There’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.