It’s a Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World*

ScrewballAuthor and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin’s new standalone Stiffed has just been released and I couldn’t be happier about that. Kitchin’s very talented. I’ll get back to Stiffed in a moment, but for now, let me if I may start with the kind of novel it is. Kitchin describes it as ‘screwball noir,’ and that got me to thinking about that sort of novel. Some novels do combine screwball, sometimes even downright implausible plot points with wit to take a very different approach to a crime story. That sort of story may not be everyone’s first choice, but for people who enjoy black humour and screwball situations in their crime novels, a screwball crime novel, whether or not it’s noir, can be a refreshing treat.

Rather than launch into a description of what ‘screwball crime fiction’ is and isn’t, let me offer you a few examples of what I think of when I think of that sub-genre. I’ll start with Kitchin’s new release Stiffed. Tadhg Maguire has just started sleeping off a night of too much beer when he’s jolted awake by a shriek from his girlfriend Kate. He wakes up only to find that there’s a dead man in his bed. What’s worse, Maguire knows who the man is; he is Tony Marino, ‘right hand man’ to powerful gangster Aldo Pirelli. Maguire knows that if he calls the police, Pirelli will assume he killed Marino and that will considerably shorten Maguire’s lifespan. That’s to say nothing of his chances of being arrested for murder. So instead, he calls his friend Jason Choi and asks him to help get rid of Marino’s body. But getting rid of Marino’s body is just the beginning of their troubles. First, two unwanted ‘visitors’ charge into Maguire’s home, obviously looking for someone or something. When one kills the other, Maguire and Choi are left with not one, but two bodies to hide. That’s when they bring in some other friends to help. Along with the bodies and the fact that a couple of Maguire’s friends get kidnapped, there’s the matter of the million dollars that some very nasty people think Maguire has. And there’s the matter of evading Pirelli – if it’s possible. And all of this without Maguire knowing (at least at first) why this has all happened in his home. The story is noir in the sense that there are some ugly situations – murder, kidnapping, and more – and there is some ugly violence (although given the context, it’s not gratuitous). And there are certainly people in the novel who seem trustworthy…and aren’t. But there is a great deal of dark wit, too. For instance, here’s Maguire’s reaction to the scene in his bedroom after it’s been gone through by the late-night ‘visitors’:

 

‘Whoever went through the place enjoyed throwing things around and ripping stuff up. The outline of a dead body made with shaving foam, sketched in the middle of my bedroom floor with my bed used to be, is a particularly fetching touch.’

 

The humour in this novel comes partly from that wit and partly from the way that ordinarily-impossible situations keep piling up.

Tom Sharpe has also written some very well-regarded screwball crime novels. For example, Wilt is the story of Henry Wilt, an Assistant Lecturer at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology. Overworked, underpaid and unappreciated, he is married to the overbearing, overenthusiastic and insecure Eva. His marriage has gotten to the point where Wilt’s favourite mental occupation is imagining ways in which he could kill her. Then one day, Eva runs off with Gaskell and Sally Pringsheim, Americans who are taking a sabbatical leave in the UK. In a drunken burst of ‘creativity’ Wilt decides this is the perfect opportunity to rehearse murdering her. So he makes use of a blow-up doll and a wig, and puts the doll down a 30-foot hole at a nearby building site.  The only problem is, he is witnessed by someone who thinks the victim is real. That’s when Inspector Flint takes charge of an investigation into Henry Wilt. The more Wilt tries to get out of the increasingly bizarre trouble he’s in, the worse things get for him. And the more Inspector Flint tries to get at the truth, the stranger and more frustrating things get for him, too. This is as much a comedy of errors as it is anything else, and the wit from it comes from that and from the sparring dialogue.

Some of Linwood Barclay’s novels might well be considered screwball. Bad Move for instance tells the story of science fiction author Zack Walker and his journalist wife Sarah, who move with their children from their home in the city to the ‘safe’ suburb of Valley Forest Estates. Walker thinks that life in the suburbs will be perfect: time for him to write, a safe school for his children and a nice place to live. Things start going wrong when he happens to witness an argument between a sales executive from the Valley Forest real estate office and Samuel Spender, a local environmental activist. When Walker later finds Spender’s body in a creek, he knows there’s going to be trouble, especially when he becomes a sort-of suspect. Then, he finds a handbag left behind at a supermarket. Thinking it’s his wife’s, Walker takes the handbag only to find that it’s not Sarah’s. It belongs to the sales office secretary and it’s very full of money. Walker tries to return it without letting Sarah know, only to discover another body. Before he knows it, Walker is up against a crime ring, a murderer who’s hiding out in the suburb, and a snake.

