Thursday, February 4, 2010

Lighthearted Mysteries

Elizabeth Zelvin

The guest at a recent MWA NY dinner was acclaimed literary novelist Joyce Carol Oates (every possible award and 56 novels, of which 39 were NY Times Notable Books of the Year, along with a larger body of work that includes multiple collections of poetry and short stories as well as essays and other nonfiction). She loves mystery and suspense and asserts all her books are crime fiction on some level, but said (in response to a question--yep, I asked if there's any place for humor, fun, and even levity in her work) that she doesn't understand "lighthearted mysteries--aren't they called tea cozies?" (direct quote), because murder is serious business. Later, I wished I'd asked a different question: “What do you want from your audience?” I know what I want from mine. I want my books to make them laugh and cry. I want them never to forget my characters. I want them to come back for more of the series because my characters and those around them feel like family. I want opening a new book about my characters to feel like coming home.

I’m not debating the fact that Oates is a world-class writer whose work has the ability to move the reader. And I’ve had plenty of experience with readers, agents, and editors who are puzzled by the juxtaposition of humor and such dark topics as alcoholism and domestic violence in Death Will Help You Leave Him and Death Will Get You Sober. But humor, in life or in fiction, is a way of coping with even the darkest reality, maintaining hope, and sometimes moving beyond it. Letting go of the past is essential to getting on with life. The ability to reflect back on the past with greater insight helps too. And humor can be a powerful aid in doing that. Victims can’t laugh—but survivors can. And while Oates, from what I heard her say, is drawn to the mysteries of life in a broader sense—that part of human experience that can never emerge from the shadows—I’m most interested in hope and insight and the tools, including laughter, that help turn victims into survivors.

Having written two lighthearted mysteries that are not cozies—to the extent that some readers and reviewers have even found the optimistic subject matter mean (as in “mean streets”), depressing, and even sordid and my funny, flawed, endearing characters “low-lifes”—I’m well placed to assert that mysteries like mine can be serious in the sense of the French term sérieux—not trivial, not to be taken lightly—without being no fun. Who wants to be no fun? I didn’t invent the laughter in my fictional twelve-step meeting rooms. In real life, you’ll find it in every meeting. Are there some topics that are so serious in the English-language sense that any levity at all is inappropriate? I don’t think so. There might be some exceptions. But there are probably exceptions to the exceptions too.

What’s your favorite lighthearted mystery—with or without an underlying serious theme?


Undine said...

Harold Schechter wrote a series of murder mysteries featuring Edgar Allan Poe as detective, that I quite liked. They're tongue-in-cheek, without being silly.

I might be alone in this, but I've always put Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time" (my all-time favorite mystery novel) in this category.

Ann Elle Altman said...

I love reading Dorothy L. Sayers and her Peter Wimsey character. I always found them light-hearted and fun.


Nancy Adams said...

Hi Liz,

I couldn't agree with you more. The past year has been a rough one for me personally, and I know during this time I've appreciated most the books that made me laugh. It was much needed relief. Yes, laughter is a great coping tool.

I find it odd that anyone thought your mysteries, especially the second one, were inappropriately funny. It's obvious that Bruce's humor is a way of coping with the dark. Plus, I found your second mystery had moments of great pathos. I think it's great when one book can switch gears like that.

Right now I'm reading Steve Hockensmith's "cowboy" mysteries, which are loaded with humor, but also with the desire to see justice done.

It's a great combination IMO.

Thanks for the opportunity to spout off!


signlady217 said...

Dorothy Gilman's Mrs. Pollifax series. In one of them she's being held hostage from a safari and in strolls one of the other people from the group. He had followed her because he didn't want her to get lost! In another one she is tortured and beaten so badly it leaves scars on her back (who would do this to a little old lady?), but the way she manages to cope with the recurring nightmares afterwards is wonderful. I wish there were more books in the series.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Dorothy Gilman is this year's newly announced Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. If they use the same format they have in the past for the Edgars Week Symposium, she'll be interviewed by another wellknown writer--should be fascinating.

Dave said...

