Sunday, September 5, 2021

Humor and Murder: Guest Post by Priscilla Royal

Priscilla Royal:

Humor and Murder 

Humor and death may seem odd companions, but they have always been best friends. 

Think Hamlet and the gravedigger scene. Call to mind jokes told by those who have suffered pogroms, slavey, the horrors of WWII, or other individual but horrible tragedies. 

Jokes are a survival technique, a way of gaining some distance from a terrifying situation. After the Hinckley assassination attempt, President Reagan quipped: “Honey, I forgot to duck.” Poignancy may also hold hands with humor. The story of the young Jewish man who saves his life for a little bit longer by promising to teach the Tsar’s horse to fly is an example. When his companion says this is impossible and he will be murdered just the same, the man replies: “Or the horse may fly.” Humor in the face of death demonstrates a unique defiance and pride. 

Laughter in a book is a way of breaking tension, a literary form of taking a coffee break from an arduous task. In Geoffrey Household’s The Watcher in the Shadows, a 1960 stalker tale, the protagonist, in danger of being murdered by an unknown person from his past, stays with a vicar who owns a horse. The horse lives in the house and is first met staring affectionately over the shoulder of a woman shelling peas in the kitchen. The entire cast in this bucolic scene is funny and delightful. Yes, the killer is still in the shadows, but the reader gets a breather as does the protagonist. 

Humor shows something about character. Inappropriate jests may suggest he or she is an insensitive boor, but they may also suggest trauma. People do laugh instead of weeping in response to unthinkable news. It is a surprise reaction that can also be a red herring. 

Another example of how humor works in literature is best exemplified by Shakespeare’s fool. Monarchs often let their fools tell them the truth, albeit as a jest, but occasionally they listened while they laughed. A fool’s joke is often seen as madness, just as unpalatable truth is in a world where the meaning of decency has been perverted or destroyed. No one dares to tell corporate or political leaders they are wrong, even if following their orders might be catastrophic. In fiction, however, the fool is allowed to provide insight and warnings, perhaps as the joking sidekick, the semi-sleazy informant, or event the sleuth. Nick and Nora Charles come to mind. 

So murder is a grim topic, and I have no wish to ignore that, but I prefer to mix a little humor with it when I write. As for heroes who conquer all odds in books, that for me will always be the guy who said: “Or the horse may fly”. …


Priscilla Royal is the author of seventeen mysteries set in thirteenth century England. The sleuths, Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas, belong to the famous Order of Fontevraud, a unique religious Order including both men and women but ruled by women. Along with adding humor to her books, Priscilla enjoys finding surprising and accurate details about the medieval era that upend many popular misconceptions. Her website is Her most recent book is Prayers of the Dead and will be published in September 2021.

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