Carl Hiaasen’s novels have also been called screwball and I can’t disagree. For instance, in Lucky You, JoLayne Lucks buys a lottery ticket that turns out to be worth US$14 million. Her plan is to use the money to buy some Florida land and turn it into a preserve. Her plans are scuttled when her ticket is stolen by a group of neo-Nazis who want to use the money to field a militia. In the meantime, features writer Tom Krone of The Register has been assigned to do a story on JoLayne’s ticket and her plans for her winnings. All he wants is his story, but he’s soon drawn into a plot to get the ticket back from the thieves. As if that’s not enough, there’s a group of ruthless land developers who are determined to make sure that land stays available. Before he knows it Krone has gotten himself into one impossible situation after another..

In Donna Moore’s Go to Helena Handbasket, we meet PI Helena Handbasket. She is hired by Owen Banks to find out his brother Robin. Owen believes Robin might have been killed by his former boss, crime boss Evan Stubezzi. It seems that Stubezzi and his gang had pulled off a jewel robbery only to discover that the jewels had disappeared, and so had Robin. Helena isn’t exactly eager to take on the ‘untouchable’ Stubezzi, but it’s a starting place and she needs the fee. Shortly after she begins her search, a handless dead body is discovered in a nearby wood. Might it be Robin’s? Helena doesn’t think it is, so she keeps on pursuing different leads and getting herself deeper into trouble as she goes. The wit in this novel comes partly from the situations Helena gets herself into, and partly from her crazy attempts to straighten up her personal life as she works on the case.

And then there’s also of course Declan Burke, whose screwball novels have gained him quite a lot of fans. In The Big O for instance we are introduced to Karen King, a receptionist who is also an armed robber. She’s been doing fairly well living those two lives but a person can’t go on forever in the stickup business. Then she learns that her ex Rossi Callaghan has been released from prison. Callaghan is after Karen because she still has some of his prized possessions, and he is not going to be kind once he finds her. So she’ll need to pull off a major job to get the money to escape him. She enlists the help of the new man in her life Ray, who happens to be pretty good at kidnapping. In fact, Karen’s boss Frank decides to hire Ray to kidnap his almost-ex Madge, who is also Karen’s best friend. As Ray, Frank, and Frank’s lawyer (whose idea the kidnapping was in the first place) put the final touches on their plan, Rossi gets closer and closer to ruining everything. Needless to say, what starts out to be a simple (if there is such a thing) kidnap plan turns out to be anything but…

Screwball novels do tend to make use of the absurd – even the impossible. So there has to be a willingness to suspend disbelief. And to be honest, they’re not always for everyone. But they can be hilarious and they allow the author the chance to play around with crime fiction plot points. They can allow the reader some real fun, too.

Do you agree? Do you enjoy the screwball novel? Which have you liked in particular?

 

Congratulations, Rob!

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Lola.

29 Comments

Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Declan Burke, Donna Moore, Linwood Barclay, Rob Kitchin

29 responses to “It’s a Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World*

  1. Congratulations, Rob – sounds like an interesting read! I do enjoy a good screwball comedy/crime, whether in writing or in old films. One that I enjoyed in more recent years was ‘The Mobile Library’ series by Ian Sansom, set in Tumdrum in County Antrim, Ireland. I also remember really enjoying Colin Bateman’s wacky black humour in ‘Divorcing Jack’. Hmmm, perhaps there is something about Irish writers and this kind of novel…!

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned the mobile library series. I think It’s really funny. Such a great group of eccentric types and oddball events. And the setting is very nicely done, too. And yes, Colin Bateman is very talented at that sort of black humour. Thanks for filling in that gap I left. You know, those aren’t the only Irish writers who do that kind of story well. It may be you’ve a point there…

  2. Sarah Caudwell and her small series of books have come up already this week, so I’ll mention them again- I love them for their real character-based humour. They’re based among some young London lawyers, who all obviously love each other to bits but are very rude about each other, and the investigations they embark on are full of absurd happenings and strange ideas. In Thus was Adonis Murdered, the explanation for an obscure picture being stolen from an Italian church is one of the best and funniest you could ever imagine…

    • Moira – I’m very glad you mentioned Sarah Cauldwell. You’re right she’s been mentioned this week, but she is really talented and I really need to read her work. I’m glad you reminded me of her.

