Lighten Up While You Still Can*

Light MomentsWit is a funny thing (pun intended 😉 ). The thing about it is that what’s funny to some people isn’t to others. And what ‘counts’ as a lighter moment to some people isn’t funny at all to others. So even among members of the same culture, there might not be agreement about whether something is funny or it isn’t.

Because of that, it can be difficult to add in just the right light touch to a crime novel. I’m not talking here of comic caper novels, where the author deliberately adds in absurdity and funny dialogue. Rather, I mean crime novels in which those funny moments add a welcome light touch. It’s not easy to do that and still maintain the tenor of a story. But it can add interest, keep readers engaged, and keep up a certain energy level in a novel. We see it all through crime fiction, too, so there won’t be space in this one post for all of the examples out there. Here are just a few.

The main plot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton concerns a notorious blackmailer who’s gotten hold of an indiscreet letter written by one of Sherlock Holmes’ clients. She’s hired Holmes to get the letter and stop Milverton sending it to her fiancé. Holmes meets with Milverton, who refuses to part with the letter unless he gets an outrageous sum of money. So Holmes decides to take matters into his own hands and get the letter back another way. He learns the layout of Milverton’s home, and the household’s habits. Then he and Watson actually break into the house. Holmes knows he needs ‘inside information,’ so he takes on a disguise, and starts ‘walking out with’ one of Milverton’s housemaids. There’s a very funny scene where he tells Watson that he is engaged:

“You’ll be interested to hear that I am engaged.’
‘My dear fellow! I congrat—
‘To Milverton’s housemaid.’
‘Good heavens, Holmes!’
‘I wanted information, Watson.’…
‘But the girl, Holmes?’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I rejoice to say that I have a hated rival who will certainly cut me out the instant that my back is turned. What a splendid night it is!’’

In the end, the information Holmes gets turns out to be very useful.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, famous director Peter Alan Nelson wants to hire Los Angeles PI Elivs Cole to find his ex-wife, Karen, and son, Toby. After years of not being involved with Toby, Nelson has decided he wants to be a part of the boy’s life. Cole tries to tell him that it’s not that simple, but Nelson insists. And a fee is a fee. So Cole reluctantly starts trying to trace Karen and Toby. When he finds them, he soon learns that his troubles have really just begun. It turns out that Karen has been working for some very nasty people, and now wants to be free of them. That doesn’t sit well with her ‘business associates,’ so Cole and his partner Joe Pike find themselves in a dangerous situation. At one point, Cole and Karen are in her house. Pike has just arrived, and the first thing he does is check the house carefully to ensure the safety of its occupants. He says nothing as he does so, though, so at first, Karen thinks it’s quite odd. It’s a funny scene as she watches Pike go through his security check as Cole tries to explain his rather unusual partner. She gets used to Pike, though, and he turns out to be very useful.

The beginning of Gail Bowen’s The Gifted takes place at Hallowe’en. So political scientist/academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack are planning to go to a costume party. It’s a light, funny moment as Zack makes the scene in yellow silk pyjamas and sporting an orchid. If you’re a crime fiction fan, that should be enough to tell you which character he’s portraying. And for her part, Joanne dresses in a

‘slick vintage suit’

to complete the picture. The novel itself isn’t what you’d call a light crime novel. The main plot concerns their daughter, Taylor, who is a gifted artist. In fact, although she’s only fourteen at the time of this novel, two pieces of her art have been included in an upcoming charity auction. She shares one of her pieces with her parents. But she keeps the other hidden until the auction. When it’s revealed, it turns out to have tragic consequences. That light moment at the beginning is an effective counterpoint.

Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Several of the novels have quite a lot of sadness in them, and the stories really aren’t what you’d call light, fun novels. At the same time, they are not unrelentingly bleak. And one of the reasons for that is the set of relationships among the characters. For example, the local B&B/bistro is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. It’s a social hub, so everyone spends at least some time there. One of the regular denizens is poet Ruth Zardo. Ruth has a very acerbic exterior, and never wastes an opportunity to make a snide remark or toss off an insult. But Olivier and Gabri know that underneath that surface, Ruth cares about them and considers them friends. And as far as insults go, they give as good as they get. Those interactions not only lighten the tone of the novels, but they also add a layer of character development.

In Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel investigate the death of Chanida Manakit, who went by the nickname of Pla. Part of the trail leads to the offices of a development company, and Keeney and Patel want to find out more about it. But they know that they won’t learn much by just walking in and introducing themselves as detectives. So they go in the guise of a wealthy investor (played by Patel) and his secretary/assistant (played by Keeney). The funny part about this scene (at least for me; your mileage may vary, as the saying goes) is that in actuality, their relationship is nothing like that. Neither is their style of dress. It lightens up what is in some places a very sad story.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. In that novel, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce discovers the body of an unknown man in the cucumber patch of the family garden. She doesn’t know who the victim is, but she does know he visited the house the night before. She also knows he had an argument with her father. The police learn that, too, and before very long, Flavia’s father is arrested. She doesn’t believe he’s a killer, so she decides to find out the truth. Flavia is a budding detective, and very knowledgeable about chemistry. But she is also an eleven-year-old child with two older sisters. She decides to get back at one of them by distilling the irritant in poison ivy, and putting it on her sister’s lipstick. That in itself is rather funny; so, in its way, is the eventual outcome.

Those lighter moments and funny scenes don’t always have to do with the actual investigation in a crime novel. And they can be tricky. But when they’re handled well, they can lighten up an otherwise very sad story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Take it Easy.


Filed under Alan Bradley, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Robert Crais

26 responses to “Lighten Up While You Still Can*

  1. Great post, Margot. As you say humor is not easy and it’s a tricky balancing act to get it right and not overdo things. I can think of several of my favorite authors who do humor well (Chandler, Kaminsky, et al), in a more overt context. But it’s maybe even more of a challenge to add humor in a subtle way, and for me Dame Agatha did it very well, especially with some of the quirky characters.

    • I agree with you, Bryan. Christie did a very effective job of weaving those lighter moments into what are sometimes some very sad stories indeed. And she did it subtly, too, so that it doesn’t jar. Thanks for the kind words.

  2. Lovely post, Margot. I appreciate the distinction you draw between crime caper novels, and the use of wit to lighten otherwise dark novels (including those by yours truly). Personally, I’m inspired by no less than Shakespeare and the way he uses witty interludes, often narrated by fools/clowns, to lend texture and moments of relief in otherwise tragic plays.

    Michael Dibdin made great use of wit to add light in his Aurelio Zen novels, too. I recall in one of his early novels a funny aside involving a waiter, lamenting that the lamb on the menu was so young, it was a crime to kill it; but now that it was dead, it would be a greater crime not to eat it 🙂

    • Oh, Angela, that Dibdin example is fantastic! Thanks for filling in that gap. Dibdin’s work can get very dark, too, so those lighter moments serve an important purpose, and it took talent to weave them in. I find it fascinating that you get your inspiration from Shakespeare (not that I’m surprised, mind). He really did have the gift of slipping those rays of light in at just the right moment, and you’re right about the choice of characters, too. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  3. mudpuddle

    Edmund Crispin’s tales, starring Gervase Fen(an oxford don) often involve zany and seemingly quite odd happenings, like exploding telephone poles and one store that moves. Fen himself is a good example of scholarly inexactitude and eccentricity as he follows clues rather haphazardly and often finds the solutions by entering through the back door… i’ve gotten a great deal of enjoyment out of him over the years…

    • I can see why, Mudpuddle. Crispin wrote well, and tapped his own experience effectively. And Gervase Fen is a well-developed an interesting character. As you say, he’s eccentric, but not at the expense of credibility.

  4. Margot: I think Russell Quant is the wittiest sleuth north of the border. In real life Anthony Bidulka is as clever and light hearted as his sleuth.

    • Oh, you’re right about Russell Quant, Bill. I really do like that about his character. And although I’ve not yet met him in person, his creator strikes me as being just as witty.

