Mike McHone is a relative newcomer to the mystery field, but his short fiction and poetry have previously appeared in such publications as Neo-Opsis Science Fiction and The Onion. He makes his EQMM debut in our current issue (January/February 2020) with the humorous tale “A Drive-by on Chalmer’s Road?”. The Detroit author currently has other short stories forthcoming in Mystery Tribune and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. In this interesting post, he discusses the art of blending humor, mystery, and suspense in a fictional setting.—Janet Hutchings
You’ve probably heard the oft-repeated and sometimes misappropriated line, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Over the years, it’s been attributed to actors Edmund Keane, Edmund Gwenn, and Donald Crisp. There are a couple of variations such as, “Dying is easy, comedy is difficult,” or “Dying isn’t as nearly as difficult as playing comedy.” Regardless of the variation and whomever supposedly said it, there’s a reason why this line keeps hanging around after all these years. All of us understand that dying is indeed easy (so easy anyone can do it!), but not everyone can be funny. You either are or you aren’t. And telling an original joke, crafting a comedic bit, or knowing how to pace a humorous routine, book, story, or film, is an artform. Each word and syllable of the joke should be as close to flawless as possible, and the entire process, from beginning to end, needs to be executed with such precision timing it would make a Swiss watch jealous.
In this regard, the plotting of a mystery, crime, or suspense story (three genres that have a great dependence on that easy business of death and dying), means the tale must go through a very similar process. Pacing is crucial. Don’t tell or reveal too much in the beginning. Don’t overstay your welcome after the climax. Know when to pause. Know when to smirk. Whether you’re making them laugh or making them scared, both depend not just on knowing what to say, but when, where, and how to say it.
But what if a writer can do both?
Ah, yes . . . If a writer can tiptoe between the funny and the mystery, weave together the light and the shadow, wrangle up the goosebumps and the gut-laughs in a single story, then they’re on to something special. If words are fading from funny moments into suspenseful ones and vice versa, then the flow of the narrative can speak to a deeper part of us where we understand, in our bones, that laughing is the best way to ease tension. Since we were kids, most of us have giggled ourselves stupid right after a friend or sibling jumped from seemingly out of nowhere and scared the bejesus out of us, or after we’ve completed that victorious jaunt through a haunted house in October. And what’s the go-to line that people sometimes utter months or years after a car wreck or some kind of personal disaster? “We can laugh about it now.” Sharing amusing stories at a funeral makes the process easier to deal with, if only for a little while. A fart in school is already funny, but a fart while everyone’s in the middle of taking a final exam? Well, that’s like a mini USO Tour during wartime. If laughter is the best medicine, then comedy during a tense moment is a baptism. And in fiction, it can certainly bring balance to a story.
Consider the scene inThe Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo, that swaggering smartass, is about to be lowered into the carbonite chamber and to his potential death. Leia finally comes to terms with her feelings and tells Han, “I love you.” And how does he respond?
In the original script Han was supposed to reply with the obligatory, “I love you, too.” It was intended to be an earth-shattering moment, but considering twenty minutes later we hear Darth Vader shed some light onto the darker branches of Luke Skywalker’s family tree (not to spoil a forty-year-old movie, but he’s Luke’s dad—sorry for the shocker), it was a great decision by director Irvin Kershner to allow actor Harrison Ford to break the other way and give us a laugh before we see Han become frozen and sent off with the bounty hunter Boba Fett. Apparently after a long day of shooting the scene, sticking with the original line wasn’t working, so Kershner told Ford to just say whatever the hell came to mind after Leia confesses her love. Ford went with his instinct, stayed true to Han’s attitude and blessed us with that wonderful moment.
However, the funny thing about tension (or the frightful thing about comedy) is that sometimes the distinctions between the two in a fictional setting are so razor thin you could shave with them. Here’s a scenario: A main character is irritated at someone in a scene and he can no longer hold back his anger. The character grabs a blunt object and hits the other person upside the head with it. If the person receiving the hit gets knocked out or dies, and there’s a realistic sound effect at the time of the impact, then you’re watching, or reading, a suspenseful scene.
