The Funny Thing About Thrillers

By Boyd Morrison

My friend Brad Parks has graciously agreed to stop by today to discuss a topic that has been kept quiet for too long, a topic we all acknowledge exists but don’t have the guts to address. Brad, however, has taken the brave step forward and is putting his reputation on the line to take on a subject many may consider taboo. Brad, take it away.


       May mother wash my mouth out with soap, but I’d like to talk about the F-word. Or, at least, what some in the crime fiction community consider the F-word:


       This, believe it or not, is a (rare) serious missive from a guy who appeared on the cover of Crimespree dressed in a Tom-Wolfe-meets-pimp white suit. And the question I’d like everyone to ponder – and not in the grubbing-for-comments way that some guest bloggers do, but in a genuine I’m-really-curious-for-your-thoughts way – is this:

       Is it a blessing to write funny mysteries or a curse?

       In this space a few weeks back, P.J. Parrish had a post about how hard it is to write funny. My question is more: do you even want to?

       I ask this because Boyd, my host today, and the other Kill Zone authors are, on average, much smarter than me and I know they’ll have interesting things to say; because I was just nominated for a Lefty Award, given at Left Coast Crime to “the best humorous mystery,” and therefore need to steal the your comments so I can sound clever on panels about this subject later this month; and because I have a new book to hawk (it’s titled THE GOOD COP and Booklist called it “a tautly written page-turner with charm and humor,” so please buy it or Michelle Gagnon will kick a puppy).

       Anyhow, back on topic, I’m now on my fourth book, and I’ve learned that while some people really seem to enjoy a helping of humor in their mysteries, others think the phrase “funny mystery” is the world’s biggest paradox – on the order of “jumbo shrimp” or “compassionate conservative.”

       It’s a curious thing, because in person – or even online – thriller writers tend to be a joyful, often hysterical lot. I often come home from a conference feeling all I’ve done is laugh. And yet while in most aspects of life, this kind of funny is good – human beings are wired to enjoy laughter, after all – the conventional wisdom in the publishing world says funny can taste a little strange when it’s served next to murder.

       “Humor and suspense are contradictory emotions,” said one well-known book critic when I asked him the blessing-or-curse question. “If you’re feeling one, you’re not feeling the other.”

       You’re not supposed to laugh at crime, the thinking goes. Violence and its impact on survivors, which is the substance of most mysteries, are not humorous subjects. When you look at the thrillers that fill the high reaches of the bestseller list, almost none – other than Janet Evanovich – are laughers.

       What’s more, even writers who started off with humor in their work eventually ditch the yucks in favor of more somber stuff. Harlan Coben is a great example of this. His early Myron Bolitar books are often madcap romps. But he didn’t “make it” commercially until he started writing what are essentially humorless standalones. Even now, when he writes a Myron Bolitar, it’s mostly without the comedy that mark his earlier books.

       So does that mean it’s bad to write funny? Some folks seem to think so. I actually got an e-mail from a friend saying she hoped I didn’t win the Lefty, because then no one would take me seriously.

        (“No one takes me seriously anyway,” I wanted to say. Oh, and, incidentally, I also told her she was out of her flippin’ mind. When it comes to awards, I have tried both winning and not winning, and I have found the former to be infinitely more satisfying).

       And yet, for all the critical disdain funny stuff sometimes gets, readers love it. So, up to this point, my own take on the blessing-or-curse question has been that conventional publishing wisdom has it wrong, that it grossly underestimates the intelligence of its readership. I get out quite a bit and the readers I’ve met are, on average, far smarter than the average bear. They are perfectly capable of switching between lighter and heavier moments in a book.

       And so, perhaps as a result, my fourth book in the Carter Ross series has its serious stuff. It starts with the death of a police officer and deals with the issue of illegal gun trafficking. But it also has two elderly Jewish con artists, slinging Yiddish insults at Carter; an intern who is made to perform pregnancy tests on toilet water; and a student who is majoring in “death studies” and helps Carter break into the county morgue while drunk on absinthe.

       It’s all in good fun, of course. And I’d like to think it doesn’t get in the way of the plot or the pacing.

       But it is a mistake anyway? Discuss…

11 thoughts on “The Funny Thing About Thrillers

  1. Most of the cops that I know do gallows humor better than anyone alive. I’ve never understood a mystery where in not one single case are the cops, the PI, or ANYBODY a wisecracking smartass. Think Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines in Running Scared. The lab report comes back from the dead body found next to a tall building…

    BC – “Let me guess…deceleration trauma.”
    GH – “Cement poisoning.”
    Captain – “He drowned.”
    BC – “Poor guy couldn’t swim or fly, huh?”

    Of course, when they find out the dead guy was a cop, their demeanor changes, but it says something about their character that they’ve seen so much that it’s no longer shocking, or dreadful. So yeah, I think it makes sense to have SOME humor. Now, the purely comedic-mysteries, they have to be done just right. About the only one I’ve ever had to make me literally laugh out loud were Toni McGee Causey’s Bobbi Faye books.

