I Seen So Many Things I Ain’t Never Seen Before*

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.

36 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Carl Hiaasen, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Riley Adams, Teresa Solana

36 responses to “I Seen So Many Things I Ain’t Never Seen Before*

  1. I love absurdities in crime fiction as they take my mind off absurdities in real life.

    • Norman – Well-put! There are plenty of absurdities, both amusing and not-at-all-amusing in life. Coping with them can sometimes require some solid absurdity in one’s crime fiction.

  2. I love my mysteries with a dollop (or more) of humor. Carl Hiaasen isn’t just a great mystery writer, he’s a great humorist. Lucky You is one of my favorites. And anything with Elvis–you can’t go wrong. OK: that’s on the top of my Riley Adams to-read list. The recent Masterpiece Mystery version of the Clocks kept that balance between tension and absurdity, I thought.

    • Anne – Oh, I think you’re going to love the Memphis Barbecue series. Cherry is a terrific character and the stories are well-written. And I like Carl Hiaasen very much, myself. Lucky You is such a great example, too, of an ordinary guy who gets in very, very far over his head. And that makes the plot that much better in my opinion.I haven’t seen The Clocks in its updated Masterpiece Mystery incarnation, but I’m going to check it out. I am a big fan of David Suchet as Poirot…

  3. I don’t know if this is precisely what you are referring to, but this is an absurd moment: Sue Grafton in one of her novels has Kinsey hope a nasty man suffers from hemorrhoids. And the sidekick character of Mouse in Walter Mosley’s series is absurd in how quickly and unashamedly he resorts to violence. He might be over the top for some.

    • J.P – Mouse really is a violent person, isn’t he? And in the sense that he over-reacts so often, yes, his reactions are absurd. He’s also a dangerous character, so it’s interesting that in this case, the absurdity isn’t much fun… And that is a funny moment in K is for Killer isn’t it? Of course, the guy is nasty, so one can’t blame Millhone for that reaction…

  4. I love the quirky (or absurd) side characters in some mysteries. Have you ever read Cindy Keen Reynders’s “The Saucy Lucy Murders?” Aunt Gladys is a hoot. And to add to the absurd fun (and Cindy’s books are fun), the setting is Moose Creek Junction, Wyoming,

  5. I love absurdities in crime fiction. If you sit on the edge of your seat for too long, you’ll fall off :-)

    I really really want to read ‘Lucky You’ just based on the paragraph you wrote here.

    • Sarah – That’s so wise! Yes, every once in a while we have to hitch back from the edge of the seat and shake our heads at the absurdities of life, whether they are humourous or just, well, illogical.
       
      I think you’ll like Lucky You. Hiaasen is a very funny writer. He does have a message to send, but doesn’t “beat one over the head” with it. He’s very irreverent; there are no “sacred cows.” For me, anyway, that’s not a problem, and this particular story is nicely told.

  6. Patti Abbott

    I really admire writers who can inject humor into their stories. It’s a difficult fit. Charles Willeford, in his Hoke Mosely books, did it beautifully.

    • Patti – Gosh, I haven’t read Willeford in aeons! Thanks for reminding me of him. Yes, he’s a good example of someone who could integrate humour well without taking away from a story. And let’s face it; some absurdity is just…funny.

  7. I’m reading Rhys Bowen’s new Royal Spyness book, and she does a fantastic job of pointing out the absurdities of British nobility who surround Lady Georgiana — while still respecting the royal family. Delightful!

    • Karen – Rhys Bowen has talent, and that series is a nice one. I’m glad you’re enjoying the newest release (which I confess I’ve not read yet). Absurdity among the nobility has been a beloved topic for a long time, and when it’s done well, it can, indeed, be delightful.

  8. kathy d.

    I, like Norman, like absurdities in my mystery reading. If someone flew off to Mars, I’d have a problem with credibility. But usually the absurdities are within the realm of possibility.
    The first example that came to mind is the entire Montalbano series. You cite one example. I’d say the entire series is full of absurdities, one of the reasons so many people like it.
    And absurdities in books do take one’s mind off absurdities in life. In my city, there are many: no money for school supplies or repairing broken-down school buildings, or subway repairs or adquate bus service or for a vital hospital — but hundreds of millions of dollars for a stadium or another subway or upscaling a tourist avenue or shopping center, etc. The mind boggles. But when opens up a Camilleri book, consternation ceases and smiles abound.

    • Kathy – That’s one of the things I like about the Camilleri series, too. There really are so many absurdities in those books, aren’t there? And because there are so many of them in life, too, I think the reader can identify with what Montalbano deals with regularly. The same is true of other series, too, but yes, that’s a well-taken point.
       
