You Had to Have the Last Word Last Night*

WisecracksThere’s a great deal of sadness in a lot of crime novels, even those that don’t count as ‘bleak’ or noir. And that makes sense, since there’s nothing amusing about murder. So it can come as a welcome lift when one of the characters has enough of a sense of wit to make wisecracks. Those ‘wiseacre remarks’ have to be handled well, or they can be off-putting. But when they are deftly done, they can add a ‘lift’ to a story. Here are just a few examples to show what I mean. Oh, and you’ll notice that I haven’t included ‘screwball’ novels: too easy…

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), wealthy Emily Arundell knows very well that her relatives would love to get their hands on her fortune. She tells them that they’ll have to be content to wait for her death, and a frightening fall down a flight of stairs convinces her that someone is willing to hurry her along, as the saying goes. That’s when she writes to Hercule Poirot. She doesn’t specify exactly what she wants from him, but Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing to investigate. By the time they get there though, it’s too late: Emily Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. When it becomes clear that she was poisoned, Poirot looks among her relatives and employees to find out who the murderer is. One source of information on the history of the Arundell family and their home Littlegreen House is Caroline Peabody, who’s known the family for years. Miss Peabody may be elderly, but she’s alert and intelligent, and not afraid to speak her mind. Here is a bit of a conversation she has with Hastings:

‘‘You are his secretary, I suppose?’
‘Er – yes,’ I said doubtfully.
‘Can you write decent English?’
‘I hope so.’
 ‘H’m – where did you go to school?’
‘Then you can’t.’’

Hastings can’t really come up with the right rejoinder to that.

Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s work will know that it’s infused with wisecracks. Those remarks lighten up what are sometimes very sad stories. And those quips come from several of the characters. For instance, in The Wings of the Sphinx, Inspector Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of an unknown young woman whose body is found near a local landfill. Here’s a bit of the conversation Montalbano has with his second-in-command Mimì Augello shortly after he’s roused early in the morning when the body is found:

‘‘Mimì, couldn’t you have scratched your balls by yourself?’
‘Salvo, I’m not going to play your game anymore.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that if I hadn’t had you come here, later you’d be driving me crazy saying, ‘Why didn’t you tell me this, why didn’t you tell me that…’’
‘What’s the corpse like?
‘Dead,’ said Augello.’

There’s not much Montalbano can say in response to that…

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, who heads up the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. That’s not of course the only team at the constabulary, and Scarlett’s made friends with Fern Larter, who heads a team of her own. In The Serpent Pool, the two work together to connect a six-year-old drowning death that Scarlett’s investigating with two recent murders that Larter’s investigating. One of those is the killing of book collector George Saffell. At one point, they’re discussing the Saffell case, in particular the Saffell family background:

‘‘For good measure, there’s a villa in Spain, but so far I haven’t managed to wangle a trip out there to hunt for clues.’ [Larter]
‘You’re slipping.’ Fern’s ability to persuade the top brass that trips overseas were vital to her latest investigation were the stuff of legend. ‘How about a trip to New Zealand, for a word with the daughter? They say it’s a beautiful country.’
‘Lynsey came back to England for the funeral,’ Fern pouted.’

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in Absaroka County, Wyoming, where Longmire is sheriff. Some of these stories are very sad, but there’s also a dose of wit. And some of that wit comes from exchanges between Longmire and his deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti. In Death Without Company for instance, Longmire has assigned her to wait outside a local supermarket to ‘collect’ a group of shoppers to serve as talis jurors, so they can fill out the local jury pool. Here’s a bit of their exchange about that:

‘I watched as my…deputy accosted a middle-aged man…copied down information from his driver’s license and informed him that he needed to get over to the courthouse pronto or be faced with contempt of court. ‘Well, there’s another notch on my Glock.’
…‘Hey, there are worse places for stakeouts. At least we’ve got plenty of supplies.’’

Then, Moretti asks what a talis juror is.

‘‘It’s from the Latin. Meaning bystander. You’re Italian, you should understand these things.’
‘I’m from Philadelphia, where we vote early and often, and everybody on the jury has a vowel on the end of his name.’’

