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?