‘Don’t Try Anything Funny’

Reading & Writing

‘Having a pronounced sense of humour is not a job qualification,’ a teacher once told me. I could have replied that having a low droning voice like a distant lawnmower was not a teacher’s job qualification, but I fear that would have proved his point.


Problem is, my desire for high learning is tempered by my need for low comedy.

So. Peter Sellars plays an undercover cop disguised as a zebra at a fancy dress party, and is admonished by his superior, who warns him; ‘I’ll have your stripes for this.’

Later, in a film short, Spike Milligan investigates a crime as an assistant to detective Sellars.

Milligan: ‘Look sir, an impression of a heel!’

Sellars: ‘This is no time for your impressions, sergeant.’

Comedy and crime – they work well together on film, but why would anyone pursue this niche in crime literature?

There was a time when I almost stopped reading crime novels because of their unrelenting grimness; the detective was traumatised or physically damaged, the victims were mutilated beyond belief and the villains were grotesquely evil. Mo Hayder’s terrific Jack Caffery books took darkness to a new level, making them closer to horror stories. Marcia Clarke’s courtroom fiction showed me something I’d never before considered, that prosecutors are actually happy in their jobs. Her investigator Rachel Knight lets her hair down by going for a few drinks and laughs with the girls after a tough day in court. She loves her work.

Like many writers I have a couple of police officer informants, and they tell me about the practical jokes officers play on each other. The height restriction for City of London constables used to be six feet and above, so they put up a rack of coat pegs at a height of five foot six, then added a sign that said, ‘For the use of Met officers and traffic wardens only’; Officers are often mordantly funny. Earthy, cruel humour can invade the most terrible cases.

The Scottish school of crime likes its flashes of humour hard-edged, dark and dry, for which we have McDermid, Rankin, Brookmyre and others to thank. Lee Child plays a risky game with Jack Reacher, sending a knowing subliminal message that says ‘I know you know this is crazy but let’s run with it’.

Consciously setting out to amuse in a crime novel is another matter altogether. Caryl (nee Doris Abrahams) Brahms and ‘Skid’ (ne Simon Skidelsky) shared the same ridiculous sense of humour. In ‘A Bullet In The Ballet’ (1937) Brahms did the ballet bits and Skid wrote the parts that involved detection. A dancer is shot during a production of ‘Petrouschka’, and Detective Inspector Quill, ‘the Scotland Yard Adonis’, is dispatched to uncover the killer, only to find that the corps de ballet is filled with vipers. The novel’s first line is ‘Since it is probable that any book flying a bullet in its title is going to produce a corpse sooner or later – here it is.’ My edition suggests that I might also enjoy reading ‘A Survey Of Russian Music’, an indication of the thoroughness of Brahms’ research.

Sherlock Holmes’s greatest rival, Dr Thorndyke, is more jovial than the Baker Street sleuth, and the dialogue R Austin Freeman gives him is more freewheeling than Doyle’s. ‘I am a confounded fool!’ says Thorndyke, as the reason for a corpse’s finger being severed dawns on him. ‘Oh, don’t say that,’ says his sidekick Jervis. ‘Give your friends a chance.’

As many of you know, the clown prince of crime for me was Edmund Crispin, with his detective-don Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature, ‘cherubic, naive, volatile, and entirely delightful’. The books are still fast and fun, their hero charming, frivolous, brilliant and badly behaved. While investigating he tends to dive into pubs, play word games or break the fourth wall by coming up with the book’s title or making jokes about his publisher.

The crime novel that made me laugh most was Charlie Higson’s ‘Getting Rid of Mr Kitchin’, in which an accidental murderer manages to annoy everyone who could help him dispose of a body. And Pamela Branch’s four delightful crime novels are unique. ‘The Wooden Overcoat’ is unlike anything you’ve read, although at a push you could describe it as PG Wodehouse meets ‘The Ladykillers’. What happens when someone is murdered in a houseful of murderers?

Bryant & May were based on real people who were naturally funny, so I have to reflect that in the books. There are rules about adding comedy to crime that must be followed. Bizarrely funny situations need to arise for believable reasons. The tragedy of sudden death and its investigation must be taken seriously, and the humour confined to characters who have no idea that they are amusing. The funniest things we hear are often from friends and relatives who are being absolutely serious.