  5. Some great examples of wit and humour in serious crime fiction, also from the comments. I learn so much from you and your readers, Margot! One of my recent favourite discoveries is Helen Fitzgerald, who often has quite harrowing subject matter in her crime fiction, but always a healthy dose of humour (sometimes zany or scurrilous, sometimes just hilarious). Maybe it’s the no-nonsense Australian in her…

    • That may be, Marina Sofia. Whatever the reason, I completely agree with you about Fitzgerald’s writing. She is really talented, and tells compelling stories. Thanks for the kind words, too. I learn more from you and the other folks who visit than any of you could ever learn from me.

  6. I enjoy a story that has bits of humor shattered about like this. It helps to keep the story from being too dark, but yet doesn’t take away from it. Great post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you’re right; when a book has some wit and funny moments woven into it, they don’t take away from the story, but they can lighten it up.

  7. I much prefer crime novels that have a touch of humour to lighten the tone. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t like the trend for 1st person narratives from the point of view of the victim or the bereaved – it’s too difficult to put humour in there, and it leaves the book unrelievedly misery-laden. But if a book is told from the point of view of the detectives then it’s reasonable to assume that as professionals they’re not always a hundred per cent sombre all of the time…

    • I know exactly what you mean, FictionFan. And that is one of the drawbacks of a first-person narrative if the story is told by the victim or bereaved. You don’t get any relief from the devastating sadness of losing a loved one, or of dealing with an innocent loved one who’s imprisoned, etc.. It’s a tricky balance, because I also think it’s important not to gloss over what a hard loss people suffer when someone is murdered. Still, a touch of relief can really help a story along.

  8. It’s so true. That’s one of the reasons I loved Bait and Switch. Wolfgang Schmitt’s one-liners are hilarious, and a nice break from a fast-paced storyline.

    • That’s exactly what I meant, Sue. Thanks for the example. Those lighter moments, whether they come in the form of a witty remark or a funny scene, can really add to a novel.

  9. So true Margot although I do prefer it when my crime fiction isn’t unrelentingly miserable – I lent my copy of A Secret Place by Tana French to a colleague who gave it back saying she thought it was silly, I took that to mean she didn’t enjoy the humorous touches, which absolutely made the book for me – as you say, it is hard to get right, a lighter moment for one person can easily fall flat for another.

    • Exactly, Cleo. I’m sorry to hear that your colleague didn’t enjoy A Secret Place. I think Tana French has an awful lot of talent. And in her stories, one does need a little lift here and there. As you say, the alternative can be a book that really is too heavy, bleak and sad. And that pulls a lot of people right out of a story.

  10. It’s a very personal perception isn’t it? One of my favourite crime authors is Elly Griffiths, and although the books are serious and well-plotted, she also has hilarious moments, I find her very very witty.

    • I do, too, Moira. And you’re right; what counts as ‘the right’ amount of wit really is a very personal sort of thing. I’m actually glad Griffiths can be witty, because sometimes the topics of her books are quite dark.

  11. kathyd

    I’ll agree that humor is a key, necessary element in many mysteries, and that includes books by Elly Griffiths. In fact, I just read Woman in Blue and while there are religious rituals in this book and a lot of history and conversation about religion, suddenly I would burst out laughing at something Ruth Galloway thought or said.
    And, I think, the leader on this subject is Hakan Nesser. He can be writing about brutal murders and then all of a sudden Inspector Van Veeteren says something hilarious at a shocking moment. Many times I have stared at one of his remarks and thought, “he didn’t really say that, did he?” Then I had to stop and laugh hard for a few minutes. Then go back to the text.

    • You’re right about Nesser, Kathy. He’s certainly skilled at weaving those lighter moments into a sad, dark story. And the and result is, I think, a much better book. And yes, Elly Griffiths can do that, too.

  12. Col

    From your examples, I did enjoy Lullaby Town. Time to pick up some more Crais, it’s been too long!

  13. tracybham

    I have always found that I love the humor in Reginald Hill’s books, yet they are not funny or light books at all.

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