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Die Laughing: Five Great Comic Crime Novels

When people think of great crime novels, they tend to think of the grisly crime scenes, dimly lit pursuits, and shadowy conspiracies. That said, there’s a reason that the wise-cracking detective has become such a big part of our expectations for great noir movies, and while prose might not communicate quite the same sense of timing and tone there’s still a lot to be said for the endless sarcasm of some of the great detectives.

For the sake of example, consider Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. The Big Sleep is one of the most iconic detective novels ever written, and certainly emblematic of the genre. Describing himself at the book’s beginning, Philip Marlowe says,

I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, nobody will feel like the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.

There’s a cutting edge of humour underneath the borderline-nihilism of the description that runs through so many great detective stories that we could exhaust ourselves writing favourite quotes here, but this article is about something more. When the humour takes centre stage and the crime itself is almost a happy coincidence, the whole genre suddenly comes to life. Some of the best known examples of this include Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Carl Hiaasen’s Skin Tight, but today we'll look at some examples you might not have encountered before.

The Club of Queer Trades

G. K. Chesterton has an incredible ear for dialogue and a style that makes witty repartee sound entirely effortless. He’s best known for his strange, inverted thriller, The Man Who Was Thursday, but he was also a strong crime and mystery writer. While much of his crime writing tends toward the cozy crime of the Father Brown mysteries, The Club of Queer Trades is a series of short stories that all point to a singular group of individuals. In order to be a part of The Club of Queer Trades, an individual must have devised a unique means of earning a living.

Chesterton’s vast experience with mystery writing allows him to take a sidelong approach crime with an unusual degree of confidence. This is likely why his characters, who seem so often to be foundering, still manage to feel capable. The three detectives involved are "Cherub" Swinburne, Rupert Grant, and Basil Grant, who is a retired judge. The would-be detectives, in particular Basil Grant, tend to drift through their investigations working more by inference and guesswork than by any particularly logical deductions.

Basil Grant summarises his method, saying,

'“Facts,” murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals, “how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly—in fact, I’m off my head—but I never could believe in that man—what’s his name, in those capital stories?—Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing.'

For what it’s worth, the other characters are universally hilarious, including Sir Walter Cholmondeleigh, who is described as, “stalwart though corpulent, the chin aristocratic though double.”

Mystery Man

Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man is a Belfast-based series that follows the adventures of an accidental detective pressed into investigations by strange circumstances (and boredom). Our protagonist runs a bookshop that just happens to be next door to a private investigator’s office. When the private eye fails to show up one morning, his shop continues to attract customers who wander into the mystery-themed bookshop, presuming that a shop named “No Alibis” must be connected to the missing detective.

Given that our would-be detective is a man who owns a crime-centric bookshop, it should come as no surprise that Mystery Man is written in the staccato style of a hard-boiled detective novel. The tone is a little different because the person delivering those offhand comments isn’t a bullet-riddled gumshoe, but it’s recognisable all the same.

The book opens with “The Case of the Leather Trousers,” when a man in his forties presenting the bookseller with the mystery of why his wife cares so much about a specific pair of leather trousers. It's a deeper mystery than you might imagine.

Early in the book, our narrator tells a customer that he only recommends John Grisham to morons (only to have that customer inform him that he is John Grisham).

A Double Barrelled Detective Story

When people think of Mark Twain, they tend to think of his work as a serious literary figure at least as much as his comedy. When people do think of his comedy, they tend to focus on the more serious or original work. Books like Roughing It and The Gilded Age are remarkably strong, but Twain’s comic style was broader than most give him credit for. A Double-Barrelled Detective Story is perhaps the strangest example, being a savage parody of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

In Twain’s novella, Sherlock Holmes comes to America to solve a case, and is presented as a fundamentally strange character, whose leaps of logic and “deductions” are unlikely to lead him to the resolution of the case at hand. The details of the case will feel familiar enough to anyone who’s read enough Sherlock Holmes, without being lifted from Conan Doyle’s work.

Of Sherlock Holmes, we’re told,

“Anybody that knows him the way I do knows he can’t detect a crime except where he plans it all out beforehand and arranges the clues and hires some fellow to commit it according to instructions…”

If there’s any doubt left, the mystery also includes a boy who can smell like a bloodhound and see in the dark. He has special dog powers.

The heat's on

Chester Himes is probably better remembered as a crime writer than as a specifically comic one, which is a terrible shame, because his crime writing is undercut by a wicked edge of humour. That humour acts as an offbeat counterpoint to the morose proceedings. The Heat’s On is part of the Himes’ Harlem Cycle of detective novels, starring Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones (amid a cast of similarly spectacular names).

While this is a book in the middle of a larger series, it's also a fine place to jump in and get a feel for Himes' style. This example is particularly interesting because Gravedigger is hospitalised early on, leaving Coffin Ed to run the investigation alone. If you’re familiar with the formula, it’s a fresh twist, but if you’re new then there’s nothing to miss out on.

Fair warning, this is a far darker crime novel than the others listed so far. Here, much of the humour comes from the genuinely absurd events that manage to unfold from otherwise quite reasonable scenarios, not least of which the fight between (innumerable) axe-wielding firemen, two detectives, a dwarf, and a black albino giant (named “Pinky”).

The dialogue is also superb, with disconnected observations like,

“It’s Jake,” Grave Digger said.

“Look at his face,” Coffin Ed said.

“He’s been eating it,” Grave Digger observed.

“But he ain’t digested it yet,” Coffin Ed concluded, gripping the dwarf from behind by both arms.

Grave Digger hit the dwarf in the stomach.

There is no context for the above. It unfolds in the middle of an unrelated series of events.

Murder with Peacocks

Donna Andrews’ Murder with Peacocks is set in the small town of Yorktown, Virginia, and stars practical, down to earth blacksmith Meg Lanslow. Meg smith finds herself suddenly responsible for the planning and execution of three weddings (with three differing degrees of demanding brides). When one of the weddings’ guests is found dead, Meg takes the investigation upon herself too, because at that point… why not?

While the whole setup is faintly ridiculous, the humour is drawn more from Meg’s responses to the various demands placed on her. Again, it’s lighter than you might expect if you’re used to reading noir fiction, but there is a certain pleasure in reading Meg’s offhand commentary on her strange situation (and the even-stranger requests made of her).

“Yes, the croquet clique do tend to dress the part, I'll give them that," I said. "But if you're under the impression that croquet is a genteel, civilized, Waspy way to spend a summer afternoon, don't look too close--they'll spoil all your illusions. It's a blood sport for them.”

For those who’ll only read a novel with a little pedigree, Murder with Peacocks won both the Agatha and the Anthony awards for best first novel in 2000.

A former military man, Rick would say that he specializes in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


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