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Humor in Crime Fiction and Films: A Review of Funny Thing about Murder

Walter Moss -- Geherin provides an overview of humor and why we laugh. He adds that “laughter can arise from language, action, character, or any combination of the three. In a visual medium like film, action alone can be the primary source of humor.”

In these times of Trumpian tragicomedy we need all the humor we can get. And David Geherin’s Funny Thing About Murder: Modes of Humor in Crime Fiction and Films (FTM) provides a healthy dose of it. One of the writers he treats, Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Randolph Craig), once received a “letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt thanking her for [briefly] helping take his mind off his troubles.” In the hours I spent on Geherin’s short book (188 pages of text)—though my “troubles” are much lighter than FDR’s—I felt a similar gratitude.

Funny Thing About Murder

Readers of Hollywood Progressive and LA Progressive may especially enjoy Geherin’s analysis of the works of 30 authors (23 men and 7 women) and 33 films because of the L. A. connections, including Hollywood, of many of them. There is Raymond Chandler, whose detective Philip Marlowe, in novels and film adaptations, moves about in the L. A. area of 1930s and 1940s. There is Joseph Wambaugh, who later spent 14 years in the LAPD and whose characters sometimes refer to L. A. places with slurs like Hollyweird, Babelwood, and Sodom-Monica (aka, Santa Monica Blvd.). Late in his career, he also wrote “five novels . . . about a group of cops in the Hollywood Division.” (56)

Geherin provides an overview of humor and why we laugh. He adds that “laughter can arise from language, action, character, or any combination of the three. In a visual medium like film, action alone can be the primary source of humor.”

There is Elmore Leonard, subject of one of Geherin’s seven previous books on crime fiction, about whom we read here, “Nobody’s characters are better at delivering funny lines in a deadpan manner than Leonard’s.” (65) His Get Shorty (both the novel and film adaptation of it) satirizes Hollywood. As Geherin writes about the film, “It makes the point that both the crime business and the business of making films have much in common: both rely on fear, intimidation, cons, and double crosses.” (157) Leonard’s Rum Bunch  was adapted for screen as Jackie Brown (also analyzed by Geherin) and its setting changed from Miami to L. A. In addition, Leonard has been a “major inspiration” (158) for Quentin Tarantino, director not only of Jackie Brown, but also of Pulp Fiction, which Geherin also analyzes for its humor.

Besides all the other films with Hollywood connections, there is still one more writer with a strong L. A. tie—Timothy Hallinan. In two series of books, he has featured first an “L.A. college-professor-turned-private eye named Simeon Grist” (141) and then a burglar, Junior Bender, who “like Marlowe . . . lives and works in L. A., though the City of Angels has lost much of the glamor it had in Chandler’s day.” (142)

Although L. A. figures prominently in FTM, other areas (both within the USA and abroad) also serve as background for the stories and films treated by the author. One of Geherin’s previous books is entitled Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction, and he realizes the importance of locations in crime fiction and film. Among the most prominent areas depicted by writers in the present book are San Francisco (where Lisa Lutz places Izzy Spellman in her family’s detective agency), Florida (an important setting for most of Carl Hiaasen’s fiction), New York city (where Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, among others, sleuths), Hong Kong (the prime setting of William Marshall’s mysteries), London (especially as depicted in Christopher Fowler’s many crime stories), Belfast (as portrayed in Colin Bateman’s novels), Botswana (the African setting for Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency mysteries), and Sicily (the main locus for the many novels of Andrea Camilleri).The films Geherin analyzes add other places, such as Beverly Hills (Beverly Hills Cop), Bruges (In Bruges), Chicago (The Sting), Istanbul (Topkapi), and Miami (Miami Blues).

Many of the writers and films Geherin discusses were already known to me—and probably to other readers. But some, for example Camilleri, may be less familiar, and readers of FTM may be delighted to discover new titles to put on their future reading lists. Camilleri is “Italy most popular writer” (102), and one or more of his 20 translated books featuring Commissario Salvo Montalbano will certainly go on my list.

In his Introduction, Geherin provides an overview of humor and why we laugh. He adds that “laughter can arise from language, action, character, or any combination of the three. In a visual medium like film, action alone can be the primary source of humor.” (9) He also reviews different types of humor such as verbal, action-based, character-driven, pastiche and parody, and satire. In the brief sketch he provides for each writer and film he provides various humorous examples.

Here is a list of some of my short favorites:

· “Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?” (30)—Chandler’s detective Marlowe’s response to a client who tells him he doesn’t think he would want to hire a detective who drinks and smokes.

· “I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.” (31)—Another Marlowe observation. See here for more of Chandler’s similes.

· “Wolfe thanked him with the civil insincerity of a small boy who has anticipated an aeroplane for Christmas and been given a copy of the Bible.” (41)—From an Edmund Crispin novel.