  3. One of the great classic mystery writers, Craig Rice, was surely the master – or is it mistress? – of “screwball noir.” Her mysteries featured a former press agent, Jake Justus, his wife (after about the third novel), Helene Brand, and their friend, Chicago criminal lawyer John J. Malone. They get caught up in really off-the-wall murder cases and hard-boiled moments tempered by wild humor. And, believe me, if you don’t think a bomb thrown through the window of a funeral parlor has the potential for screwball comedy, try “The Lucky Stiff.” And then there was “The Corpse Steps Out,” where our intrepid trio keep finding, losing and occasionally moviing the body of a murder victim. Rice’s novels can be side-splitting, even if the humor is frequently grim.

    • Les – You have a real gift for reminding me of those wonderful classic authors. Thank you! I’ve only dabbled in Rice’s work, so I don’t feel competent to really discuss it, so I’m very glad that you did. And yes, most definitely an example of great screwball crime fiction.

  4. Margot, I love screwball movies, but not so much screwball mystery novels. Nevertheless, I plan to try a lot of the suggestions here, including Rob Kitchin’s new book. Just can’t decide whether to go for paperback or ebook. I knew the book had come out, but I am glad you reminded me.

    • Tracy – You know, you make an interesting point about the difference between novels and films. I wonder (haven’t thought about this deeply) whether screwball works better on film than in novels. It’s certainly easier to portray it in some ways. Thanks for making me think about this. Oh, and I do hope you’ll like Stiffed.

  5. Very interesting post Margot. Don’t think I have read any screwball novels but now I’ll look for the authors you have mentioned.

    • Neeru – Thank you – I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Screwball is definitely not to everyone’s taste or for every mood, but it can be a funny refreshing twist on the genre. I hope that if you try one of these novels, you’ll like it.

  6. You know I had to dance around the house to Lola playing real loud before I could comment right? Fortunately I was on my own…the world does not need to see an overweight white women with no sense of rhythm trying to dance but in the privacy of my own home everything’s possible 🙂

    On the issue of screwball/comedic novels I’ve become a fan of late. I used to look to cosy mysteries for my lighter reading but now I reach for something in this genre – especially audio books (there’s something quite wonderful about someone telling you a funny story). I’ve read an early version of STIFFED and am planning to read the published one soon…I thoroughly enjoyed it. Others I’ve enjoyed in recent years include Eion Colfer’s PLUGGED (which has a dual meaning for the balding protagonist) and Australian author Lenny Bartulin’s THE BLACK RUSSIAN about an out-of-luck second hand book seller. I also liked Charlie Huston’s THE MYSTIC ARTS OF ERASING ALL SIGNS OF DEATH about a slacker who takes on the job of cleaning up after messy deaths.

    • Bernadette – I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed today’s ‘soundtrack.’ I wouldn’t have wanted to be the only dancing around to its beat. My dogs were looking at me very strangely while I was belting out the chorus when I was posting this. Oh, the stories they could tell…
       
      I’m glad too that you liked Stiffed. It really is nicely done and with lots of wit and goofiness as well as a solid plot. I’d heard of Plugged, but hadn’t read it yet, ‘though it’s been on my TBR list. The Black Russian is new to me but I’m already drawn to the context. And I have to say, I really like the title of the Charlie Huston novel. That in itself it appealing to me. There is something about screwball novels isn’t there? For me anyway it’s the ‘bite’ that they have. They’ve got an edge, and the good ones have a plot too that can draw you in. I’ll admit I don’t listen to audio books as much as you do, but I can see the appeal of experiencing a screwball story that way. I know I enjoy it when a person tells me a funny story.

  7. kathy d.

    I don’t know about screwball crime fiction books. I’ve always liked comedy in movies, even the zany kind. I do like humor in books, including in Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen, Andrea Camilleri’s series, where sometimes I laugh out loud and in Nero Wolfe’s and Archie Goodwin’s repartee. I’m very happy to smile my way through a book, laughing loudly in parts.
    But books that are altogether zany — I just don’t know.
    I’m a woman who can laugh at everyone from the Three Stooges to the Marx Brothers to Mel Brooks and other comedians.
    But I guess everything has to make sense to me, even if it’s Salvo Montalbano not wanting to run into the actor who plays him in the TV series. That’s hilarious but not quite “screwball” comedy.