Fans of this series will also know that there are plenty of wisecracks between Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear, who runs the Red Pony Inn.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found, and for finding out secrets people would rather keep. As a way of keeping his sanity, he’s informally apprenticed himself to master cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Irish richly enjoys working with the wood and creating new things. He also enjoys the interactions he has with Taub. For his part, Taub is absolutely not one to gush. But he does like having Irish around. Here’s a bit of an exchange they have in Bad Debts, when Irish pays a visit after not having been there for a bit:

‘‘So,’ he said without looking at me. ‘Man who finds the scum of the earth. Man who breaks his parents’ hearts. Horses and criminals. That’s his life.’…
‘I gather you missed me a lot then?’
Another snort ‘What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’’


There’s not much Irish can say to that…

There’s also Donna Malane’s Surrender, in which missing persons expert Diane Rowe gets involved in the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. A year earlier, Rowe’s sister Niki was murdered, and Snow admitted being hired to do the job. But he never gave the name of the person who hired him. Now he’s been killed in exactly the same way. Rowe believes that if she can find out who killed Snow, she’ll find out who killed her sister. So she looks into the case. Niki was an exotic dancer at a club, so Diane starts there to find out what her sister’s connections were, and who might have wanted her dead. One possibility is club regular Richard Brownlee, who paid quite a lot of attention to Niki. Brownlee’s crude, arrogant sexism does not exactly endear him to Diane. Here’s a bit of the conversation they have:

‘One of the girls at the club told me you had a bit of a thing for my sister.’…
‘What kind of a thing would that be, babe? No offence, but she was a whore.’
I was determined not to let him get to me. ‘She said you didn’t like other guys spending time with Niki. That you liked to have her all to yourself. I heard you were jealous.’
Richard barked a laugh. ‘Now that would be pretty stupid, wouldn’t it?’
‘Yep,’ I agreed pleasantly. ‘But then, you see, that would fit nicely with my assessment of you so far.’

Needless to say, everyone has a good laugh at Brownlee’s expense.

And, at the risk of making this post go on too long, here is my top wisecrack, from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. Inspector Van Veeteren and his team investigate the murder of Eva Ringmar, whose body is found in her bathtub. Her husband, Janek Mitter, discovers the body when he wakes up hung over after a long night of drinking. As you can imagine, he becomes the chief suspect and in fact, is arrested for the crime. He claims he’s innocent, and at his trial, an officious prosecutor asks how he knows he didn’t kill his wife, since he was so drunk at the time of the murder. Here’s Mitter’s reply:

‘I know I didn’t kill her; because I didn’t kill her. Just as I’m sure that you know you are not wearing frilly knickers today, because you aren’t. Not today.’ 

That, to me, is priceless. And it helps to spur Van Veeteren on to investigate the murder more thoroughly.

There are of course a lot of other great wisecracks in crime fiction, even in very sad stories (I know, I know fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series). Which ones have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Shot.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Craig Johnson, Donna Malane, Håkan Nesser, Martin Edwards, Rex Stout

32 responses to “You Had to Have the Last Word Last Night*

  1. Great post, Margot! I love a bit of humor in mysteries. I’m also a fan of the Longmire books.

  2. Oh, goodness, I don’t have your fantastic memory for crime fiction, so I can’t pretend that I remember any specific incidents of wisecracks. But I do like Jakob Arjouni’s Kayankaya – he always has a witty retort and a self-deprecating black humour. Or would you consider his novels too noir? I think not?

    • Marina Sofia – I don’t think his work is too noir. And even if his books do fall more on that side of the spectrum, so to speak, I do think those black humour wisecracks ‘count.’ And you’ve reminded me that I need to put one of those books in the spotlight, so thanks for that.

  3. Kay

    Ah, love me some Walt Longmire. Right? I’ve found the Vish Puri series quite humorous. And today I mentioned Chris Grabenstein’s Ceepak and Boyle series on my blog post. There are some very serious crimes there, but the Jersey Shore is a place that he gently pokes fun at. Like fried Oreos.

    • Kay – Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned the Cedepak and Boyle series! It’s got some terrific wisecracks in it, and certainly belongs in this discussion. And you’re right: Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri series has some very good wisecracks too. Thanks for filling in those gaps. And yes, the Longmire series is great!

  4. It’s like to think of a witty comeback – I know there are many great jokes in the books I have loved, but can’t think of the right one just now! But thanks for sharing yours, which were excellent.

  5. I always prefer crime books that have a bot of humour in them – stops them getting too bleak. Here’s one from Jane Casey’s ‘The Stranger’ – a typical bit of backchat between Josh Derwent and the narrator Maeve Kerrigan… I’ve deleted the expletives for the sake of decency!

    “…you should still be in hospital.”
    “Who told you that?”
    “It’s obvious,” I said. “You look dreadful.”
    “Said the woman with bright red eyes and crazy hair. **** me, it’s like getting a lecture from Coco the Clown.”

