Saturday, 5 July 2008


Humour is a tricky thing in crime fiction. The comic crime novel is to be approached with caution – very few people pull it off successfully, although over the years Colin Watson, Pamela Branch, Joyce Porter and Simon Brett in the UK and Craig Rice and Kinky Friedman among others in the US have earned loyal followings. But even if the main aim of the book is not to amuse, humour often has an important part to play. Apart from any other consideration, it can provide balance and relief, given that the subject matter of crime, mystery and often savage death can be very grim indeed.

Over the years, many crime writers have recognised this. There are shafts of wit in Conan Doyle as well as in some of the Victorian and Edwardian stories featuring the rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a humourless writer, but there are a number of passages in her books which prove otherwise. When I’m reading, I enjoy books that blend strong plots, characterisation and settings with a touch of wit. Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of laughs in the work of two writers whom I greatly admire, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James, but certainly, humour plays an enormously important part in the work of such successful novelists as Reginald Hill, Robert Barnard and H.R.F. Keating.

As for my own books, the Harry Devlin novels contain plenty of humour. Waterloo Sunset will, I hope, amuse as well as mystify my readers, despite all the dark goings-on. However, the first Lake District Mystery, The Coffin Trail, was a rather serious affair, and the same was true to an extent of the second, The Cipher Garden. However, by the time I wrote The Arsenic Labyrinth, I was ready to relax the style somewhat and I like to think there is a lot of black humour in the portrayal of the drifter Guy. And Take My Breath Away was meant to be packed with political satire. Unfortunately, not many of the reviewers seemed to notice. An exception was that voice of the ‘Old Left’, The Morning Star, whose perceptive critic ‘got’ exactly what I was trying to achieve.


Anonymous said...

There is a little box in the Economist this week on "top crime fiction at Amazon", pointing out that Janet Evanovich is at the top, above many other "bestsellers". I don't read her any more as I'm tired of the joke, but the first two or three Stephanie Plum books were so funny, especially the characters of Stephanie and Lulu, and of course Grandma Mazur. Those first few books had me rolling around with laughter.

On a tangential point, none of the top 10 Amazon books (as listed by the Economist) are books that I would read. I think it is possibly because they are more "thriller" that what I would call crime fiction -- I prefer something more detective/puzzling rather than "thrills and spills". So James Patterson, S. Faulks as Ian Fleming et al. do not hold appeal.
It is a pity that such a hugely wide range of books are classified together, from the point of view of "reader guidance".

Martin Edwards said...

As so often, Maxine, I share your view about Janet Evanovich's books. The first was the one I enjoyed most.
The thrillers that appeal to me most tend to be those with a genuinely teasing mystery or a clever twist -that is, using some of the devices of the detective story, even if more action-packed.

Anonymous said...

Humorous crime fiction is a tricky road to hoe, but tremendous fun to write. What about Gregroy McDonald's "Fletch" series? Mostly great reads. And Lawrence Block's "Hitman" series is funny in a wry way (when your protagonist is a stamp-collecting hitman, that'll happen).
I'm having a crack at the genre by releasing an online novel at It's based on a washed-up Aussie cricketer in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sound like anyone you know? Anyway, I'd be keen for any feedback.