Monday, June 7, 2010

Comedy and crime: divorce or potential reconciliation?

While crime fiction, by its very nature, deals with the darker aspects of humanity, it also has some tradition of of lightness amongst the dark, moments of laughter amongst the madness and murder. But as has been said (attributed to various people from British actor Sir Donald Wolfit to George Bernard Shaw), "Dying is easy, comedy is hard".

Many of my favourite crime and thriller writers, even from the 'darker' end of the spectrum, weave some humour (even if it's sly or subtle) into their novels. Paul Cleave and Stuart MacBride are two great examples of authors who can have quite brutal violence on one page, and something that will make you smile or suppress a chuckle on the next.

But have we lost sight of the value of full-on comic crime? Of capers and wisecracks? Of out-and-out humour that can take a murder mystery to some completely different place?

There was a very interesting article by Northern Irish writer Colin Bateman published in The Guardian online a couple of days ago, addressing this very question. Bateman, whose latest book THE DAY OF THE JACK RUSSELL recently won the Last Laugh Award at CrimeFest.

"Humour in crime fiction is nowadays a rare bird," says Bateman in his article for's 'Books Blog', which you can read in full here. He notes that traditionally the genre had plenty of humour, from the Holmes-Watson dynamic to the sardonic with of the early hardboiled PIs - but that parodies of this led to something of a death of comic crime, and a reinvention and shift towards the darker edge of the genre (the "torture porn" of Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell).

But the mere fact that crime has largely turned away from humour, ironically now gives humorous crime writers the opportunity to once again occupy the 'new and challenging' segment of the genre, adds Bateman. "British authors like Robert Lewis, Charlie Williams, Malcolm Pryce, Chris Ewan, Declan Burke and Len Tyler are at the vanguard of a new wave of young writers kicking against the cliches and producing ambitious, challenging, genre-bending works. They may not yet be hogging the bestseller lists but at least they're adding some wit and balls to a moribund genre."

What are your thoughts on humour and crime? Do you like some laughs amongs the darkness? Should we pay more attention to out-and-out comic crime? Who are some of your favourite crime writers that incorporate some humour into their work?


  1. I think humor is absolutely necessary in crime fiction, for the reasons of balance and pacing. Too much of the grim is in the end far too grimy.

  2. I love Declan Burke's work (only wish the publishers had my good taste and sense of humor), and I find that Ken Bruen's work is chockful of black humor.

    But for making me laugh out loud, Donald Westlake's Dortmunder books have no equal.

  3. I just picked up one of Westlake's books - part of a "Hard Case Crime" series of paperbacks that was quite reasonably priced I think. Looking forward to giving it a go - I've heard good things.