Saturday, January 8, 2011

Can Murder Be Funny?

by Lois Winston (Guest Blogger)

The winners of Lois's romantic suspense novel, "Love, Lies, and A Double Shot of Deception" OR a craft how-to book--winners' choice--are
Barb L. in Florida, Lil Gluckstern, and Linda Leszczuk. Winners, please email Lois directly at lois@loiswinston.com to give her your mailing address and tell her which book you would like.


People are very opinionated. It’s the nature of the beast, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I happen to prefer people with strong opinions, even though they may differ considerably from my own. One of my best friends is my polar opposite when it comes to politics. We simply agree to disagree on certain topics.

I came to the mystery genre via romance, where I’d previously published two books. Romance authors can be very opinionated about their genre. One ongoing argument is whether authors of chick lit and women’s fiction should be considered published in romance. I witnessed heated rhetoric from both sides that eventually tore apart a local writing organization.

Now I’m writing mysteries, and once again I find myself plopped down into the middle of what apparently is an old argument. You see, I write humorous mysteries. Some people have very strong opinions against this particular sub-genre. They find nothing humorous about murder. Actually, neither do I. However, I do find that it usually helps to have a sense of humor to get through much of what life throws at you, and I try to convey that in the way my characters approach life. (I also prefer to read books that make me laugh, rather than have me constantly checking the locks on all my windows and doors!)

So when I began writing mysteries, I knew I wanted to write humorous amateur sleuth mysteries, not police procedurals or dark, gritty serial killer fare. I get enough of that reading my daily newspaper and watching the evening news.

However, I firmly believe that there’s a place and a readership for all sub-genres of mystery. Taste is very subjective, and I respect whatever someone else’s particular taste in mysteries is. If someone likes to read or write stories that scare the stuffing out of people, good for them.

Me? I like to make my readers laugh, even if they’re reading about a murder investigation. That’s why when I killed off the fashion editor in ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY GLUE GUN, I did it with (duh!) a hot glue gun. After all, anyone can kill off a victim with a Glock or a kitchen knife, but how many killers use a glue gun?

My mystery series is also populated with a cast of zany characters. I love taking polar opposites and throwing them together to create conflict. In the Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries, my protagonist has a mother who believes she descends from Russian royalty and a mother-in-law who’s a staunch communist. Not only are they both living under Anastasia’s roof, they’re forced to share a bedroom. Zany characters + conflict = humor. Even though it’s in the confines of a murder mystery.

The problem with writing humor, though, is that you never know if your readership will “get it.” For me, writing humor is the second hardest part of writing a mystery. The first part is creating a story where you keep your reader guessing as to the identity of the killer. As the author, I have to know who the killer is. So it’s difficult for me to be objective. Did I leave too many clues? Not enough? The worst thing in the world is to have your readers figure out whodunit by the third or fourth chapter into the book.

Humor is very subjective, though. I’ve written scenes where I’ve laughed out loud as I’ve typed, then again each time I reread the scene. However, I never know if others will find those scenes funny. So I always hold my breath, fingers crossed, waiting to hear from first my agent, then my editor, then reviewers, and finally readers. Some will laugh; some won’t. All I can hope for is that more laugh than don’t. So I was absolutely thrilled when a major reviewer called my new book a "hilarious, laugh-until-your-sides-hurt tale" with "oddball characters [and] uproariously funny situations."

By George, they got it!

Now I keep my fingers crossed, hoping others do, too.

Lois Winston is an award-winning author and designer as well as an agent with the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. Her latest book, ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY GLUE GUN, the first book in her Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mysteries series, was recently released from Midnight Ink. Visit Lois at http://www.loiswinston.com and Anastasia at http://www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.

29 comments:

Undine said...

Well, I don't see why not. The true-crime writers Edmund Pearson and William Roughead both managed to put a great deal of dry humor into their accounts of murder and the like, while still remaining well within the bounds of good taste. Not an easy feat, mind you, but it can be done.

The Cat Bastet said...

I like mysteries with humor because, as you said, I'd rather laugh than constantly check the locks!

I do find I have to be in the right mood for humor. Sometimes I want a serious traditional mystery, or a police procedural, etc., but sometimes I just want to relax and laugh.

