Comic Crime

Wednesday Feb 01 2012
by Jack

At first glance, crime fiction and humour seem unlikely partners, and it is true that comedy is something only occasionally striven for by crime authors. Nevertheless, there is a distinct subcategory of comic crime on the bookshelves of Whodunit? What follows is a selective meandering through the genre rather than an exhaustive survey. It also does not attempt to cover the recent category of “comic crime cozy.”

Comic crime got off to a slow start. There was certainly nothing funny about Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes, although curiously enough, they did spawn dozens of tongue-in-cheek parodies, few very good and virtually none still read today. The greatest humour writer of the 20th century – P. G. Wodehouse –chose deliberately not to write crime fiction, although the various pignappings of Lord Emsworth’s prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, are arguably the prototypes for the later caper novels of Donald Westlake and others. The Queens of Crime usually chose deliberately not to be funny about most of their crimes, although it would be a mistake to think that they lacked a sense of humour. Even Agatha Christie, that most po-faced of authors, could occasionally be light-hearted and amusing, and an early book like Partners of Crime, in its parodic satire of the styles of her contemporaries, comes close to true comedy.  Nevertheless, deliberate and sustained funniness is pretty thin on the ground in crime fiction for its first fifty or so years.

One of the earliest conscious efforts to produce funny books about crime are those starring private investigator Doan and his canine companion (won in a poker game), Carstairs (aka Dougal’s Laird Carstairs). The author was Norbert Davis, and there are three novels (The Mouse in the Mountain (1943), Sally’s in the Alley (also 1943), and Oh Murderer Mine (1946). Davis’s blend of slapstick and crime, we are told, did not sit well with all readers at the time, and the books are presently almost impossible to find. This series not only pioneered in crime humour, but also in the use of a “critter” as a detective. The war saw several efforts at mixing crime and laughter, probably because of the doom and gloom of the society as a whole, but things did not really pick up until the 1960s, when several British writers began working the comic vein.

 One was Colin Watson (1920-1982), a Lincolnshire journalist who turned to crime fiction with the publication of Coffin, Scarcely Used in 1958. Like many another writer, Watson created how own fictional world, set in a small market town (population 15,000) in southeastern England. Flaxborough was based on the town of Boston, where Watson had worked on a newspaper. It was full of the usual cast of eccentric characters and institutions. Watson also created two memorable characters: Inspector Walter Purbright, a stolid sensible cop who could be amused by the goings-on in his territory, and Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime, a well-preserved lady who specialized in confidence swindling and schemes for separating the gullible from their money throughout much of the series of twelve novels. Watson mostly concentrated  on satire of small-town English ways, although he was capable of some fine comic bits, such as the flower-naming business in The Flaxborough Crab, where a very proper lady who has taken a party of senior citizens for an “outing” in the country discovers that they have their own names for the common flowers: “piss-a-bed, tickle-titty, poke-me-gently” and old man’s vomit”{ (“you don’t want to hold that too near your dress, dear”).  Like most stuff from this era, Watson’s books are now out-of-print, although used copies occasionally come into the store.

Another Brit was Joyce Porter (1924-1990), born in Cheshire, educated at King’s College, London, and a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force before turning to crime novels. Her first creation in 1964 was Inspector Wilfred Dover, a physically unattractive sod of a man, notorious for cadging cigarettes from his sergeant, a man named MacGregor, and for taking the credit for solving crimes. Sometimes he even succeeds in working out the solution himself, so he isn’t stupid, just lazy. Dover is a true slob, with gravy stains on his tie and underarm dandruff. He works within the framework of the standard British police procedural, with his role turned upside down, and the stories are actually quite well plotted. Reginald Hill took Porter’s work into the mainstream, and one can certainly see the resemblance between Dover and Dalziel, MacGregor and Peter Pascoe. In 1966 Porter added a comic spy, Eddie Brown, and in 1970 produced the first novel featuring the Honourable Constance Ethel Morrison Burke (aka the “Hon Con”). Burke is more standard fare, an upper-class spinster twit, of considerable wealth, position, and pretenses, which she uses to attempt to solve crimes. She is stupid, however, and usually blunders to her solutions by process of coincidence. Think of a dumb Penelope Keith. Porter’s books are almost impossible to find in Winnipeg, as is the series of ten Simon Bognor novels written by British author Tim Heald beginning in 1973 and continuing virtually to the present. Bognor is a special investigator for an obscure British agency that deals in stuff that MI5 and MI6 would not touch.

