How to be deadly serious about humerous crime fiction

By Peter Bartram

Author Editor Journalist

When you decide to write humorous crime fiction you have to think of a few more points than those writers who’ve decided to play it straight.
  First, you need to start with a setting which provides plenty of humorous opportunities. A great example is Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth novels. For those who’ve never been there, Aberystwyth is a sleepy town on the west coast of Wales, where the worst crime is probably cycling without lights. But Pryce has turned it into a place where a lone Philip Marlowe-like private investigator battles a sort of Welsh mafia while being beguiled by Celtic maidens in stovepipe hats.
  Next you need a protagonist who can solve mysteries and win smiles. But although you are writing comic prose, your hero cannot be a clown. He (or she, as in the case of Stephanie Plum, the creation of US author Janet Evanovich) must be serious at the core but humorous in voice and manner. Karl Marx on the inside, Groucho Marx on the outside. The voice of the protagonist is the key to humorous crime fiction. It is the voice of the hero – essentially their inner perception of the events taking place around them – that either lightens or darkens the tone. The voice of your protagonist needs to be a unique way of seeing the world.
  And that voice may set a whole range of tones – cynical, sardonic, flippant, sarcastic, resigned, angry, and many others. The voice of the hero should give the reader a humorous take on a mundane event – like a job interview. “I was calling on four million dollars,” says Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Someone said that comic characters see the world through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s their different view – so unexpected we’ve not considered it before – which creates the humour.
  Colin Crampton, my hero, is a crime reporter on a Brighton evening newspaper. As a journalist myself, I’ve spent a good few years working with other journos. There are some who could “make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” (Chandler again) and others who never seem to catch a waiter’s eye. So it’s a milieu which offers plenty of opportunities for fun. But Crampton’s humour also comes from a flaw in his character. He battles against odds to fight for justice – but he’s a master at pulling outrageous newspaper scams to get his stories. He reaches high, but acts low. He’s a knight in armour with a rusty sword.
  There is no one way to approach a humorous crime novel, simply because it’s possible to mix the key ingredients – setting, character, voice, events – in so many different ways. But there is one final rule. When it comes to a humorous murder mystery, the hero must – always – have the last laugh.
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