Thanks for this interesting post!

Lois Winston said...

Undine, I haven't read Pearson or Roughead. I'll have to check them out. Thanks for mentioning them.

The Cat Bastet, I agree totally. There are times when I want to immerse myself in something more serious. I discovered Ariana Franklin last year and fell in love with her Mistress of the Art of Death series.

Thank you both for stopping by.

Barb L. in Florida said...

I love reading just about any kind of fiction. I get totally immersed in the story. My family knows when I'm reading, don't try to get my attention unless there is blood or fire! I am always looking for new authors and have found many following this blog!

Sheila Connolly said...

Hi, Lois! (Disclaimer: we were briefly critique partners, years ago.)

You're right--a sense of humor is essential in getting through stressful situations, and solving a murder certainly qualifies. That's probably why the term "gallows humor" exists.

Then there's the other issue facing writers who move from romance to mystery: how much romance (and sex) can you put in your book before readers start complaining?

Lois Winston said...

Barb, I used to use that blood/fire threat on my family, but it never seemed to work. sigh!

Sheila (waving back!) My favorite romances are always the ones where there's more story than sex. I'm far more interested in what happens next than reading yet another same old/same old sex scene.

I'm off to my writing group. Will catch up on comments later today.

caryn said...

There are times when a good laugh is exactly what is needed. The Anne George mysteries were my go to books for a long time. I to knew I could settle in with the sisters and while they were chasing around Birmingham after the bad guys I would be chuckling at their pratfalls.Donald Westlake makes me laugh as well.
So yes, murder can be very funny indeed-or at least catching the murderer can be.

Mason Canyon said...

I enjoy a good mystery that has moments of humor dropped in throughout the book. For years I would only read true-life crime mysteries. One day I read a book by the late Ann George, fell in love with the sisters and laughed until I cried. Now I enjoy a mixture of mystery genres. Best of luck with your new series.

Mason
Thoughts in Progress

Jennifer Fischetto said...

Mysteries are my absolute favorite genre--all kinds. I love to be scared and love to laugh out loud. It's really just a matter of the mood I'm in at that time.

I definitely think it's harder to write humorous murder. It's such a fine balance to make sure your characters don't come across as crazy or unfeeling when it comes to death.

Thanks for sharing this post, and good luck with your books. I'll have to check them out. Getting killed with a hot glue gun is awesome. :)

jeff7salter said...

Lois, Lois, Lois.
Where WILL you be tomorrow?
What a globe-trotter you are.

Well, I've also employed humor in my six novel manuscripts so far. In some cases, it's necessary to release the 'pressure' of a tense scene. Other times humor is simply what exists when you witness the activity of a pet --- you can't help it ... sometimes pets are funny.
And I love creating and working with characters who are vividly drawn. Not all are funny, of course ... but sometimes even the most despicable character can get his/her just desserts. And, at times, that can be -- dare I say it -- funny!
So, leave some bread crumbs about your location tomorrow and enter me for the drawing. I deserve to win some books.

Lesley said...

I enjoy writing funny, almost as much as I enjoy reading funny and that's usually in a murder mystery, my favorite genre. However, I've found writing a more serious mystery can be easier in some ways because you don't have to go for the laugh. I wonder if you would comment on this, Lois. Has that been your experience?

Mary Vaughn said...

I love mysteries and more than that I love to laugh. I'll be trying this series.
Mary

Linda Leszczuk said...

I think readers who won't consider blended genres (mystery with humor, sci fi with romance, etc.) are missing out on a lot of great stories. It's a bit like the purebred dog owners who can't see the beaty in a mixed breed.

Personally, I love humor in my mysteries.

Diane said...

I love mysteries & adventure of all kinds. What I read at a given time depends on what is going on in my life or around me at that time. During the start of the Iraq war, I started out watching the live televised reports. I am a military brat, and as any mb will tell you, those soldiers were my family. If they had to go through it, it was the least I could do. Until I finally stressed out. So, for a long time all I could read were the 'lighter' mysteries. Once I relaxed a bit, I was back to all mystery and 'thriller' books. So, yes, there very definately is a place for humor in a murder mystery. What particular sub-genere I read depends on my mood at the time.

