Injecting humour into crime fiction by Aoife Clifford

Injecting humour into crime fiction by Aoife Clifford

Writing a crime novel is always great fun but creating a funny crime novel is a real challenge. Killing is the easy part, making a reader laugh about it is much harder. I wanted my novel to have a sense of humour in order to reflect all aspects of life in my fictional small town — the good, the bad, the hilarious. But as I kept writing, I realised that there is a closer relationship between humour and crime fiction than I first thought.

              Boil crime fiction down to the essentials and it requires a crime (usually a murder), a mystery about how it happened and someone who wants to solve it. None of this is especially funny so what does humour add? Could a joke be actually doing more than just making you laugh? 

              My novel, It Takes a Town, is about Vanessa Walton who found fame as a child from tap dancing across a Sugar Snap biscuit in a TV commercial, and then leveraged that to become a soap star. Eventually work dried up and she returned to her hometown, Welcome, down on her luck but full of ideas. She was even contemplating standing as an independent at the next election but that proves difficult because her dead body is found lying at the bottom of the stairs in her house. The local paper’s headline proclaims TOWN MOURNS FAVOURITE DAUGHTER, social media goes into meltdown and most of the citizens of Welcome see the death as a tragedy. But not Mer Davis, who went to school with Vanessa and now works at the local supermarket. She thinks it is hilarious that dead Vanessa now has the fame that alive Vanessa so desperately wanted.

              The idea that comedy equals tragedy plus time is not new and Mer didn’t even wait a minute before wondering if she should use a fake Facebook account to tell everyone to put out their packs of Sugar Snap Biscuits as a sign of respect, just to see if they were dumb enough to do so.

              Now, you as a reader might find this funny or not, but the fact Mer does lets the reader inside her head. It gives insight into her relationship with the dead woman and other people in town. As a society, there is broad agreement about what is sad or tragic or scary, but what someone finds funny is revealing. Crime fiction in particular is all about the small tells, and humour can be a powerful clue.

              Humour can also be an oasis. It is no coincidence that the grimmest noir novels have traditionally had a wisecracking detective with a strong sense of gallows humour at their heart. My character of Janet Ross is an affectionate nod to another stalwart of crime fiction, the amateur detective. While she doesn’t knit like Miss Marple, she’s just as observant but perhaps a tad overzealous, telling the bemused local police sergeant that she always keeps a list of possible suspects in the pocket of her overcoat in case someone decides to murder her.  Janet is the classic nosy neighbour and best possible police witness, with her binoculars and note taking, and she was so much fun to write.  

              Humour allows the characters, but even more importantly, the reader, a moment to relax, take a breath, in order to face what’s coming on the next page. It is also an implied promise that even in the darkest night the sun will rise again. No matter what life (or author) throws at the character, there will still be laughter.

              Crime fiction operates on a similar promise of resolution. In fact its structure ­—crime, investigation, reveal — mirrors the anatomy of a joke — set up, detail, punchline. The ultimate promise of a crime novel, what sets it apart from literary fiction, is that you will find out what happened, that the murderer will be unveiled. The knot handed to you, the reader, in the first chapter, will, by the last page, be a piece of string. That is an attractive proposition in a world where there is so much uncertainty, particularly right now. We’ve endured a pandemic, democracy seems under threat across a warming planet, superpowers and wannabe superpowers are muscling up, and technology promises utopia and dystopia in equal measure. No wonder we are looking for the small things in life that make us smile, grin or even laugh, and to spend time in a world where the important questions can be answered.

              Books are one of life’s joys. Whether you are looking for a literary knot to unpick or something to make you smile, I hope you find it in It Takes A Town.

              Happy Reading.