No Laughing Matter?

Mysteries and thrillers tend to be grimly serious, but a little humor doesn’t hurt.


Most thrillers and mysteries are deadly serious affairs, almost by definition. Often the fate of the world is at stake, or, at the very least, the tracking down of a murderer who has violently killed a fellow human being. No laughing matter, such events.

The master of the thriller genre, John Le Carré, can be grim beyond bearing. Gray, cynical, with characters on the border of despair. You don’t want comic relief when you’re trying to build suspense. Action thrillers, like those of Vince Flynn, don’t, as a rule, have time for irony or humor of any sort.

Likewise, murder mysteries — from police procedurals like Michael Connelly’s Bosch series to English cozies like Agatha Christie’s classic Poirot novels — are generally quite earnest. My own two thrillers, Gold and The Grand Mirage, I confess, seek more to inspire dread than laughter. There will be the occasional flash of wit in dialogue, perhaps an ironic turn of phrase that will bring a fleeting hint of a smile to the reader’s lips — but only for a moment.

There are, thankfully, exceptions to this rule. The violence and death are no more real in these novels than the comic-book action in our CGI superhero epics (think “Black Panther”). A little humor laced through a suspense novel reminds us not to take it too seriously.

I’ve started reading Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series, and her third-person narrative voice reflects her heroine’s decidedly tongue-in-cheek view of things. I often find myself laughing out loud. What seemed at first to be just a knockoff of Sara Paretsky’s groundbreaking V.I. Warshawski series is, in fact, quite original in its own way.

Humor is even more pronounced in Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. Here, the first-person narrator can be downright hilarious as she tells the improbable story of a “shadowy government entity” that wants to go back in time to discover why magic died and how to bring it back. I can’t say whether this is a hallmark of cyberthriller writer Stephenson because I have found his 700-page-plus novels too daunting to take on. But this one I couldn’t resist.

Combining humor and mayhem is not totally novel. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries were always quite funny with the wisecracking of first-person narrator Archie Goodwin. Carl Hiaasen’s Florida novels are masterpieces of humorous crime fiction.

So it’s not like this is a new trend. It is, however, a refreshing alternative to and a different type of escape than the chilling, terrorizing narratives that dominate these genres. And a welcome one at a time when reading the newspaper can drive you to despair.

The first-person narrative of my newest work in progress — untitled and top secret for the moment — has taken a humorous turn that is surprising to the author and a departure from the third-person narration and seriousness not only of my published novels but also of the many false starts filling my virtual drawer. It turns out this kind of book is more fun to write, as well.

Like what we do? Click here to support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus