all characters (people) are funny in some way. It's just a matter of revealing it. What's funny about them may be obvious to everyone or it may be apparent only when seen from a certain perspective. The humor might come from a character's obsession with something (whether it's model trains, cleanliness, sex, their sense of right and wrong, or anything else) or it could come from how seriously they take themselves or, at the other end of the spectrum, how they seem not to take anything seriously. Another approach is to put a (seemingly) serious character into an absurd (or extreme) situation and get at the humor by watching his or her response to it. Typically my protagonists are rather normal people stuck in absurd situations (a guy in the pest control business; an advertising exec; a lawyer) and surrounded by more 'colorful' characters (an improbably wealthy man dying of a rapid aging disease; an extremely optimistic guy who makes a living participating in phase III FDA experiments; bottom-of-the-barrel CIA agents, whatever). Playing them against each other reveals the humor in each."
Brian Wiprud, a seriously funny man and the well-deserved winner of the 2002 Lefty Award for his well-stuffed book Pipsqueak, has a similar take on whether humor in a character is intentional or inherent.
"I'll take what's behind door number two: inherent. Character's end up being amusing by the predicaments they get into, which is usually the result of a character's foibles - like greed, envy, security, gluttony, revenge, deception, love - which aren't very amusing in and of themselves. The most amusing characters are often those who are very serious, dangerous and sometimes homicidal."
Those are the seven fictional sins of Wiprud. If he had written the Ten Commandments, the first commandment would be, "Thou shalt fish", as Sleep with the Fishes archly articulates.
"The trouble didn't seem to start so much as it simply landed, like a hunk of blazing debris." Sean Doolittle wrote this as the first line of his debut novel, Dirt. His novel, Burn, is due to be released in September. He has a subtle hand and a dry wit that interplays with the chaos of crime beautifully.
"Hopefully (humor) comes naturally out of the character or a situation. There are times I find myself trying to be cute and it always shows, never in a good way. Sometimes a character comes off so precious I just want to feed them to the wolves. In general, I think my characters tend to use humor the same way many people I know use it: instinctively, as a basic coping mechanism, often as a way of deflecting a moment they'd rather not meet head on. Then again, sometimes they just like to have a laugh."
Katy Munger is the vessel through which some of the most hilarious humor flows. But, humor does have it's drawbacks. "The humor comes out of the character, but certainly a specific and distinct sense of humor is what attracted me to both my major protagonists in the first place and made me want to bring them to life (i.e., Casey Jones and Auntie Lil when I was writing as Gallagher Gray). The fact that they both use humor as a way to cope with life and deal with other people was the defining characteristic of both of them and this characteristic gave rise to all the other qualities I created for them. For example, they both also use humor to slip serious messages in now and then. One problem with this being their defining characteristic, however, is that readers and editors tend to not give you a lot of leeway with your characters once you have established them as being funny. They don't like it if you make them sad or depressed for more than a scene at a time, for example. I think this is because readers see a humorous spirit as a real strength and depend on that, I think, and don't like their heroes to be weak. And the editors don't like it when humorous characters aren't funny because they're afraid of pissing off readers (in general, depth is not a big selling point these days, anyway). As a result, creating a funny character can be limiting to an author in some ways."
A little bit country and a little bit Rock 'n Roll, Rick Riordan's Tres Navarre and the Texas he lives in bear the fruit of some of the funniest descriptions of characters and places I have read.
"Sometimes, as I'm writing I'll find that a serious character has a sense of humor that I hadn't intended originally. I think humor makes a character believable. It's hugely important to have a sense of what a person finds amusing, or conversely, what quirky habits they might have that the reader may find humorous. Writing about South Texas as I do, I find humorous characters come naturally to me. After all, we specialize in colorful, bizarre people here. We've even exported a few to national politics."
Sparkle Haytor is blessed with a rapid fire wit that she shares with her characters. Her writing is satirical and reflects on modern life with all of its foibles. When she writes, she apparently sends out for humor.
"It comes in a shrink-wrapped, vacuum-sealed package from Acme. I add water and stir. Very simple. Kinda like bouillon."
Malcolm Pryce, author of the sharp Chandleresque parody, Aberystwyth Mon Amour and Last Tango in Aberystwyth (due out this August), shares the humor-as-food analogy.
"Do I consciously add (humor) in as an ingredient like adding plums to a pie, then no. But then neither is it 'inherent', either, since when I start there is almost nothing there, like an undeveloped photo in a bath of chemicals. I think I'm looking for prototype characters in which the humour is latent and can be drawn out."
The next author reminds me of something Mason Cooley once said. "Humor does not rescue us from unhappiness, but enables us to move back from it a little." Mark Billingham's Detective Thom Thorne's dry humor may be all that keeps him sane with the darkness he deals with on a day-to-day basis.