    • Kathy – You know, there really is a difference between zaniness on TV and films and zaniness in novels. Comic moments and witty dialogue are different to outright screwball strange happenings, and I think one has to be willing to set aside disbelief and one’s usual expectations for what’s going to happen in a novel. Most of us want a novel to make a certain kind of logical sense and not everyone enjoys the ride when it doesn’t. I think I enjoy screwball best when I remind myself not to have any expectations. It may not all be logical but it could be lots of goofy fun.

  8. I don’t often read ‘screwball books’ but like Kathy D I do like to watch it on TV. I’, looking forward to reading ‘Stiffed’ too.

    • Sarah – I hope that if you get a chance to read Stiffed, you’ll enjoy it. Screwball in novels really is different to the same kind of humour on TV and film, and I think it’s because of the visual aspect of film. I think it can be easier to make screwball work there. Adding the screwball element to a novel so that readers can really see what’s happening takes a very deft hand.

  9. Screwball is usually better done on the screen because a lot of it is visual for me. But I like the humor in Charles Willeford’s Hoke Mosley novels.

    • Patti – I know exactly what you mean about the visual element of TV and film. It is easier I think to convey the humour that goes with screwball on the screen. That’s why I appreciate it when an author gives me that same sense of goofiness. And thanks for the mention of the Charles Willeford series. I’ve only dipped into that one but from what I know of it, it’s a funny series.

  10. col

    Declan Burke’s earlier book Eight-Ball Boogie was also very good. Hiaasen probably has another 4 or 5 you could’ve selected. Duane Swierczynski’s Charlie Hardie series is fun – at least the first which I’ve read was.
    Looking forward to getting my hands on Rob’s book.

    • Col – Oh, I know what you mean about Hiaasen; he’s done some outrageously funny stuff. And you know I almost thought about Eight Ball Boogie to put in this post but in the end I didn’t, so I’m glad you did. And thanks for the mention of the Charlie Hardie series too. I think you’ll really enjoy Stiffed.

  11. Hi Margot. Thanks for discussing Stiffed. There’s a piece up at Patti’s blog that discusses the origins of the book (http://pattinase.blogspot.ie/2013/05/how-i-came-to-write-this-book-stiffed.html) and a short extract up at Spinetingler Mag (http://www.spinetinglermag.com/2013/05/07/stiffed-by-rob-kitchin/).

    For those interested in darkly humorous crime fiction then I recommend all of the following: Joe Lansdale, Charlie Huston, Duane Swierczynski, Janet Evanovich, Carl Hiaasen, Victor Gischler, Tim Dorsey, Christopher Brookmyre, Colin Bateman, Donald Westlake, Declan Burke, Lawrence Shames, Katy Munger, Lauren Henderson, Eoin Colfer, and Donna Moore.

    All the best, Rob

    • Rob – Thanks very much for those suggestions of authors who do dark fiction well (besides, of course, yourself). Folks, take heed. Oh, and do please visit both Patti’s blog and Spinetingler and get a taste of well-done screwball noir. Congratulations again Rob and well-done.

  12. kathy d.

    I’ve enjoyed Linwood Barclay’s stand-alones, which aren’t funny but good thrillers, but I haven’t tried Zack Walker. I think I will. I read one book by Carl Hiaasen, which I laughed at but tried a few others and couldn’t get into them. I have read a few Janet Evanovich books, but then thought they were getting a bit boring and repetitive so I quit. If I needed humor, I would pick one up.

    • Kathy – I hope that if you try Bad Move you’ll like it. There are some strange situations in that novel, but some solid humour too. And you’re right; some of the situations in Janet Evanovich’s novels qualify as ‘screwball.’

  13. Hi Margot. Another great post. I enjoy the Stuart Kaminsky Toby Peters novels. Are they screwball crime fiction or good natured parodies of the hardboiled style? Or maybe a little bit of both? Thanks.

    • Bryan – Thanks – And you raise an interesting point. There is a fine line I think between screwball and parody. And I agree that a series (and Kaminsky’s is a good example) can be both…

  14. Pingback: Review: Stiffed by Rob Kitchin | The Game's Afoot

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