Even when a crime fiction novel isn’t particularly bleak or grim, it still usually deals with murder. And murder is violent and horrible. So sometimes, it’s really helpful to a novel to include some absurd moments or characters. I don’t necessarily mean humourous (although it does often work out that way). I mean absurd in its more traditional sense – ridiculously unreasonable. The risk with including absurd events and characters is that they can be so “out there” that they draw the reader out of the story. And some readers really like their crime fiction to be down-to-earth. But the occasional absurdity can add a welcome light touch to a story, and we can all relate to absurdity;
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, special agent Colin Lamb is in the village of Crowdean on the trail of a spy ring. He’s got reason to think that the key to this spy group might lie in the small neighourhood of Wilbraham Crescent. But while Lamb’s walking through the area, he gets caught up in another mystery when a young woman rushes out of one of the houses screaming that there’s a dead man inside. Lamb does his best to calm the woman down and goes inside to see for himself. Sure enough, there’s a dead man in the living room of the house. Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle is assigned to the case, which turns out to be both more complex and simpler than it seems on the surface. One of the steps in the investigation is interviewing the neighbours, and this Hardcastle and Lamb do. Next door to the house where the victim was found lives Mrs. Hemming, a widow who has twenty cats. Ironically, the cats are all drawn to Hardcastle, who dislikes cats. The interview with Mrs. Hemming adds a light, absurd touch to the novel – and provides an important clue.
In Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious and Finger Lickin’ Dead, we meet Cherry Hayes. She’s a volunteer docent at Elvis Presley’s home Graceland, near Memphis, where this series takes place. Cherry is friends with a group of other docents who call themselves The Graces. But she’s not an ordinary tour guide. Cherry’s just a little absurd. For instance, nearly everywhere she goes, Cherry wears a motorcycle helmet with a picture of Elvis Presley on it. She claims that there are so many dangers out there that it’s absurd not to protect oneself with a helmet. She’s a little unusual in other ways, too. But she’s by no means stupid or too “over the top.” She’s warm and loyal, and she’s bright and observant, too. She adds an interesting touch to the series and in fact, everyone at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, the center of much of the action in this series, is fond of Cherry and has gotten accustomed to her absurdities to the point where they don’t even really notice the helmet.
Carl Hiaasen frequently includes absurd situations in his novels. Those situations add humour and make the characters and stories more interesting. For example, in Lucky You, features writer Tom Krome of The Register is assigned to do an in-depth piece on JoLayne Lucks, who bought one of two winning lottery tickets, each worth US$14 million. Lucks plans to use her winnings to buy a piece of Florida land and keep it as a preserve, so that it can’t be misused by ruthless land developers. The only problem is that Luck’s winning ticket was stolen by the other winners, neo-Nazis who want to use that money to form a militia. Krome just wants to get the story and get back to his life. But before he knows it, he’s drawn into JoLayne Lucks’ efforts to get her ticket back. He’s also drawn into the world of Grange, Florida, where religious “miracles” are set up to fleece unsuspecting tourists. Instead of getting the simple, straightforward human-interest piece he’d planned, Krome gets into increasingly absurd situations and encounters with land developers and their thugs and militia organisers.
Teresa Solana also uses absurd situations in her plots. For instance, in A Shortcut to Paradise, private investigator Josep “Borja” Martínez is at a posh gala one night at Barcelona’s Ritz Hotel to celebrate the awarding of the Golden Apple Fiction prize. The winner turns out to be Marina Dolç, a well-known and popular author. Late that night, Dolç returns to her room, only to be murdered. When her body is discovered, the police are immediately called in and begin to question the guests. Borja doesn’t want to be interviewed because he’s afraid the police might discover that he doesn’t have genuine identification papers. So he gets under one of the tables, remaining hidden under the napery until the police leave. He sneaks out thinking that that’s the end of the situation. But more absurdity is to come. Borja and his brother Edouard get involved in investigating the murder when Dolç’s rival Amadeu Cabestany is arrested for the crime. Cabestany claims that he was getting mugged at a nightclub in another part of Barcelona at the time Dolç was killed and couldn’t be guilty. His literary agent wants his name cleared and the Martínez brothers look into the case. The only way to clear Cabestany is to track down his attacker. As it turns out, the attacker is Ernest Fabià, who is in an absurd situation of his own. He’s having financial problems and in a desperate move, decided to commit robbery to get money. Now this inoffensive translator and devoted family man is in the position of being a thief who’ll have to come forward in order to prevent an innocent man from being found guilty of murder.
Absurdities don’t even have to be as dramatic as those in A Shortcut to Paradise or Lucky You are. Sometimes, the smaller absurdities can be just as effective. For instance, in Andrea Camilleri’s Wings of the Sphinx, Commissario Salvo Montalbano gets a call one morning from Sergeant Catarella; the body of an unidentified young woman has been found near a local dump. Montalbano asks Catarella to send a car to pick him up only to be told that there’s no money for fuel and that it won’t be arriving from Montelusa for a few days. Montalbano takes his own car to the scene of the crime where he sees several police cars from Montelusa already there:
“‘How come in Montelusa they’ve got petrol to drown in and we don’t have a drop?’ the inspector asked himself aloud, feeling annoyed.
He chose not to answer.
The absurdity of the situation is even clearer given that
“The police stations had no petrol, the courts had no paper, the hospitals had no thermometers, and meanwhile the government was thinking about building a bridge over the Straits of Messina.”
Absurd behaviour and situations can add life and interest to a story. They can also add a welcome dose of humour if they’re not overdone. Of course, the definition of “overdone” varies a lot. What do you think? Do you enjoy absurdities in your crime fiction? Or do you reach a limit fairly easily? If you’re a writer, do you include absurd situations and encounters? Or is that too far “outside the lines” for you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Dog Night’s Mama Told Me Not to Come.