Monday, March 1, 2010

Humor in Mystery Writing

© Robert D. Sutherland, 2010, all rights reserved

            In the real world, murder and other types of criminal behavior aren’t normally regarded as humorous. In mystery stories, however, where fictionalized crimes are the nuclei around which action swarms and characters orbit, authors are free—if the story allows—to use humor to texture the narrative and enhance readers’ enjoyment. Occasionally (as in some caper narratives, or stories of serial killers who seek revenge for a bizarre or imagined injury against a group of unsympathetic and eccentric victims, or those tales that mix the mystery with a subplot of romantic comedy) the interaction of character(s) with circumstance can result in humor that pervades the entire story. In other narratives, humor may be only intermittent—not structurally a part of the main storyline, but rather the result of mistakes and misadventures encountered in perpetrating or solving a crime, of habitual banter between friends, rivals, and co-workers, or amusing incidents of happenstance that authors frequently are able to render with swift brush strokes en passant.

            In extended narratives, humor can serve several purposes (which often overlap):

Comic relief—to add variety; establish change of pace; provide breathing space (in, or following, tightly structured, condensed, or suspenseful passages); lighten tone (when narrative becomes oppressively ponderous, grim, frightening, or emotionally painful);

Entertainment—to provide intellectual enjoyment deriving from banter and witty dialogue, observing characters interacting with each other and interesting situations, and watching the coming to fruition of extended narrative “jokes”;

Satire/parody—ridiculing or poking fun at specific character traits, institutions, belief systems, literary conventions, etc., through exaggeration, irony, or burlesque.

            Whatever purpose(s) it’s serving, the humor should grow organically from the story’s main elements—plot, character, theme, setting, event—whether singly or in combination. To be organic, it must arise from, and be consistent with, implications inherent in the specific premises that move the narrative: “If X is the case, then what Y’s could logically result?” (Bronson is afraid of heights, but nevertheless must scale the cliff … (?); Maggie can’t tolerate eating oysters, but that’s what’s served by her boyfriend’s mother whom she desperately wishes to impress … (?); Bruce is convinced that George has seduced his wife and decides to confront them both … (?); having deactivated the primary alarms, the burglars proceed, unaware that the backup system is still actively engaged … (?) Whether mundane or absurd, a premise will inherently contain within it implicit and potential consequences that can be followed out to logical conclusions. For readers, the humor arising from this process will be a logical, believable outgrowth of the established given, and not something extraneous to the story, arbitrarily or gratuitously inserted, forced, labored, or self-indulgently contrived in an effort to produce laughs.

            Examples of organic humor may be seen in the long-running “Mr. and Mrs. North” series by Frances and Richard Lockridge. Pamela North is an astute observer who frequently perceives connections and assembles clues that materially aid in solving the crime. Much of the recurring humor in the series stems from Pam’s “slant” way of seeing and processing facts and relationships, and from the confusion that her elliptical and puzzling explanations cause for her husband Jerry and police detective Bill Weigand. The stories are remarkable for the continuous witty interplay that characterizes the dialogue of Pam and Jerry. The humor of their distinct personalities and their capacity as amateurs to outdistance the police made this series of 26 novels extremely popular between 1940 and 1963.

            In Rex Stout’s “Nero Wolfe” series, on the other hand, readers find humor premised in Wolfe’s eccentric habits and lifestyle, and in streetwise Archie Goodwin’s generally good-natured, but nonetheless sardonic, comments about Wolfe, his own work, and the world around him.

            Sometimes humor resides in the glimpsed motives and personality traits of minor (even walk-on) characters, whose presence onstage makes a vignette of “funny business” possible. Animals, too (particularly cats, but also dogs, horses, and parrots), are frequently sources of humor in mystery stories, and occasionally young children and teenagers. However, when these elements are “overdone”, or—by calling attention to themselves—are seen as the author’s conscious attempts to be humorous, they can try the reader’s patience and exert a drag on forward motion.

            For further illustration, I’ll turn to my most recent novel, THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA (The Pikestaff Press, 2007), a suspenseful, humorous mystery that subtly skews generic conventions to continually surprise readers with reversals of their assumptions and expectations. The book contains many types of humor that serve the purposes mentioned above: comic relief, entertainment, and satire. One type, prevalent throughout, is affectionate parody of the mystery genre itself—designed to give pleasurable entertainment to readers familiar with the genre’s conventions, yet so “organically” rooted in plot, character, and circumstance that (for the most part) it operates subliminally, by not calling attention to itself.

            Many types of situational humor arise when the complex and highly diverse characters—all of them with strong emotions and a marked capacity for self-delusion—interact with the circumstances produced by the story’s various informing premises, each of which is rich with inherent possibilities for humorous development.

            The story’s basic premise underlies and generates all the others: Given—For a variety of motives and purposes, at least ten individuals and groups are avidly seeking the unique manuscript of an unpublished cadenza for piano solo that, having mysteriously been lost for thirty-four years, has been stolen—immediately following the triumphal announcement of its discovery—in the first of three burglaries that occur on the same night. Now, what subordinate premises could logically follow from this? I’ll list a few of those that occurred to me and that shaped the story.