      And some absurdities don’t have geographic limits. Here, class sizes have increased, facilities funding (for schools) has decreased, and state employees were required to take a one-day-a-week unpaid furlough. But…. there are multiple millions of dollars to bring a new stadium to L.A.. L.A. is home to the second-largest school district in the country (only N.Y.C.’s is larger) and it’s very badly-funded. But….the stadium is more important.

  9. kathy d.

    Yes, all true and certainly not limited to the U.S., the same absurdities abound in Europe and worldwide at this point.
    I enjoyed the musical reference, went to You Tube and listened to Three Dog Night’s rendering of this song, one I knew but had not heard in years.

  10. kathy d.

    Oldies: Keep them coming. I love them — mostly. (My memory just flashed a few bars of Traveling Man by Ricky Nelson. I haven’t heard that in decades. Nor will I look for it.)

  11. I do like absurdities too, but prefer them to sneak up on you (eg Camilleri style) rather than be “in your face” (eg Janet Evanovich style – she did Lulu’s and Grandmother Mazur’s absurdities well in the first book in which she appeared, but it all got too OTT for me pretty soon on in the series).
    Not very absurd, but a currently fashionable theme seems to be “dead body talking to the reader” – this is used in Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice and there is an absurd but gruesome moment near the start concerning the hanging body falling down while commenting on the outcome, which some might find grimly amusing;-)

    • Maxine – I know what you mean. Those more subtle absurdities, if that’s the way to put it, can be a lot more amusing than the “in your face” kind of absurdity. I admit I really like the way Hiaasen does the more obvious absurdity, but that takes talent, and there aren’t a lot of authors who do that well. As you say, too much of it, especially if it’s from the same person, and it can be annoying. And absurdities that fall out naturally from the plot are appealing, too.
       
      It’s funny you would mention the “dead body that talks” plot point. I admit, I’ve not yet read Midwinter Sacrifice, but your comment about it reminds me of Howard Rigsby’s Dead Man’s Story, in which a Florida Everglades sheriff who’s been killed by two poachers tells the story of what happened to him – and how he brings the poaches to justice. I’m going to have to think about that plot point…

      • If you want to write on that plot point, Margot, another couple of examples are The Lovely Bones by Alice Seebold and Until Thy Wrath be Past by Asa Larsson.

        • Maxine – Thanks for those suggestions. The Lovely Bones is a terrific example. So is Until Thy Wrath be Past, but I (sadly!) haven’t read that one yet. I’m up next at our library for it :-) :-). But I will definitely do a post on this topic. It really is interesting!

  12. sorry, “they” appeared.

  13. Yes, even Agatha Christie’s main characters are absurd. Who would imagine a Poirot solving crimes or a cute little Miss Marple? It forces you to suspend belief a bit. It forces you to doubt the reality of the situation (that being murder) and take everything as a bit absurd. Even our friends Tommy and Tuppence (household spies) provided humor and absurdity. Thought-provoking.

    • Clarissa – Thanks :-). And you know, you have a very well-taken point! Sometimes the sleuth her or himself is (or seems, anyway) absurd. Certainly that’s been said about Poirot, and it’s said that it’s completely absurd for Miss Marple to investigate crimes, too. And sometimes, it’s just that absurdity that gives the sleuth a good “cover.”

  14. I think serious mysteries with a lot of violence or are creepy scary need at least one character who provides us with a chuckle or two. This isn’t in books, but remember those one-liners about the victim or the murderer from Jerry Orbach in Law & Order? Yet the stories were serious.

    • Barbara – I know exactly what you mean. Especially if the story is very dark or the themes troubling, it really does help to weave in a little absurdity. And yes, Orbach did a great job of that in the Law & Order series. Those little absurdities do help even out some of the eerier, darker stories.

  15. kathy d.

    I have to weigh in on the “ghost” of a murdered person speaking to the readers. I cannot stand that plot device. I could not read The Lovely Bones past two pages. (It’s even worse in the movie, which is full of gratuitous violence and sadism towards children, with the murdered main character talking throughout.)
    This is also in The Elegance of the Hedgehob, but one doesn’t know that until the end, thus I couldn’t stop reading until it was over.
    I like Asa Larsson so I’ll read this book, but grumpily if this plot device is manifest throughout.

    • Kathy – It’s interesting how for some people, that plot point works really well and for others, it just does not. For me, it depends very, very much on the rest of the novel. It isn’t something I look for in a plot, but if it’s there, I don’t reject it outright.

  16. kathy d.

    And I also ponder something else: Why do I remember the lyrics and music to songs from high school and college — in the Middle Ages — and not remember what I read in the NY Times last week? A clue to the answer told to me by a relative: We listened to those songs 1,000 times!

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