Turning to the United States, Donald Westlake (1933-2008) was an extremely prolific author who wrote under many names. Much of his work displayed a rich sense of humour, but under his own name he created his richest comic character: John Dortmunder, unsuccessful thief, who first appeared in The Hot Rock in 1970. In his Dortmunder novels, Westlake worked a very special subgenre, the caper book, to comic perfection. Dortmunder and his gang would carefully plan out a robbery (usually) that would net  them millions of dollars if executed successfully. The plan typically required split-second timing and complicated logistics. But something (or things) were constantly going wrong, leading to ludicrous situations for the gang.  The caper is a particularly congenial format for Hollywood, and several of Westlake’s books became popular films.

The only humourous crime writer I know with a Canadian connection is Charlotte MacLeod (1922-2005), who was born in New Brunswick but spent her entire career in the United States. MacLeod, writing as Ailsa Craig, did set some of her books in New Brunswick, but they are not in my view her best work. Much better were two series: the Professor Peter Shandy books and the Sarah Kelling novels. MacLeod specialized in over-the-top characters with funny names, operating in strange situations.  Her humour was very broad, hardly subtle, or to everyone’s taste There were ten novels set in Balaclava College (beginning in 1978), an educational institution of higher learning in New England which bore no resemblance to any real operation I ever knew. Then there were twelve Kelling books, set in Boston and environs and featuring a very gutsy heroine with the most incredible cast of relatives it is possible to imagine. 

Another American author in the same vein as MacLeod – loud, raucous, wisecracking comedy – is Janet Evanovich (b. 1943), who started her Stephanie Plum series in 1994 with One for the Money. Plum is a former lingerie buyer who turns to bounty hunting after becoming unemployed (she takes on other tasks such as process serving for her employer as well).  Based in New Jersey, Stephanie is female, single, overweight, and according to her author “spunky.” There are eighteen Plum novels in the numbered series, and other four in a “Between the Numbers” series. Plum narrates her tales in the first oerson, in a self-denigrating but lighthearted voice and distinctly working-class outlook. She is a long sufferer who occasionally has to deal with violence and mayhem in order to do her job. There is a bit of a disconnect between Stephanie and her New Jersey milieu, which is described fairly realistically and perhaps is part of the charm of the series, which the author has confirmed is modeled on television sitcoms.  Evanovich novels are fairly easy to come by in used paperback editions.

A contemporary of Evanovich is Ruth Dudley Edwards (there is no hyphen but the name is used as though hyphenated), an Irish-born journalist and author from a distinguished academic famil. Dudley Edwards has spent her adult life in England, and specializes in wickedly satirical sendups of various English institutions, including the civil service, high-brow magazines, gentlemen’s clubs, the church, women’s colleges (and their feminist inhabitants), the church, and even the House of Lords. Her sleuth, Robert Amiss, is a fairly colourless and innocuous creature, but in the later novels he is joined by Baroness “Jack” Troutbeck, an indomitable older female academic with strong opinions who becomes elevated to the House of Lords and specializes in unconventional (and non-progressive) opinions, including a support for blood sports and a dislike for fashionable feminism. There are eleven novels beginning with Corridors of Death (1981) and ending in 2007. Dudley Edwards novels are not easy to obtain here in Winnipeg.

 Finally, there is Terry Pratchett, the world’s leading writer of comic fantasy. Many of our customers appear to have trouble with fantasy and science fiction, on the grounds that they are too unbelievable. Perhaps, but the fictional worlds of Wodehouse and Christie are no more realistic; Pratchett just requires more concentration. Pratchett has created his own universe – the Discworld – in which the medieval jostles with the modern, magic rules, and strange creatures abound. One of his several series – there are nearly fifty novels in all – focuses on the police force – the “Guard” – of the Discworld’s major city, Ankh Morpork. Like most in the modern real world, this city is growing rapidly, as immigrants come to it looking for work. In the Discworld’s case, the newcomers include other species: wizards, witches, elves, dwarves, werewolves, goblins, golums, and others.  The man in charge of policing this lot is Samuel Vimes, arguably the most completely realized cop in the Raymond Chandler mode since Philip Marlowe himself. Vimes struggles to integrate his force with the new arrivals and to deal with integrity with a city full of residents displaying different customs and traditions (as well as appearances). Pratchett is particularly good at the tongue- in- cheek description and at little vignettes that speak to the foibles of our own age He is an acquired taste, but worth acquiring, particularly given the size and quality (and relative availability) of his oeuvre.

Note Not all the books described above are readily available, particularly in used format, but they are all worth investigating if you are looking for something less dark and gloomy than the Scandinavians.

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