· “Dortmunder has to retrieve the cash from inside the left nostril of Lincoln's face on Mount Rushmore.” (51)—From a novel by Donald Westlake, a writer possessing an especially “fertile comic imagination.” (47)

· “It [a cigarette] looked minute in her mouth, like an elephant using a toothpick.” (69)—From a Marshall novel.

· “To block the noise out, she resorts to stuffing a sock in each cup of her bra and tying it across her head like earmuffs, with the ends knotted under her chin.” (85)—About a Sue Grafton character.

· “Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder.”(88)—One of the many puns in Kinky Friedman’s crime fiction.

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· “After his hand is bitten off by a barracuda, he replaces it with a Weed Whacker, which he then wields as a weapon.” (91)—About one of Carl Hiaasen’s characters. 

· “Hail Caeserean” (108) —The greeting of a man to his wife in one of Bateman’s novels after she has just given birth via this method.

· The parishioners of a Northern Irish Catholic village in Bateman’s Divorcing Jack who desert their priest because they suspect the heart he received in a transplant was a Protestant one.

· “When she dashes out to stop the thief, a waitress accuses her of running off without paying her bill, and demands money or she will summon the police.” (121)—McCall Smith writing about his Botswana detective Precious Ramotswe.

· “A swig of water from an old canteen tastes ‘like a Civil War mud puddle.’” (135) —A simile of the creator of Longmire, Craig Johnson.

· “It appears he has received a suspended sentence.” (135) —Another Johnson character’s observation after seeing the body of a man hanging from a rope.

In addition to his quotes, Geherin also provides some of his own humor. For example, in analyzing the film Get Shorty, he writes that Danny DeVito’s character “makes up in ego what he lacks in height.” (157) Such pithiness characterizes the author’s style, which is never wordy and makes for enjoyable reading.

Yet, as Shakespeare and Chekhov have well taught us, the use of humor does not preclude the treatment of serious subjects. Just a few of the many examples of this are provided in the writings of Hiaasen, American author Martha Grimes, and Camilleri.

Although “no one writes funnier crime novels than Carl Hiaasen,” he is deadly serious in his anger toward “those responsible for the crime of transforming Florida's stunning natural beauty into what one of his characters calls ‘Newark with palm trees.’” (90, 91) And “Hiaasen's most venomous portraits are those of the corrupt, moneygrubbing, soulless individuals who are responsible for the utter despoilment of Florida's natural beauty in their pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.” (93) But unlike Sierra Club founder John Muir, who realized that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread,” and once criticized a U. S. society where many people were already “eagerly trying to make everything dollarable,” Hiaasen relies mainly on satire and other forms of humor to make the same points.

Grimes also uses satire effectively. Her fictional Aunt Agatha, who lives on amateur sleuth Melrose Plant’s English estate, provides a target for “a comic satire on the worst features of the class system in England.” (79)

Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano deals with “such important issues as illegal immigrationhuman traffickingpolice brutality, governmental corruption . . . and the Mafia.” (102-03) A recent essay referred to Camilleri as one of Italy’s most famous “public intellectuals” and added that “Camilleri's fiction that lends itself best to an open expression of opinion, though, is his series of Inspector Montalbano novels. . . . Set in current day, they give Camilleri an ample chance to comment on situations in Sicily, Italy, Europe, and even on global events through his ‘mouthpiece’ Salvo Montalbano.” Yet the inspector’s observations “range from the sardonic . . . to the satirical” (103), and he is surrounded with other characters who keep us smiling.

“Montalbano lives smack in the middle of a messy world and the humor in his case arises not from his effort s to escape it but from his constant frustration in having to deal with its annoying imperfections.” (104) His predicament reminds us of what the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: “To meet the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies with laughter, is a high form of wisdom. Such laughter does not obscure or defy the dark irrationality. It merely yields to it without too much emotion and friction. A humorous acceptance of fate is really the expression of a high form of self-detachment. If men do not take themselves too seriously, if they have some sense of the precarious nature of the human enterprise, they prove that they are looking at the whole drama of life not merely from the circumscribed point of their own interests but from some further and higher vantage point.”

Adding to his insight about the connection between humor and humility, he wrote: “Humor is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. . . . People with a sense of humor do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to ‘stand off’ from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions. All of us ought to be ready to laugh at ourselves because all of us are a little funny in our foibles, conceits and pretensions.”

Anton Chekhov also viewed “laughter as medicine, and a vital prerequisite for any treatment of his fellow human beings. Implicit is the sense that laughter—and comedy—are restorative. . . . Chekhov's comedy is therefore . . . a vital part of his philosophy.”

Niebuhr and Chekhov were far from alone in seeing a connection between humor and such virtues as wisdom and humor. In writing about Irish crime writer Ken Bruen, Geherin mentions “the redemptive power of a ‘laugh-so-you-don’t cry’ approach to life.” (116) Moreover, his book offers a fine example that even in the grisliest circumstances (like murder) we can find the restorative and redemptive power of humor.

walter moss

Walter Moss