Now let’s take a very similar situation: Person A gets pissed at Person B. Person A grabs a blunt object and thumps Person B on the head. If Person B is in pain but still standing and the sound effect during the hit was something like a Boink! sound, then you have yourself a comedy. For proof of this, please see the infamous baseball bat scene with Robert De Niro in The Untouchables, versus the Three Stooges’ A Plumbing We Will Go wherein Moe bashes Curly in the head with a pipe wrench.
Of course, there’s an alternative to this wherein the violence is ramped up so greatly that a story could fall either into a relentlessly suspenseful horror story or a borderline slapstick comedy. Compare Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs to Tim Dorsey’s Florida Roadkill (but if you read the latter, trust me, you’ll never look at a pair of blue jeans or a can of Fix-a-Flat the same way again).
One thing we must also understand about comedy is that getting a laugh has very little to do with the joke itself and more to do with whomever is telling it. George Carlin’s material in the mouth of another performer doesn’t work, because there was only one George Carlin and no one could do George Carlin’s jokes better than George friggin’ Carlin. Characters in fiction must function the same. If jokes or observations can be interchanged between characters, then the writer isn’t allowing the character to tell the joke on their own. This is what we call lazy-ass writing. Characters have to have their own way of speaking, thinking, acting, reacting, living, breathing, and, yep, dying. When they’re allowed to be themselves, without interchangeable jokes or dialogue, or a bunch of narratively intrusive situations scuttling them along from scene to scene, their own life shines through and the reader or viewer is allowed to get acquainted with them. It’s because of this that, in the realm of mystery or crime fiction, we’re drawn to main characters instead of the mysteries they’re trying to solve.
We’ve seen dozens of medical dramas on TV, but we like Dr. Greg House because he’s a sarcastic curmudgeon with a heart. We adore Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch because he reminds us of the class clown that never studied but somehow always managed to get straight As and irritate the teacher in the process. Sara Peretsky’s V.I. Warshawski can out-think, out-drink, and do just about anything better than any of us, always with a smirk on her face. And when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, we stand in awe of his supreme intellect.
As Dr. Watson points out in particularly funny scene in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes’ “ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.” In the scene, Watson speaks of the Copernican Theory of the Earth revolving around the sun and Holmes literally does not know what Watson is talking about. Watson is gobsmacked. Holmes doesn’t possess even a child’s basic understanding of the universe! “What the deuce is it to me?” Sherlock asks. Watson replies because it’s “the solar system!” Holmes shrugs, says that it has nothing to do with his work, and that he will force himself to forget such nonsense.
Arthur Conan Doyle was wise to put this scene in A Study in Scarlet. Its usage shows that Mr. Holmes, for all his brilliance, certainly has his flaws. Normally, it would be cruel to laugh at someone’s lack of understanding regarding any subject, but if it came to solving a murder or navigating the streets of London blindfolded, Sherlock would absolutely embarrass us with his insight, and therefore Doyle is giving us the okay to titter at him for not knowing anything about Mars or Saturn. For replications of this type of humor at the genius’s expense, think Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, or Spock from Star Trek (and, fun fact, according to the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Sherlock is Spock’s ancestor).
And let us not forget that some of the greatest comedies have at least a semblance of a crime or mystery plot that propel them along. The Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona is nothing without its central element: a kidnapping. The Big Lebowski, also by the Coen Brothers, is an homage to the works of Raymond Chandler. Smokey and the Bandit is a cat and mouse story about bootlegging. The Naked Gun, based on their far-too-short-lived television show Police Squad!, is a sendup of police procedurals of the ’50s and ’60s. The sitcom Barney Miller managed to blend workplace humor with the day-to-day nonsense of trying to solve crimes in Greenwich Village (and because of this many critics, actors, fans, and police officers said the show is one of the most realistic portrayals of what it’s like to work in a police station). And yes, when you think about it, every incarnation of Scooby-Doo was in fact a mystery series. Zoinks, indeed!
Yes, the crime elements can be muted at times, well behind the visual gags or lines of witty dialogue, but without the crimes or mysteries, the main characters have nothing to play around in. In other words, there’s no story. And without a story, we can’t connect to the character, and what better way to connect with someone (fictional or otherwise) than sharing a laugh?
After all, a story without good characterization is just a joke. And a joke told poorly by the wrong character is simply a crime.