One of the payoffs for following a series is that one’s in on the running jokes or themes woven through that series. Those running jokes are sometimes used to “flesh out” a character, and sometimes used as comic relief. Either way they can add to a story and they’re an effective way to invite regular readers to feel they’re almost a part of the stories because they’re privy to those jokes and themes. Of course like any other element in a novel, running jokes and themes have to be handled with care. Too much dependence on them can be off-putting to readers who are new to a series. It can also make the series seem too trite. But when subtly done and woven into the story, a running joke or theme can add to a series.
For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t particularly conceited when it comes to his physical attractiveness. He knows there are many men who are younger and more physically appealing. But he does have his little vanities and one of them, his “suspiciously black hair,” is a sort of running joke in several of the novels that feature him. For example, in The ABC Murders, Captain Hastings, who’s moved to Argentina, returns to London for a visit. One of the first things he says to Poirot is that his hair
“…has fewer grey hairs than when I saw you last.”
Poirot explains that Hastings is right and that it’s because of a new product called Revivit. All thoughts of the colour of Poirot’s hair are soon swept aside when Poirot receives a cryptic note warning him that there will be a crime in the town of Andover. When an elderly shopkeeper is murdered, this proves to be the first of a series of murders connected only by warning notes to Poirot and ABC railway guides left near each body. In the end Poirot discovers that these murders are not, as is first thought, the work of a serial killer. They’re committed for a different reason entirely. Poirot’s vanity about his hair and especially his moustaches makes him more human and adds to the stories.
Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels also have some running jokes. One of them is his badminton rivalry with his colleague Münster. In Mind’s Eye, for instance, Van Veeteren and his team are working on the case of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub one morning. Her husband Jurgen Mitter is assumed to be guilty and he has no real alibi. He was very drunk on the night of her murder and can’t remember much about what happened. In fact Mitter is convicted of the crime and sent to a mental institution, mostly because of his inability to remember anything about the night of the murder. When Mitter himself is murdered, Van Veeteren knows for a fact what he’d come to suspect: Mitter wasn’t guilty of killing his wife. So the team re-investigates that murder and ties it to Mitter’s death, too. Here’s what this novel tells us about Van Veeteren’s thoughts on the badminton rivalry:
“Of course he [Van Veeteren] knew that he was the best interrogating officer in the district, possibly in the country; but he would have been delighted to abandon any such claim in return for being able to give Münster a sound thrashing at badminton.”
Even after Van Veeteren leaves his position as Chief Inspector and takes up a new career as part owner of a bookshop, he and Münster still keep up their rivalry.
In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, we get to know Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who owns and runs Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. He’s a gifted mechanic who’s trying to help his two assistants learn the business. It’s one of the running jokes in this series that the two assistant mechanics have a long way to go before they become anything like dependable and really competent. They’re not stupid and they’re certainly not malicious. But they are more interested in girls and fine cars than they are in much of anything else. They do provide comic relief but to McCall Smith’s credit, they’re not buffoons and sometimes, they can prove useful. For instance, in The Full Cupboard of Life, Mma. Silvia Potokwane, who runs the local orphanage, manages to persuade Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to undertake a parachute jump at a benefit event for the orphanage. He reluctantly agrees, but as the time gets closer he gets more and more nervous about it. But he doesn’t want to disappoint Mma. Potokwane, nor does he want to appear cowardly. In the end, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s wife and McCall Smith’s sleuth Mma. Precious Ramotswe finds a way to settle the matter. Under the guise of letting his older apprentice have a chance to do a good deed and get some fame, Matekoni gives up his place in the parachute jump to his apprentice. For his part the apprentice is all too happy for the chance to get his name in the paper and attract attention, especially from girls.
We also see running jokes in Donna Leon’s novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti’s wife Paola Falier is a university professor with a lifelong love of Henry James. In Death at La Fenice, we learn that she wrote her dissertation on James’ work and has loved it ever since. In that novel, Brunetti investigates the poisoning death of world renowned conductor Helmut Wellauer, who is poisoned with cyanide during a performance of La Traviata at Teatro La Fenice. Brunetti is called to the scene and he and his team begin the process of investigation. When he gets home he tells Paola a little about the case and within minutes she tells Brunetti who she thinks is guilty.
“Though he [Brunetti] had repeatedly asked her not to do this, she insisted on choosing a suspect at the beginning of any investigation he worked on, and she was generally wrong, for she always opted for the most obvious choice. Once, exasperated beyond bearing, he’d asked her why she insisted on doing it, and she’d explained that since she had written her dissertation on Henry James, she considered herself entitled to finding the release in the obvious in real life, since she’d never found it in his novels.”
And that’s part of the reason Paola finds James’ novels so intriguing. In fact, a joke between her and her husband is that Henry James is the only man of whom Brunetti need be jealous.
And then there’s retired English teacher Myrtle Clover, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s sleuth. She’s smart, well-read, determined, shrewd and interesting. But it’s a running joke in Craig’s Myrtle Clover novels that Clover is not exactly a gourmet chef. In Progressive Dinner Deadly, for instance, she decides to suggest that the local book club to which she belongs should move away from best-selling “blockbusters” to some books with more substance. Her idea is taken out of context though and before she knows it, the club has decided to become a dinner club. Much to Clover’s chagrin, the club decides to organise progressive dinners, where each member prepares one part of a dinner (entrée, dessert, and so on). Then, the members move from house to house, having had a full dinner by the time they’ve done the rounds. Clover finds herself “volunteered” to prepare a blackberry cobbler as a dessert:
“Miles clearly recalled Myrtle’s blackberry cobbler as a soggy undercooked disaster.”
Long before that course though, Jill Caulfield, one of the club’s members, has been murdered. Since Clover is among the group when they arrive at the Caulfield home, she’s “on the scene” and soon starts her own investigation.
Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a former cop, now a private investigator who lives and works in Saskatoon. Quant often travels in his line of work and he needs to be prepared for a lot of different kinds of events and situations. For that, he always depends on his “wonderpants.” Here’s how he describes them in Amuse Bouche, in which he investigates the disappearance and murder of computer and gaming wizard Tom Osborn:
“They are black, never wrinkle and I’ve owned them forever yet they’re always in style and, most importantly, I’ve been told they make my a** look great.”
Quant’s mentor, as you might say, is Anthony Gatt, who owns a very successful men’s clothing business and is far less sanguine about the “wonderpants.” Yet Quant finds them useful and won’t give them up. His fondness for those pants is a running joke through this series.
Well-written running jokes don’t take over a series, nor do they become too ridiculous. Rather, they let us see another side of a character and they serve as a “welcome back” to regular readers. Which are your favourite “running jokes?” If you’re a writer, do you use them?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from 3 Colours Red’s Paralyse.