I think humour is essential to coping with life in general. There needs to be some humour in the worst of situations, be it dark or silly, to help you get past the hard stuff. Humour in mysteries is one of the things that draws me into a book. If the book is too over the top serious, I seldom get through it. Charlotte Macleod was a master (mistress?) at this, and so is Hockensmith.

kd easley said...

I discovered Jim Butcher and his Dresden Files series shortly after I lost my mother last year. I needed to laugh and Butcher and his Wizard/detective did that for me.
The Dresden Files aren't lighthearted romps with sweet fairies and ghosts. The bad guys are badder than bad, but the humans are well, human. They stumble, they trip, they fall down, they say stupid things, and they make me laugh. While the Dresden Files probably lean more toward fantasy than true mystery, I love them. The best part is even in the middle of the series when things were very dark in Harry's life, he could still laugh at himself and make me laugh as well. Kind of like real life.

jenny milchman said...

I think my favorite mystery with humor would be either something by Jeff Cohen, or yours, Liz. As for the topic of the post, I have to say that I feel more like Joyce Carol Oates (except, you know, not famous, lauded, or...published). I just can't make a crime novel funny. Sometimes--the best times--I scare myself. I've made myself cry. But almost never do my lips rise in a smile as I write or revise. This leaves me with the utmost reverence for those who do create laughs, because you're right, humor's a great coping mechanism, and far more a part of life than murder, luckily for most of us.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks for all the comments, and especially to those of you who've said you find in my work what I hope I've put in there. I want to say that they're not my jokes, they're Bruce's. My protagonist's voice comes from somewhere deep inside where I store wisecracks that are funnier than I can be when I'm simply myself. It's a mystery!

Sandra Parshall said...

I haven't read a lot of lighthearted mysteries, but I've always appreciated black humor, and I see nothing wrong with humor in a dark book. The Monkeewrench mysteries, for example, are dark and violent, but often hilarious. Humor is an odd thing and takes many forms.

kathy d. said...

I didn't think that your books were inappropriately funny. Actually, although I like the humor throughout the books, I like Barbara's humor--New York Jewish humor actually, which I grew up with and like. I do laugh out loud.

And how can anyone criticize the characters? They're the characters in a book, a work of fiction, by the author. Authors can dream up any characters. It's fiction.

There are so many mysteries with humor. The popular, late Robert Parker wrote the Spenser series with a lot of witty dialogue, which is one reason they are such well-liked books.

I'm reading "Vanished," by Joseph Finder, a corporate/financial thriller which is full of snappy, funny dialogue, although on page one, a woman is knocked unconscious and her husband is missing. The wit doesn't take away from the story; it adds to it.

I guess my favorite light mysteries would have to include Lisa Scottoline's women-lawyer series.

There's also wit in much of Michael Connelly's writing.

I can't get away from it in what I choose to read, although I do read other types of books. There is NOT a lot of humor in the Scandinavian mystery writers' books, though. Life weighs heavily.

Julee Johnson said...

I love the humor in the books by Martha Grimes. I may not laugh out loud but I'm cracking up inside. Like in The Grave Maurice, when Melrose Plant buys the horse ... But the last section of that book (subtitled Love Walked In) is one of the saddest I've read. Great book and a fine series.
I don't think the issue is humor but taking the subject of murder seriously. Perhaps like Oates, I have trouble with that aspect of some of the cozy subgenre.

Alan Cook said...

Joyce Carol Oates and I grew up in the same part of the world (Western New York) at about the same time, although I've never met her. I consider some of her work unnecessarily dark even for those cold winters of our youth. That said, I think murder is a serious business, but I've seen humor at funerals and we need to laugh to live.

kathy d. said...

My Irish relatives, I recall, would tell jokes at wakes and funerals.

Humor was part of the situation, as a coping mechanism and a way to celebrate the deceased person's life and life in general.

Different cultures view death differently.

Many writers do use humor in mysteries. It can be written very well and enjoyable.

Kate L. said...

Breakup by Dana Stabenow always comes to mind as a very humorous entry in a series that's not deliberately funny. Stabenow can always be counted on to find humor in quotidian details, but it's usually only once or twice in each book - except Breakup. As was mentioned above for a different book, I didn't laugh out loud, but I grinned the whole way through.

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