  2. Just watch any documentary about soldiers in the field. There’s a lot of joking around while they’re getting ready for action or during the aftermath (assuming they don’t have severe casualties). If they didn’t crack wise, the constant tension would become unbearable.

  3. I prefer humor in mysteries and generally don’t read any other kind. Even in dark suspense thrillers, secondary characters can provide comic relief. I do believe serious crime fiction gets more respect and critical acclaim, however. When has a humorous cozy ever won an Edgar? So there appears to be an innate bias by some people that equates humor with more lightweight fare. As a reader, humor is what I want. If I need a serious, scary read, there’s always the newspaper.

  4. Sorry. I’m still stuck back there on “grubbing-for-comments.” I know, it’s humiliating, but sometimes ya gotta stoop to promoote.

    Funny thrillers? That’s no laughing matter, sir.

  5. Jake – Someday I’m going to steal that line about cement poisoning. And your point about gallows humor is well taken. I think that’s also true with newspaper reporters, nurses, EMTs… pretty much any line of work that involves regular contact with violence.

  6. As a former Marine, EMT, Ambulance Driver, and Alaska Defense Force Scout I can verify that indeed those who are closest to violence (whether as the perpetrator or the janitor) tend to have some of the best senses of humour, albeit dark humour that might be a bit scary and seem unfeeling at times. But they usually keep the dark death humour within the group, not around the family or victims.

    I remember one particular call where I was joking around with a few others only to discover that the dead guy’s brother could hear me, I still feel terrible for that one.

    Once the families are gone though, the sky is the limit…or the dark depths of a hell of the sort where the lovely Michelle kicks puppies.

  7. Okay, a couple of things in Psychology:
    Anger creates action (in human behavior)
    Laughter diffuses action.

    If you’re trying to deal with the stress of your job that’s dark (soldier, cop) then humor will “laugh off” stress that will otherwise keep you in knots. UNLESS you are going to use that energy to propel you to do what you want to do next (anger-motivation).

    Control of the masses is done by letting some steam out of the pot (The Daily Show for example) whereby they actually expose a lot of truth that the masses should really be revolting over–but they have that anger diffused via the humor. Clever work of crowd control.

    Okay, regarding fiction: Make sure the story doesn’t become Standup Comedy for your character INSTEAD of the story. There’s a popular wizard out there that does the files investigation thing–and the wizard is a funny smart ass. Yup, and after page after page after page after page of stand up smart ass comedy–I’m still waiting for the story’s CONFLICT to grab hold.

    Less is MORE. As Elmore Leonard said, your writing voice should not be interfering with the story. If the reader wants to skim through parts due to excess humor, what’s for dinner, and the ever popular internal monologue gone wild–then maybe, just maybe there’s TOO much of a good thing if left to be less.

    Like pepper.

    Try being a smart ass at work EVERY 10 minutes of the day. People will get tired of you and want to stuff you in the closet–and lock it.

    I LOVE a great story. I don’t care what everyone is eating unless it’s poisoned apples or there’s bugs crawling on the pizza. Or what color the walls are or how much fancy design goes into the carpet. Unless it’s a clue for the story. Writing like the above is fluff and filler.

    Thanks, Kerry

  8. I enjoy fun – especially in the dark. It can diffuse rays of light and glimmers of personality and soul. There are extreme stoic people out there and extreme smarty pants… it depends on the character and the story. I’m with Basil – humor and sarcasm is a natural defense and pro-fense for many people. Too much can be too much like Kerry mentioned, but if it fits, don’t shy away from it. It is a normal part of many people’s nature. Part of one of my character’s descriptions is “terminal smart ass” that is her main protection and go to shield (If it can work for Jack O’Neil – it’s good enough for my girl too.). No one can please everyone (a writer or a character)- but as long as it rings true for your character and the story I think it can really add a dimension of good to any story.

  9. I know I’m late to the party here (what else is new?), but I think that “funny mysteries/thrillers” are entirely different animals than mysteries/thrillers that have occasional humor. Take Rita Mae (and Sneaky Pie) Brown. The books of hers that I have read are primarily intended, I think, to make the reader laugh. The stakes are generally low, and there’s little anticipation of a reader being taken to a place he doesn’t want to go.

    Harlan Coben’s Bolitar books, on the other hand, are a few giant steps farther along the suspense scale. The characters are snarky, sarcastic and bigger-than-life, but never to the degree that defuses the tension entirely.

    In my own case, I don’t think anyone can justly accuse me of writing anywhere along the cozy, funny mystery spectrum, but I think there’s an undercurrent of humor in good chunks of all of my books, but the humor manifests itself in the wry comments and world-weary observations of my characters.

    John Gilstrap

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