‘Funny, how?’ Why Comedy has a Place in Crime Writing
BANBURY: A serial killer, that’s what I reckon we’ve got here. We’ve not had many of them at the Peculiar Crimes Unit, have we?
BRYANT: Not proper saw-off-the-arms-and-legs-boil-the-innards-put-the-head-in-a-handbag-and-throw-it-from-a-bridge-jobs, no.
From Bryant & May off the Rails
They say humor travels but wit doesn’t. I’ve always included a healthy dose of comedy in my writing (especially the crime novels), mainly because for me it’s a survival mechanism for living.
I was the child who always avoided being bullied by making people laugh. The English sense of humor is complicated and hard to pin down; it was traditionally more allied to European sensibilities than American ones because it was best when being black, bleak, or at least rather cruel. (Having said that, this is a wonderful time for dark-toned American TV comedy).
My family often found humor in human weakness, sex, death and embarrassment. It was a healthy acknowledgement of the absurdities of life that blurred the distinctions between love and hate, having plenty and having to go without. The idea that communities might exist in a satanic war with their own natures, with a disrespect for life, conventional morality and sentiment, could prove weirdly life-affirming. You’ve only got to read the short stories of HH ‘Saki’ Monro to see how this cynical worldview works.
The best English stories win on their unpredictability and sheer bad manners. Black comedy feels like a fantastical sidestep from the politeness of everyday life, allied to the crime genre by its preoccupation with the power of fate and the ultimate selfishness of humanity.
Because comedy requires a moral viewpoint, humor and tragedy go together very well in crime novels - although I’m aware that comedy will get you delisted from awards ceremonies. People take you more seriously when you don’t get laughs. However, you need to carefully follow a set of rules, one of which is that the serious parts of your plot must be taken extremely seriously, and the comedy needs to be born of character. When I’m being serious, I’m deadly serious.
There are a handful of exceptions to the rule, but you have to be a writer of PG Wodehouse’s calibre; he wrote a story in which two inept twits kidnap a child in order to rescue him and look good to a girl - but they manage to kidnap the wrong child.
In the case of the Bryant & May books, it helps that my detectives are facing mortality, as it grants me license to use graveyard humor. I’m very careful to respect victims and honor them over villains. In Bryant & May and the Burning Man, Arthur Bryant takes a small boy on a London Jack the Ripper tour and has this to say;
‘The Ripper breathes and walks almost as if he was still flesh and blood, when he should have been allowed to die long, long ago. His victims were desperate, poor women who could not earn enough to find a bed for the night or a hot meal. Their skin was grey and saggy from a diet of potatoes. They tramped the streets for twenty hours a day, in rain and snow and fog. They were beaten up and treated cruelly for doing nothing more than trying to survive in a mean world that didn’t care if they lived or died. Once they were like you, lad, young and full of hope for the world, but unlike you they had nothing beyond a few ragged clothes and their failing bodies. And instead of treating them with kindness and respect, men bullied them and stole away their only precious possession, their innocence, and after they were dead the men – and women - still exploited them, displaying photographs of their ruined lives, writing about the Ripper as if he was intelligent, a surgeon, a member of royalty, an artist, as if he was more worthy of attention than his victims. We raise him up in films and books and TV shows, almost as if he was something to admire. But he wasn’t. He was a just another cruel, evil bully only worthy of our revulsion and disgust, because he exploited the weak. And this is true of all terrible crimes; it’s the victims who must be respected and honoured, not the murderers, and that is why I do my job, and will continue to do it until the day I die.’
Even when I’m being funny there is a serious intent underpinning the humor. Tellingly, the ‘straight’ version of the plot is drafted first and the humor grows later in the writing process. Because of this I never regard my mysteries as ‘cozies’ because they reflect the way we learn to deal with life, even in fantastical situations.