    • 😆 Oh, FictionFan, that’s a great example of a good wisecrack! And it works in so well, I think, with the Josh/Maeve dynamic. You’re right too that it’s good to have those wisecracks and remarks. They do lighten up what could otherwise be a horribly bleak and depressing story. I like that about both Rankin’s and Hill’s work too. In both cases, the people involve do make those remarks that get you laughing even if the story is bleak.

      • Yes, both Rankin and Hill do that so well! And as you mentioned in your post, Rex Stout. All my favourite crime writers do it really – it’s why I enjoy Belinda Bauer so much too, though with her the humour is usually in the narration rather than in wisecracks between characters.

        • It’s quite true about Bauer. And that sort of wit can be just as uplifting as wisecracks can, really. I’m glad you mentioned that! Hmm… perhaps the stuff of another post.

  6. What’s the corpse like? – dead. I love that!

    I’m sorry I can’t come up with anything off the top of my head but there have been crime novels that have made me actually laugh out loud. Most recently was The Defence by Steve Cavanagh. It was a courtroom scene and the wit he had was brilliant. Detective Doyle in David Jacksons books also has a great dry sense of humour. And it is this humour that gets cops through sometimes so it’s nice to see.

    • Rebecca – I agree: that wit is probably what saves a lot of cops’ sanity. And it really does help in terms of keeping a story from going too far to the bleak. Thanks for reminding me of the Cavanaugh too – one I need to know better. And the Jackson books too – *sigh* – so much I’d like to catch up on reading…

  7. Kathy D.

    Oh, yes, wit in mysteries — a definitely necessity. Agree about Nero Wolfe, whose dialogues can be rip-roaring funny; Montalbano, too — don’t forget the misprouncer Catarella who is hilarious, as is Sartarelli, the translator.
    ian Rankin is funny.
    Actually, Fred Vargas’ creation, Commissaire Adamsberg and his team can be quite witty.
    Nessser’s Van Veeteren has made me stop reading just to laugh in the middle of something quite serious.
    There’s nothing like crackling, funny dialogue. For that alone, I read certain books, like Rex Stout’s.
    Lisa Scottoline’s women lawyers can be quite funny, too.
    Another thing is humorous courtroom scenes: Those are among my favorites. When the judge is giving attorneys a hard time and they respond with sarcasm and the judge does, too, then these scenes can be quite funny.
    I will read a book for witty courtroom scenarios. Michael Connelly does this well in his Mickey Haller books.
    And John Grisham does this well in some of his books, including the Jake Brigance books, The Rainmaker, which has hilarious dialogue and courtroom scenes.
    Catherine Aird’s Henrietta Who? had a lot of wit, too, in cops’ dialogue.
    And Paola Falier can be quite sarcastic at 5 a.m., when awoken too early by her spouse, Guido Brunetti — and she’s funny. He tiptoes away.

    • Kathy – Yes, Brunetti knows which side of the bread is buttered.. And you’ve given lots of other terrific examples of wisecracks and wit in different series. I hadn’t thought about Vargas’ work when I was preparing this post, but I think you really do have a good point. There is wit in those novels. And I agree: some courtroom scenes are hilariously funny. And even those where wit isn’t necessarily the intent can have lots of good repartee that keeps the story going along.

  8. Kathy D.

    Repartee rocks!

  9. I love wise cracks in crime fiction. I also loved series Longmire, but never read the books. Do you know if the episodes contain the same cases as in the books?

    • Sue – The television series is great I think. It’s based on events from the novels, but it doesn’t match the novels. So some cases are the same, but many are not. I do recommend the books when you get the chance. They’re very well done.

  10. My favourite crime novels manage to lighten the bleakness with a touch of humour – it is good to smile whilst reading about murder. I particularly like Reginald Hill’s writing for this very reason.

  11. Mrs. Regan: “And I don’t like your manners.”
    Marlowe: “I’m not crazy about yours.”

  12. Col

    Nesser’s been on the unread pile for a while now – thanks for the reminder!

  13. Kathy D.

    Oh, woe unto the TBR pile! Although I swore I’d plow through it, not to buy any books until I’ve conquered half of the book stacks, I broke my vow and just purchased two books. Well, it’s a neighbor’s child’s birthday, so I just had to buy some books when I ordered some for him! Right?

  14. This is the kind of humor in fiction that I prefer. Not overpowering, but it lightens the atmosphere.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s