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