Lois Winston said...

Karen and Mason, Anne George's books were great, weren't they? She left us too soon.

Jennifer and Lesley, writing humor is definitely hard, as I said in my post. I think it's a lot easier to write without humor because it's one less thing to worry about in your writing. However, when it works, it's a fantastic feeling.

Jeff, are you stalking me? Or are you my cyber-roadie? Tomorrow I'll be at Mystery Lovers' Kitchen. You can find the entire blog schedule and links at my website -- http://www.loiswinston.com -- and on the Killer Crafts & Crafty Killers sidebar -- http://www.anastasiapollack.blogspot.com.

Mary, thanks! Please email me to let me know what you thought after you read the book.

Linda, I agree. I love when authors do the unexpected and think "purist" readers are missing out on some grand reading adventures.

Diane, I agree. Sometimes I'm in the mood for Cherry Garcia and sometimes Creme Brulee.

lil Gluckstern said...

I enjoy well written books. Now I have a fascination with historical procedurals, but I always have to have some lighted hearted caper or just plain funny books around for leavening. Books like your make the world a little more bearable. By the way, although I like mystery books, every once in a while a good romance will absolutely make things better. I like d your post.

Lois Winston said...

Thank you, lil! I do like a good romance every so often, too.

Todd Allen said...

There are plenty of funny mysteries.

I was always very fond of Lawrence Block's Evan Tanner books (although technically, those are spy novels), of which the Canceled Czech was probably the best. Such a great title.

When I do the murder sequences for my comic strip, I tend to go Mikado and aim for darkly ironic deaths.

Cindy Sample said...

Hi Lois. I agree that I don't like to wake up at 2 AM and worry about an imaginary noise downstairs. I love mysteries and we all need a daily dose of humor. I'm almost finished with my sequel and it is tough walking that line of appropriate humor when bodies are dropping left and right. BTW, I was going to use a glue gun as a weapon so I'm going to have to find another fashionable weapon!

Lois Winston said...

Todd, I agree. The Canceled Czech is a great title.

Cindy, sorry I beat you to the glue gun. Something similar just happened to me. I'm plotting out my third book in the series and had a great idea for who the murderer would turn out to be. Then I picked up a book by a fellow Midnight Ink author, and darn if she didn't beat me to it!

Kate George/Bodacious Betty said...

Hi Lois! How fun to find you here. What I don't understand is with the number of people who enjoy a little humor with their mystery, or a little mystery with their humor - why is it so hard to find an agent or editor who is willing to put it out there?

I feel lucky to have found an editor who enjoys my sense of humor. And I'm glad that there are others like me creating mysteries I can laugh at!

Lois Winston said...

Hi Kate! Nice to see you here. To answer your question, I think it's because of the subjective nature of humor. Humor is so very personal. So not only does an author have to succeed in writing a funny book, she has to find an agent and editor who enjoy her brand of humor in order to get that book published.

For instance, if I'm writing humor more along the lines of M*A*S*H, an editor who prefers her humor served up a la The Three Stooges is probably not going to like my book enough to buy it, no matter how well-written that book is.

Marilynne said...

Humor breaks the tension. Then you can build it up anew. It's not the murder itself that's funny, but how it came to be or how people react to it.

Lois Winston said...

Exactly, Marilynne!

Joy N. Hensley said...

I love humorous mysteries. I've been a long-time fan of M.C. Beaton's Hamish MacBeth mysteries, so this sounds right up my alley!

Lois Winston said...

Thanks, Joy!

Katreader said...

I adore funny murder stories! I read to escape, and while true crime and thrillers can be enjoyable, most times I prefer an enjoyable cozy read that makes me laugh out loud! I was a police officer and currently work with the criminally insane. Believe me, I find plenty of humor along with grim reality as well.

CHickey said...

I absolutely love humorous mysteries, which is, of course, what I write. I'm adding this book to my to be read pile.

Lois Winston said...

Katreader, with your day job, I can see why you'd want your books to make you laugh.

CHickey, thanks for adding ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY GLUE GUN to your TBR pile.