Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Funny? Funny how?

How much funny do you like in your crime fiction?

In other genres like fantasy and science fiction, there is a strict line. Some like the hard stuff and hate the funny stuff. In crime there tends to be a delineation between hardboiled and "cozy" but there are those that cross the line: Robert Crais's wisecracking Elvis Cole, for example:

That line has stuck with me since I read his fantastic debut, The Monkey's Raincoat, back in the early '90s. Elvis has taken on some very tough cases, but Crais always manages to inject some humor. Maybe not slapstick, but enough to leaven the brutality of the crimes with some laughter and keep us from throwing the book across the room and taking the lead pill.

Then there's just flat-out screwball crime fiction like Johnny Shaw, Rob Brunet, and Carl Hiaasen. You either love those or you don't. I'm also a big fan of Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr "Burglar" books (and I'm probably the only fan who also enjoyed the movie Burglar with Whoopi Goldberg, but that's another story). Block doesn't eschew humor in his more hardboiled Matt Scudder books, but there's a very different tone.

The book I'm editing now is straddling the line. There's a death of course, and the subject matter of suburban hate groups and the rise of fascism in the U.S. before World War II isn't a light one. But it's not a story I wanted to tell in a gritty tone. The story of Nazis hiding in America has been told many times, and our government's complicity in harboring them for the space race and the Cold War is well documented (Google 'Operation Paperclip' if you like).

So where do you draw the line? This isn't Hogan's Heroes we're talking about. Just like you can kill any character but the dog, there are some jokes you can't tell. Punching up instead of down helps. Not going for the easy laugh helps, too.

So, do you enjoy hardboiled noir or funny stuff, or both? Can you enjoy a mix of the two? What are some favorites?


Al Tucher said...

I think it's essential. It can be fleeting, but if humor is completely absent, I find it unbearable.

Parker did it well with early Spenser.

Dana King said...

What Al said. People say funny things under pressure. Funny things happen in strange situations. Some people are just natural smart asses and can't help themselves. (No one I know, of course.) That characters say inappropriate tings--whether inappropriate to the seriousness of the situation or offensive--is a key way to characterize them.

To me, two things are key:
1. The line or scene has to actually be funny. Not jokey (unless the character is telling a joke, which also says something about him or her), but funny in context. Elmore Leonard was the master, though there are lots of example in Crais like the one you mentioned.
2. The humor cannot detract from the seriousness of the situation. I read a book once by a well-known author where he played a scene of a vehicle loaded with explosives about to careen into a group of schoolchildren for laughs. That's the last book of his I read. Now, a character can say something funny around that, or immediately after--cops are famous for their graveyard humor--but the attempt at humor can never trivialize the violence.

Dana King said...

Something just struck me when I saw the title of your post in my Inbox.

The scene from GOODFELLAS where this line occurs is a perfect example. It's a funny scene that turns dark and does a great deal to give the viewer a look at Tommy's character that would have been hard to do as quickly in any other way.

Holly West said...

I like a bit of funny injected into my crime fiction, but not so much slapstick. Humor can be used to help ease up on tension, which, as Al said, is essential. Brooding characters are not as entertaining as those who can add some levity.

Humor doesn't come easily to every writer. You do it well, Tom.

Kaye George said...

Maybe I'm an outlier, but I like the extremes, either ice-cold and dark, or over the top hilarious. To me, the in between stuff is dull in comparison. Not that I only write those extremes (have only succeeded at the hilarious, I think), but they're my preferred reading.

E.J. Copperman said...

I try to write comedies with mysteries in them rather than the other way around. If something doesn't have any humor at all I get irritated. That's just me.