"I find that most of the characters I create have humour lurking in them somewhere. With some, it is their very lack of any decent sense of humour that makes them funny to others, but most characters - most people I think - are funny on one level or another. As a crime writer I'm often working with characters who are involved in the very darkest areas of human life (or more particularly death) - police officers, doctors, whatever. These people usually have a sense of humour every bit as black as you would expect - as is necessary for them to get through their days..."
But, does this humor ever get in the way of the story? Does an author find him or her self taking something out, or conversely, adding more in because that's what's expected? Bateman answers.
"I think my sense of humour is very much a Northern Irish one, which mixes comedy and pathos and it's quite a hard trick to pull off (particularly for directors!) I wouldn't say it ever got in the way of the story, but hopefully adds to it; I like to make sad scenes funny, and funny scenes sad; it's the juxtaposition that I find interesting and hopefully my reader(s) does as well. I never have to add humour in, but I occasionally edit it out if it doesn't work, but that's just part of the editing process. I would never look at a chapter and say, hey, I need a joke on page 36. In fact, there's never a joke on page 36."
"The problem is that humor is so subjective. A humorous element that I might think is organic to the story might strike someone else as getting in the way. There's no way to write something that's funny to everyone so I write to make things funny to me. I usually have to take stuff out. The more I write the more I believe that Less is More. I have a tendency to go for every joke or every funny bit of action that comes to mind and that can clutter things up. I typically do a pass over a manuscript specifically to comb out the excess jokes that made me laugh while writing but that have no business being in the final story."
"It's not like you drop jokes or one liners or sudden pratfalls into the narrative that the characters stumble over. I see humor as a result of the story, not the other way around, so it can't possibly get in the way. In my books, the story is comprised of the characters working at cross-purposes. I do quite a bit of manipulation to enhance the inherent humor in these situations, primarily in the form of timing, switching perspectives, and contrasting situations. It cannot only evoke humor, but builds tension for a climax. Instead of just watching our protagonist try vainly to push his car out of the mud, why not intercut that scene with the fat lothario antagonist trying to seduce his girlfriend on a Ferris wheel?"
"Unless humorousness is the overriding tone of the story, I think humor can definitely get in the way. You know it when it happens because the book starts to seem like some eager wannabe stand-up comic who is always "on," always doing a bit. It helps if the bits are hysterical, but even then it wears you out eventually.
When the bits are lame, it's like you can sense the author's desperation beneath the surface of the prose. And it's not intentional subtext.
I think I edit out more "funny stuff" than I add in, usually because it's a) not funny, b) overkill, c) out of place, or d) all of the above.
Having said that, one of the more enjoyable cheats in writing dialogue is the time you have to think up the perfect response on behalf of a character--the thing you'd never think of in time if it were real life--and make it sound off-the-cuff."
Katy Munger has quite a bit to say on the subject.
"Humor certainly can get in the way of a story. Too many one-liners can create an annoying tone and slow things down or break the semblance of reality you have created. The important thing is to maintain the balance between humor and humanity. The amount of funny stuff that lands in any one scene often depends on the mood I was in the day I wrote it, so I always go back and try to even things out. I take out stuff that is glib, repetitious, dumb or that kills the main mood I am trying to create in a scene. I tend to slowly lose the funny stuff as I move toward the end of the book anyway, replacing it with more rapid action events instead so the book has momentum. And I think it's inappropriate to make jokes about dead bodies, etc. -- unless the deceased is a real pig and deserves it -- so I'll take out jokes made at such times, even if I was too in love with my own wit to leave them out the first time around. (Or, at least, it's inappropriate to make jokes about the victim if you want to paint a character who has a heart and soul.) I may also add in one-liners or funny moments when a scene is too serious for the type of book a reader expects, or if I have veered off character and need to bring the focus back in line, or just because on re-reading a scene I recognize a great opportunity for humor I did not see before. I used to believe that artificially inserting one-liners or humorous bits here and there would result in choppy writing and stand out as obvious, but that is definitely not true. I can't even remember what I added and when by the time a book comes out. It can be a very mechanical process and still work quite well.
Now there is definitely one circumstance in which humor REALLY gets in the way of a story -- and that is when you are blocked. Thank god I have never had writer's block. One reason I don't is that I simply don't write if I don't feel like it -- I don't think you can force your imagination -- and it has never created a problem for me. I always get the book done in the end. But I have friends who stay on strict writing schedules with their humorous books and when they start developing writer's block, the need to dredge up humor when your spirit is sagging and you're starting to panic is a deadly combination. It can paralyze you. Who the hell can be funny when you've created a deadline for yourself as big as King Kong and it's looming over you with teeth bared?