Humour in crime sometimes gets a bad rap from critics who mistakenly assume that it trivialises the drama, but it can highlight everything that is surreal and sad about people who commit unlawful acts. By doing so, humour accurately reflects the balancing acts of our lives. We take in the novel’s serious points while laughing at the absurdity of the situation. I vary the amounts of humour I use according to the plot, but with the recent ‘Hall of Mirrors’ I was able to affectionately parody Christie-style country house murders because they were already a dated cliché fifty years ago. Although I made fun of the characters I was careful to construct the kind of ingenious murder mystery that would exist in a straight drama.

Moral? Comedy only works in crime if you take it seriously.

(The headline is from a cartoon of a copper arresting a clown)


12 comments on “‘Don’t Try Anything Funny’”

  1. David Ronaldson says:

    Lack of humour in novels and drama has long been a bugbear of mine. It’s often in the darkest moments that humour, particularly inappropriate humour, is all that gets people through. Putting some jokes or amusing dialogue into a novel or drama adds to the realism in my opinion: relentless frowning in Scandy noir and others of that ilk becomes wearing after a while.

  2. Jo W says:

    Re the headline – I have a birthday card which was a cartoon of an American cop arresting a ‘Marcel Marceau’ mime artist with -“you have the right to remain silent”…….. That card was sent by someone who knows my sense of humour!
    At most of the funerals I have attended (and that’s too many) there is humour. This is either at the service or after. Death is a grim reality and some humour is a natural reaction,especially when memories and such are shared. It relieves the sadness. Nobody wants to celebrate the bad times,do they?

  3. Martin Tolley says:

    School teachers are often wrong. A profound sense of humour is THE essential job requirement – for life!

  4. Bernard Abramson says:

    Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series deserves an honoured place in any list of comic crime fiction.

  5. Trace Turner says:

    George Baxt wrote a series of murder mysteries featuring famous people as characters. Two of my favorites are The Dorothy Parker Murder Case and The Tallulah Bankhead Murder Case. As you might imagine, the dialogue is liberally sprinkled with one-liners. Baxt also wrote horror film screenplays in the 1960’s.

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    I would highly recommend ‘Much Darker Days’ by a Scottish author, Andrew Lang, which is a complete piss-take of a Christmas murder novel called ‘Dark Days’ by Hugh Conway. Both were published in 1884 and are hilarious in their own ways.

    The Thin Man series were nicely done but were eclipsed by the twinkling humour of William Powell and Myrna Loy on screen. Hardly a scene moves without a martini, gin or whiskey to oil it along.

    Also – Kinky Friedman who had his own band called ‘The Texas Jewboys’. What could possibly go wrong?

    Searching my shelves for more…

  7. Roger says:

    Your teacher may have been indulging his own sense of humour.

  8. SteveB says:

    The Glimpses of the Moon, which everyone else seems to think is rubbish, is maybe my favourite Edmund Crispin book, because it‘s a gentle comic portrait of a bunch of people in a time and place. Peter Lovesey‘s Mad Hatter‘s Holiday (in the Cribb series mentioned a day or teo ago) is another favourite for the same reason. They‘re not the greatest detective stories maybe but they‘re favourites for me. Just as I wrote this, JG Ballard‘s Vermilion Sands crossed my mind, another favourite, and actually maybe it shares some characteristics, unlikely though that might seem at first glance…

  9. Ken Mann says:

    Police officers I have spoken to tell me that their main problem with crime drama is the consistency of tone. Actual police work does not have consistency of tone. Even the darkest stretches have moments of comedy or oddness. One told me a story about investigating a fatal road accident where they had the devil of a time finding the driver of one of the vehicles, who appeared to have dematerialised. The scene was covered in snow, and that old standby the absence of footprints seem to suggest a car being driven by a ghost.

  10. Agatha Hamilton says:

    So glad to see Pamela Branch, Carol Brahms and S.J. Simon, and Edmund Crispin mentioned. All favourites of mine and absolute classics.

  11. Vivienne says:

    I loved Simon Brett’s Charles Paris books. He was wonderful at coming up with ludicrous but somehow believable ideas for television series and their titles. The quantity of whisky consumed was believable too.

    And then there’s Gilbert Adair’s Christie books: Mysterious Affair of Style. And athen There Was No One gets completely out of hand.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Charlie Higson’s four crime novels are great, but they are surprisingly dark, and extraordinarily violent. The protagonist of ‘Getting Rid Of Mr Kitchen’ ends up broken, in a grotty yard, after falling from a fire escape, and being shredded by dogs as he lays there, if I remember correctly. Who would have thought that the man who played the nice ‘Ralph’ of ‘Ralph And Ted’ fame could write such dark stuff?

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