How and Why Crime and Comedy go together in Comic Crime (1987), ed. by Earl Bargainnier

As part of preparing a course on Golden Age crime, I’ve been dipping into critical secondary reading. Although prior to reading this book, I had certainly read funny detective novels, I had not really thought about what goes into making a theme such as murder, which in real life is negative, humorous, without being repulsive. Comic Crime is a collection of essays which pull apart what we mean by comedy in crime. Earl Bargainnier’s ‘Preface’ to the collection is helpful in my opinion in establishing how crime and comedy can be reconciled and how in fact many detective stories in the Golden Age form follow the traditional comic narrative arc. Bargainnier also outlines the techniques used by authors such as Christie or Crispin to make their texts funny. These include: parody, which can be found in Christie’s Partners in Crime (1929); descriptive set pieces which can add to the plot, characterisation or release built up tension; character pairings such as Holmes and Watson; eccentric sleuths and characters which play around with stereotypes; tone, which is often detached and metafictional references, where the texts refer to the fact they are in a detective story. Interestingly an example not included in the ‘Preface’ is John Dickson Carr’s ‘Locked Room Lecture’ where a character says, “we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.”

Comic Crime
The introductory nature of the ‘Preface’ is continued in the first essay of the collection: ‘Comedy and the British Crime Novel’ by H. R. F. Keating. Keating elaborates upon the types of humour included in detective fiction, often citing some of his own novels. The five key types discussed begin with the traditional (a vague term encompassing wordplay, circumlocution, “gentle” humour (an equally vague term), deprecating humour and whimsy). The other categories are The Witty, The Donnish, The Farcical and Social Comment, the latter pertaining more to satire and criticising contemporary attitudes. This was a good piece, however, I feel the first humour category was a little ill-defined, so by the end of the essay I still wasn’t quite sure what it pertained to, nor how it is distinct from the other groups.

Although not a fan of hard-boiled detective fiction, the second essay in the pack, ‘Laughing with the Corpses: Hard Boiled Humour’ by Frederick Isaac, was engagingly informative on how humour works in such novels, with exaggeration and juxtaposition being key, along with making the improbable plausible. Pithy wisecracks which denote character personalities, self-deprecation, humorous, yet cynical descriptions and abrupt action also feed into the comedy of hard-boiled detective novels, as this essay goes on to explain.

Elaine Bander’s essay ‘“What Fun!”’: Detection as Diversion’ was probably my favourite piece, dealing with texts and authors I was quite familiar with, such as Georgette Heyer, Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence and A. A. Milne. She focuses on detective novels where the characters treat murder/crime light heartedly, as an amusement or lark. This particular view of crime is shown by Bander’s to serve many purposes such as hiding the criminal’s guilt or masking worry. She also moots the idea that crime in this manner is being viewed in a cynical and aesthetic manner, which ties into parody and metafictional comments.

The fourth essay, Bargainnier’s ‘Farcical Worlds of Crime’ focuses on a similar time period to Bander’s piece, namely the Golden Age elucidating on how a comic world is established in humorous detective novels which has enough realism and flexibility to allow the improbable and fantastical. With examples from Nicholas Blake, Richard Hull, Michael Innes, Edmund Crispin (who is definitely ripe for being adapted for TV) and Leo Bruce, Bargainnier goes on to discuss what is meant by farce and how it can be integral to the plot of detective stories. Literary allusions and puns are also discussed as well.

Mary Jean DeMarr follows on from this with her essay, ‘The comic village,’ which traces the role of the village in comic crime and how it has changed over the years. I found this another interesting and thought provoking piece showing how even in the Golden Age, the village was being used for different purposes. This is a point reinforced by comparing the villages of Miss Marple, with those Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen descends upon, the former showing order restored, even if it is a veneer, whilst the latter containing a collection of mad and eccentric individuals. This disintegration continues into later works such as those written by Catherine Aird and Robert Barnard, where the dark undercurrents of the villages are identified. I was also struck by the idea that the village is an effective way of demonstrating the effect social and technological changes have on a place with the essay noting the shift in villages in detective fiction from the church to the pub.
Wister Cook, is the next writer who in ‘Crime and Comedy on Campus,’ as the title suggests looks at comic detective fiction set in universities, focusing on how intellectual integrity is satirised. I found this essay a little too descriptive and the humour focus rapidly evaporates as the essay progresses. However, I did find some titles to add to my want to read list.

The amateur detective is the theme of the next essay by Jane S. Bakerman, ‘Guises and Disguises of the Eccentric Amateur Detective’. A key premise of this piece is that humour is derived from the unlikeable qualities of amateur detectives, which however, make them extremely good at detecting. For amateur sleuths like Holmes, Dupin and Poirot, their annoying habits are apparently entertaining because we don’t have to live with them in real life. In a way I can see this, but I definitely disagreed when Bakerman lumped Miss Marple, within the same category. However I did find her examination of the sidekick figure engaging, suggesting they have a much greater role, indicating in some cases a parent and dependent child relationship between the sidekick and the great detective. The essay concludes by exploring the evolution of the amateur sleuth (up until the 80s when this was published) and how they no longer appear heroic or hold moral superiority. Examples include Gash’s Lovejoy and Brett’s Charles Paris.

Elderly female detectives also gain the spotlight in Neysa Chouteau and Marther Alderson’s ‘The Little Old Ladies’ and I found many new characters I had not heard of before such as Bertha Cool, Lucy Ramsdale, Sister Theresea, Emily Pollifax and Emily Seeton. Like the body in the library, the incongruity of an elderly, often widowed or spinster female detective, generates a lot of humour. A lot of fun can be had with such characters, as this essay notes, by authors, as so many stereotypes, often negative are attached to them. Emily Pollifax is definitely a case in point as she joins the CIA, upsetting conventional spy tropes and detection methods. The only part I particularly disagreed with was when they suggested that Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver novels were ‘slow reading’. Although they contain a predictable romance subplot, I find the character of Miss Silver entertaining and her plots do often have unique quirks.

Barrie Hayne takes a look at Holmes and Watson in ‘The Comic in the Canon: What’s Funny about Sherlock Holmes?’ In a nutshell the humour within these two characters lies in the dialogue they exchange, which not for the first time has been likened to that of a married couple. Moreover, the consistency and fixedness of the characters, alongside their juxtaposed characteristics: Watson’s literalness and obtuseness vs. Holmes’ Intuition and Vanity also provide much of the comedy and the lines of dialogue we remember.

Having never read any novels written by Donald Westlake, Michael Dunne’s essay ‘The Comic Capers of Donald Westlake’ held little interest for me and the writing style was at times too descriptive. In a way so much of the plot lines had been mentioned that reading them would lack surprise. A similar problem was found in Lizabeth Paravisni and Carlos Yorio’s ‘Is it or Isn’t it? The Duality of Parodic Detective Fiction,’ as again the piece focused on works of L. A. Morse, another writer I am unfamiliar with, due to being of the hardboiled persuasion. However, this piece did raise several interesting points for me such as suggesting that parodies in detective fiction are dialogic, in that there is a conversation almost between the parody text and the text which it is parodying. Moreover, such texts are self-reflexive by nature and that unlike straight detective fiction which perhaps seeks to hide the techniques or devices used to construct it, parodies actively want the reader to be aware and recognise the structures and concepts being used.

Overall, I think this collection has a lot to offer a crime novel fan, which can be read selectively or chronologically, with certain essays probably being of greater interest to either Golden Age or Hardboiled detective fiction fans.

Rating: 3/5 (Slightly lower rating as some of the essays were less interesting because they focused on authors/characters I was unfamiliar/uninterested in.)

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