One other phenomenon I've noticed is that a writer will often start out funny, look around and notice humorous writers get no respect, then begin to feel they have to have a more "serious" plot to their books. That's when humor and plot start colliding, to the great detriment of both. You can't be all things to all people and just like we need to do in life, it's best just to relax and be who and what you are."
Rick Riordan is more relaxed.
"I usually find myself cranking up the humor rather than toning it down. I don't mean slapstick, but often dialogue reads much better, with a lot more punch, if the characters are digging into each other with some occasional witty comments. In serious situations like murder scene investigations, any cop can tell you that humor is a necessary defense mechanism. This is true in fiction as well as real life. Comic relief is at least as old as Shakespeare, after all. The darker the storyline, the more you need comedy as counterweight."
For Sparkle Hayter, it is a simple process.
"Yeah, there are lots of scenes I've written that I edited out later. In books like mine though, which are more comedies than mysteries, if it's funny, it usually works on that basis alone. I'll never edit out a huge belly laugh scene because my main goal is to make people laugh.
Sometimes, in the rewrite, a scene that seemed funny but irrelevant suddenly relates to the plot, themes or characters and I'll put it back in.
These days, comedy seems truer and more relevant than the news."
Malcolm Pryce approaches the subject botanically.
"I don't feel it gets in the way, but of course you have to be disciplined to make sure it doesn't. I don't edit with distinct characteristics or motifs in mind, like humour, mood, narrative or whatever. I just work through material time after time, always revising, and in that process all things that don't feel right are changed or taken out. A bit like mowing the lawn."
Mark Billingham, a risible young man with an elastic sense of humor, must find the editing process painful.
"Often I think of a gag and have to remind myself that I am writing serious stuff in which a gag - for a gag's sake - would stick out like a sore thumb. Why do sore thumbs stick out by the way? Who's sticking them out? If you have a sore thumb, wouldn't you keep it hidden away? Are there some very showy hitch-hikers about? Anyway...
Sometimes I do edit out 'funny' stuff, if I think it's come from me rather than from the character. I'm also well aware of where there may need to be stuff that is, at least light - to save things from becoming unremittingly bleak and depressing. There is usually humour of one sort or another to be found in any situation."
As many of these authors have mentioned, humor can make a book harder to sell. Publishers want to be able to classify books in order to push them to the right audience. At least, that's the theory. Many writers feel humor is low man on the publishing totem poll. How often is that the case?
Bateman doesn't seem to have a problem, unlike his character in Chapter & Verse, Ivan Connor.
"It makes it harder to sell in translation, that's for sure; I'm probably a serious novelist in Germany. I haven`t found it difficult to sell books to publishers, but I think they might have found it difficult to sell books to the public. I think people are wary of books that are marketed as comedies. I would prefer people to buy a book that they think is a seriously good thriller, but then find that they're laughing along with it. I think they're all serious stories, which just happen to be funny as well. I mean, in movie terms, you can look at Butch Cassidy or The Sting or James Bond and they're all funny in their own way, but you wouldn't describe them as comedies. Publishers have struggled to market the books, although I think the new ones (Headline in the UK) have got it just about right."
Fitzhugh affirms Bateman's thoughts.
"Not if it's supposed to be funny. I really have no idea if -- given equally well written books, one of which is a straight thriller and one of which is a satire or comic thriller -- one is easier to sell than the other. I'd have a hard time selling a 'straight' book since I don't think I could write one very well. Notice that I didn't say a 'serious' book. People sometimes confuse humor and comedy for lack-of-substance. My books are very serious. I tend to write about issues (institutional or personal corruption, hypocrisy, perfidy, etc.). But if I were to write about them in a 'straight' fashion, I'd be preaching. No one wants to read that. But if I can make my point while making you laugh, I've got a better chance of success.
Besides, there are hundreds of people writing 'straight' mysteries and thrillers, while there are very few writing satire and comedy. Why subject myself to all that competition?"
Wiprud approaches the subject plainly.
"Let's put it this way: an author looking to get published would do best not to refer to the manuscript in question as humor. Let them read it as a mystery/crime novel first."
Katy Munger speaks with the voice of experience.
"Absolutely. When you write humor, I can guarantee you two things: people will either love or hate your books, and there will be little opinion in between. It all depends on whether the editor or reader connects with your sense of humor. As an example: my two different series used very different kinds of humor and attracted very different kinds of readers. When I was writing as Gallagher Gray, the humor was gentle, subtle, often comedic in an offbeat and highly physical way. My Casey Jones books are more sarcastic, dark and in-your-face. I attracted more readers with Casey (younger ones, too), but the truth is that my own sense of humor more closely parallels that of the Gallagher Gray books: I find the absurd that arises unintentionally from the ordinary events of life to be far, far funnier than the more contrived humor of barbed observations. I'm the kind of person who collapses in laughter at headlines with inadvertent double meaning like 'Seven Foot Doctors Sue Hospital' or church bulletin blurbs like "In honor of Easter, Mrs. Jones will come forth and lay an egg on the altar." A writer has to write in his or her own voice, and if that includes using humor, I certainly would not suggest putting a damper on it. To thine own voice be true. "
Rick Riordan, as a Sherlock Award Winner, Edgar Award Winner, and Shamus Award Winner, doesn't seem to have much of a problem.
