Colin Bateman (right) was kind enough to give me a very generous plug last week, in a piece he wrote for the Guardian’s Book Blog, in which he claimed that comic crime fiction is a ‘new and challenging’ way of dealing with what can often be moribund clichés in the crime writing genre. Peter Rozovsky picked up the ball and ran with it over at Detectives Beyond Borders, where the conversation became a debate about the use and abuse of gratuitous violence in crime novels, and particularly against women.
There’s no doubt that employing comedy in crime fiction is a high-wire act. Crime is a very serious business, in more ways than one; violence, rape, torture and murder are not matters to be taken lightly. My big problem, as a writer, is that I love the crime novel form, and that I find it very difficult to write without trying to be funny. I have tried to write stories that are serious in tone, but I get bored very quickly, and find myself repressing the instinct to poke fun at the foibles of the characters, their ambitions and hubris. That puts me in an awkward position, not least because a good friend of mine died violently many years ago, and it goes against the grain to underplay the consequences of violence of any kind.
My first novel, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, was an attempt to write an homage-of-sorts to the novels of Raymond Chandler - in other words, the novel was serious in its intent, but its protagonist, Harry Rigby, was prone to comic quips and asides to the reader. As best as I can remember without rereading it, the story contains two murders, both of which, I hope, receive their full due in terms of their consequences. The story also contains occasional outbreaks of non-lethal violence, most of which is perpetrated against Rigby, and again, I tried to do justice to the reality of my own experience of physical violence - that it is brutal and nasty, and as psychologically unsettling as it is physically debilitating. That said, Rigby at one point ships a bullet in his gut and - after a brief period of recuperation - goes merrily on his way. Plausible? Definitely not, according to a number of reviewers. By the same token, none of the violence is gratuitous, nor is it excessively detailed or gruesome.
By the time I came to write my second novel, THE BIG O, I was a little worn out by the forensically detailed emphasis on violence and murder in the novels I was reading, and particularly burnt out by those authors who were gleefully celebrating the extent to which their novels were plumbing the depths of human depravity. The form I decided on was a homage-of-sorts to Elmore Leonard, with a nod to Barry Gifford, but I also set myself the challenge of writing a crime novel that contained no murders at all, and the bare minimum of violence. Apart from self-inflicted harm, the novel contains two actual episodes of violence: a dog has its eye removed with a fork, and a man - one of the bad guys - gets shot in the knee. By the standards of the kill-count in the crime novel today, that’s positively quaint.
The comedy aspect was a bit more challenging. Many reviewers commented on the number of coincidences in the novel: some were willing to play along with the conceit, others found it a bit wearying. My intent, for what it’s worth, was to write a comic crime novel according to the classical definition of comedy - i.e., in classical Greek drama, tragedy is considered to be undeveloped comedy. In the context of the novel, a group of characters scheme and plot towards the finale, growing increasingly desperate to achieve their aims even as fate - in the form of those coincidences - becomes a noose around their necks. I suppose the general idea was that of ‘Men plan and gods laugh’ - either way, the concept was one of poking fun at the illusion of human control over our actions and their consequences in what is essentially a blind and pitiless universe.
My third novel, aka BAD FOR GOOD, which is currently out under consideration, is an attempt to get at a different kind of comedy. Again, it’s a crime narrative, in which a hospital porter deranged by logic decides to blow up the hospital where he works, in order to illustrate how all civilisations (in this case, Western civilisation) are undone from within rather than destroyed by external forces. The humour is decidedly darker than previously; the protagonist, Karlsson, allows for no limits on his imagination when it comes to inventing ingenious ways to persecute his superiors. But the form, too, is an attempt to move away from the traditional crime novel narrative. It’s a meta-fiction, in which failed writer Declan Burke finds his own person, and that of his family, under attack by his deranged creation, Karlsson. The idea is to fold back the violence writers propagate onto the writer himself, and to have Declan Burke live with the consequences of his wilful depravity. Whether the conceit works is up to others to decide, but for now I’m happy that the story is at least an attempt to come to terms with the responsibility a crime writer bears in terms of the ways in which he or she employs violence in their novels.
Anyway, that’s my two cents on the comic crime novel. I should point out, by the way, that my own experience of writing and publishing comic crime novels has been that while readers tend to like them as a change of pace from more serious fare, they’re not generally taken all that seriously by the industry’s mainstream, either by publishers or readers. That may well be because of the way I’ve written those particular novels, or because people don’t as a rule take comedy seriously. I’d imagine it’s very probably a combination of both. Bateman, whose debut novel DIVORCING JACK poked fun at warring paramilitaries and won the Betty Trask prize, and whose THE DAY OF THE JACK RUSSELL recently won The Last Laugh award at CrimeFest, is one of the few exceptions. And that’s a shame, I think. Writers of serious crime novels who overdose on gratuitous violence and torture porn are no more realistic in terms of the truth of crime than comedy writers who exaggerate the tropes and blend genres. The funniest novel I’ve read so far this year has been Anthony Zuiker’s DARK ORIGINS, a laughably bad tale of an anally-obsessed serial killer mastermind, at the conclusion of which I had the overwhelming desire to take a shower. At the very least the comedy writers, bless their cotton socks, are serious about making you laugh.
Praise for Declan Burke: “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – The Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “A hardboiled delight.” – The Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews (starred review). “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre, was ABSOLUTE ZERO COOL.” – Sunday Times. “The writing is a joy.” – Ken Bruen. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.