Given: Most of these avid pursuers are unaware of the existence of the others, or become aware of them only as their paths continually cross.

Given: The female detective hired by the Farringford family to recover the manuscript is herself not aware of all the pursuers.

Given: Some of these pursuers wish to publish the manuscript, some desire to privately possess it, some want to sell it, some to hold it for ransom, some to destroy it, and some (convinced of the cadenza’s legendary restorative powers) to use the music itself for personal rejuvenation.

Given: All of these pursuers are willing to go to great (and sometimes bizarre) lengths to obtain the manuscript—some as far as murder.

 Given: For most of the story, neither the characters nor the readers have any clear idea where the floating manuscript might be (lost again? hidden? destroyed? passing from hand to hand?).

Given: All of the characters are capable of misrepresenting the truth, dissembling, or telling outright lies; and, as a consequence, characters cannot count on things actually being what they seem.

Following out the logical and humorous implications of each of these premises was both challenging and enjoyable. And this group is just a small sampling of the structural premises (those that shape and point the narrative). As the narrative unfolds, every significant plot development, every interaction of characters, every conversation, decision reached, and advance or setback encountered embodies its own cluster of localized, or topical, premises ripe for logical (and perhaps humorous) development.

            When I wrote the story, plot and characters organically evolved together. Event led to action, action resulted in event. While continually surprising my characters, and trying to surprise my readers, I frequently surprised myself. (Great fun!) Premises organically gave rise to logical outcomes that in turn organically produced new premises. The path would fork, I’d choose a direction, and inevitably would come to another fork.

         When nakedly stated (as above), the story’s informing premises may seem absurd or banal. But in the novel’s dramatization the premises are not stated; and it’s only in retrospect, after finishing the book, that readers would be able to articulate and summarize them. The reason for this is that readers are immediately caught up in the unspooling dramatization of the premises’ implications, pulled into the swirl of suspenseful action, and forced to confront both the obsessional intensity of those characters who are determined to have the manuscript, and the extreme measures they’ll use to obtain it.

            Unfortunately, as is usually the case when one attempts to describe particular instances of humor and analyze why something is funny—whether it’s a complex systemic interplay of character with circumstance, or a simple joke—the discussion tends to reduce and trivialize the process. Explaining why something is humorous is like dissecting a butterfly. But explaining humor to readers is not the author’s job. And while writing, authors don’t always have to explain it to themselves. If they understand fully the logical potentials of their premises, and the personalities and needs of their characters, and then simply trust their own instincts, the humor that emerges in the writing will tend to be spontaneously organic—as it ought to be.


Robert D. Sutherland taught courses in Linguistics and Creative Writing at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois until his retirement in 1992. He particularly enjoyed teaching Descriptive Linguistics, History of the English Language, Semantic Theory, and Old English. In 1977, he and his co-editor James R. Scrimgeour founded Pikestaff Publications, a not-for-profit literary press that published The Pikestaff Forum, a literary magazine, until 1996. He continues serving as editor at The Pikestaff Press, which publishes books of poetry and prose fiction. In 2009 he began a blog for writers and readers of mysteries. He and his wife Marilyn have traveled widely, reared two sons to adulthood, and worked to promote peace, social justice, and preservation of the natural environment. His publications include a scholarly book, LANGUAGE AND LEWIS CARROLL; a novel, STICKLEWORTAND FEVERFEW (containing 74 of his pencil illustrations), which received the 1981 Friends of American Writers Juvenile Book Merit Award for author/illustrator; a second novel, THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA; short fiction, poems, and essays on literature, education, and publishing. His interests include classical music, the nature of metaphor, reading, travel, film noir, and the comparative study of mythologies.

Books by Robert D. Sutherland:
LANGUAGE AND LEWIS CARROLL, Janua Linguarum, Series Maior, 26 (Mouton DeGruyter, 1970). 245pp.  A scholarly work; currently in print.

STICKLEWORT AND FEVERFEW.  A novel for children, adolescents, and  adults, with 74 illustrations by the author.  (The Pikestaff Press, 1980). 355pp. Prize: Received the 1981 FRIENDS OF AMERICAN WRITERS JUVENILE BOOK MERIT AWARD for author/illustrator.

THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA. A NOVEL (The Pikestaff Press, 2007). 523 pp.

Personal web site:
Pikestaff Press web site:


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Enjoyed reading this, some great points. Thanks for sharing.


Marta Stephens said...

Robert, humor so often sneaks into our lives, even at the most "inappropriate times" that it seems the most natural things to include a bit of humor in mysteries. Many thanks for sharing!

Sheila Deeth said...

Interesting article. Thanks.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Robert, thanks for joining us again with your sophisticated look at humor in mysteries! I, too, love it when my characters surprise me. What a pleasure, isn't it? All my best and I'll look forward to your next article soon!