"I think if you try to market the book as a comedic mystery, you might run into trouble, unless your last name is Evanovich, but I haven't ever had my publisher complain that I was too funny. Complaints from my relatives -- that's another story. In any case, the Tres Navarre series tends to be fairly hardboiled, with comedy second, as a leavening agent. I'm mixing my cooking metaphors there, but what the heck."
Hayter agrees with Riordan.
"Probably. I've heard that. But then, look at Evanovich."
Mark Billingham's writing direction was geared around this subject.
"Sadly, I think that's true. You can count the number of really successful, out and out comic crime novelists, on one hand. At the same time that I began what became my first novel, SLEEPYHEAD, I started working on a comic crime novel. I submitted the beginnings of both to a publisher and was told in no uncertain terms to ditch the funny one. This may, of course have been because it wasn't funny, but I was told that it was due to the fact that such books are enormously hard to sell and make publishers very nervous. That same year, at a crime-writing convention in the UK, there was a session called "Does Humour Hurt Your Sales Figures?". That pretty much made my mind up for me... "
With the natural way humor just oozes out of them, you'd think at least a few were stand up comedians.
"I was never even a stand up guy. The first time I stood up in public was at my wedding. And the first time I agreed to a public reading, I hired an actor to do it. So I'm the typical anti-social hide in a room kind of a writer who lives vicariously through his characters. Or perhaps not entirely. I actually love doing readings now, because the feedback is good and people laugh a lot, so sometimes I feel like a stand up comedian, but I always have a script there in front of me, that's the difference."
Bill Fitzhugh was close, but no mic.
"No. I was in Seattle in the 1980's when the stand-up comedy boom happened. I worked with a lot of stand up comedians there on various projects and I considered trying to put a stage act together for open mic night. But I could get stage fright just thinking about being in front of an audience trying to tell jokes. Oddly, I have no problem whatever (in fact I enjoy) getting up in front of crowds to talk about my books or writing in general."
Sean Doolittle and Malcolm Pryce were definite stand up no's. Brian Wiprud also nixes that idea. "Not unless you count being on humor panels at mystery conventions, which requires some of the same skills, like playing to a live audience. But I would posit that the skills for being a good comedian aren't requisite for writing humor. Unlike comedians, humor writers generally aren't the "class clown." A comedian's techniques can be situational and character based, but it's a performance, with a visceral connection between him and the audience that makes it work. You don't have that audience connection sitting alone in front of your computer at 1 AM."
Ms. Munger takes the stand by not standing up.
"God, no. I loathe -- absolutely loath -- stand-up comics. There is something utterly humiliating watching a person standing up in front of a crowd trying to be funny with a pre-packaged routine. It makes me cringe. I thought actors were needy for attention, but stand-up comedians are in a class of their own. There are only a handful of people who can pull it off successfully without getting mean or desperate or attacking the audience. Plus, I am definitely not organized or disciplined enough to pull off a comedy routine. It's too much work for me. I'd rather just be an off-the-cuff smart ass."
Katy isn't one to hold back.
Rick Riordan reckons not in the stand up department.
"I was the lead singer of a folk rock band back in the eighties while I was in college. Does that count? I've been told I bore a striking resemblance to Tony Orlando. Except for that, no. If I could deliver one-liners that fast, I wouldn't be writing. The beauty of novels is that Tres Navarre always gets to use the comeback I wished I thought of at the time."
Sparkle Hayter, mais oui!
"Yes, but I'm lazy so I prefer to be a sit-down comedian."
Mark Billingham has had a varied background in theater and writing.
"I was, and I still am though I'm now gigging less and less. I find, after a hard day at the coalface of contemporary crime fiction, that a few cheap dick jokes in an evening, works wonders. That said of course, those that read the books are usually less drunk than those that watch me do stand-up. And they tend not to throw things... "
I've thrown a few books in my day, but never at the author. And not at these authors, in particular. Their books go beyond entertainment. They can coax you away from a vexing day and, in many cases, teach you something about the big bad world to boot. Humor is a defense against the grief of life. Humor keeps us sane. Scientific studies have proven that when we laugh, there is an actual chemical change in our bodies that helps to ease pain and release stress. I say to them, thanks.
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