Saturday, November 25, 2006

Australian crime novelists and humor

I don't want to get weighty and sociological, but it certainly seems as if Australian crime writers are more willing than Americans or even the British to suffuse a crime novel with humor. I've just finished Shane Maloney's Something Fishy. Recently I read The Big Ask by the same author, and I'll soon begin X and Y, part of David Owen's Pufferfish series. I even noted that Garry Disher's Kickback, for all its debts to Richard Stark's Parker novels, has moments of humor that a Parker book would never have.

I can't think of any American counterparts off the top of my head, not the excellent and sometimes hysterical Janet Evanovich; her Stephanie Plum novels seem more like picaresque romance novels to me -- comedies that happen to have something to do with crime, as opposed to crime novels written with humor. And not Parnell Hall. I tried one of his novels, but the yuk-yuk, aren't-I-droll? first chapter left me cold.

Among British crime writers, Ian Rankin can write with wit and sly humor in a short story, but he turns grim and weighty when it comes to novels. Bill James can be howlingly funny, but his are not primarily humorous novels. The Long Firm? Well, maybe. And cozies and academic mysteries, with their built-in drolleries, don't count. I'm talking about a full-bore, hard-boiled, action-packed detective story that just happens to be funny from beginning to end.

I'm not the first to speculate about American unease over humorous crime writing. At least one critic wrote that the 1940s writer Norbert Davis was cursed with a sense of humor. That, the critic said, may have accounted for the relative scarcity of his publications in Black Mask, the premier pulp magazine of the time -- just six stories, if I recall correctly.

I'd be especially interested in having Australian readers weigh in on this. I'm not sure Australians are naturally funnier than anyone else. But they certainly seem more willing to stretch that humor out over a few hundred pages. Or maybe Australian readers are responsible for this state of affairs. God bless them for being more willing than readers elsewhere to accept humorous crime novels!

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

Technorati tags:

Labels: , , , , , ,


Blogger Damien said...

As it happens I'm reading Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen, his latest (but not his greatest), and as perfect example as you're gonna get of an American author who writes humorous crime. Another who I find has his moments is Elmore Leonard, particularly if you go for the more off-beat humour.

As far as detective stories go, the more recent Spenser books by Robert B. Parker are quite light, particularly the dialogue between Spenser and Hawk. And the earlier Elvis Cole books by Robert Crais always struck me as amusing thanks to the upbeat commentary by Cole.

Seeing as Stark has been mentioned, it's probably worth mentioning Westlake's books under his real name, particularly the Dortmunder series which I have found laugh out loud funny, at times.

The ultimate in Australian humorous crime would arguably be Robert G. Barrett's Les Norton series, although they often degenerate into blokey, boofhead humour of a guy with a smart-arsed attitude who is lauded as a hero. Not everyone's cuppa tea but still quite popular.

Even Cliff Hardy (as hardboiled Australian as they come) makes the odd pithy observation.

I don't know what it is about Aussie crime that compels authors to aim for the funny-bone. Perhaps they're trying to portray the laconic Aussie knockabout for which we seem to be stereotyped.

November 26, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the thorough reply. I forgot about Hiaasen, maybe because I haven’t read him. The one Elvis Cole book I’ve read, Stalking the Angel, has superb humorous touches right from the beginning. Crais puts a marvelous spin on an old standby opening scene by having Cole standing on his head when the beautiful female client walks into his office. Still, I’d call that novel a serious story with humorous touches, rather than a humorous story. And don’t ask me where I draw that line, because I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll address the issue in a future post.

I’ve read all the Dortmunder books and some of Westlake’s standalone humorous crime novels as well, and I’ve reacted the same way you did. But those are caper novels, and comic caper stories have a tradition behind them, with movies like The Italian Job and Big Deal on Madonna Street (Westlake cites the latter as an influence). I was focusing more on comic detective stories, because the very idea of such a story seems more novel. I think I’ll look for The Mammoth Book of Comic Crime, both for itself and to see if any of the writers there translate their comic talents to novels. I see that Peter Lovesey has a story in the collection, for instance. I’ve read and very much enjoyed his Peter Diamond novels, but they’re not comic. I suppose The Detective Wore Silk Drawers would qualify.

Other readers have suggested Les Norton and Cliff Hardy; I’ll have to keep them in mind.

If the laconic Aussie knockabout is a stereotype, it can still make good reading. I’m about eighty-five pages into X and Y, the third of David Owen’s Pufferfish novels. It has a distinctive voice, unlike anything else I know.

You mentioned Carl Hiaasen. I read the opening scene from one his novels. The situation is funny, but a little more slapstick than I like. A man has thrown his wife overboard, and as she plummets into the sea, she thinks, “What an asshole.” That’s funny, and it probably serves a plot purpose as well by setting her up as a plucky character. Still, having her think “What an asshole” as she plunges, possibly to her death, is too much of a shtick for me. Give me laconic any day.

November 26, 2006  
Blogger Juri said...

There was lot of comic stuff in the pulps. Dime Detective had the great Dumb Dan Dunn stories by William Cox and Mariano Mercado stories by D.L. Champion. They are laugh-out-loud stuff. Maybe Dime Detective was more open to humour than Black Mask. However, there's lots to laugh at in Chandler's works. I also find Richard Prather's Shell Scott books pretty amusing. In one of them Shell Scott flees the nudist colony butt-naked in a balloon and lands on the city house. Your normal hardboiled private eye?

November 29, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Juri: Thanks. I didn't know about Mariano Mercado or Dumb Dan Dunn. The name "Dumb Dan Dunn" alone should make the stories worth checking out. I forgot to mention Jonathan Latimer, whose books featuring William Crane have generous helpings of humor and a breezy attitude and are thoroughly hard-boiled at the same time. Richard Powell’s Say it With Bullets, published by Hard Case Crime, probably should make my list, too.

Sure, I thought about Chandler and also Hammett (although I remember the novel The Thin Man emphasizing humor less than the movie did). Chandler could write funny lines and witty exchanges. The one I always remember is the exchange with the butler in The Big Sleep, novel and movie, if I'm remembering right:

"Are you attempting to tell me my duties, sir?"

"No, just having fun trying to figure out what they are."

But the humor and the breezy attitude don’t dominate the way they do in David Owen’s Pufferfish books or in Jonathan Latimer.

Shell Scott would have made my list based on a fine story whose title escapes me now. Scott chases strippers and makes zany remarks and does all his usual shtick in the story, but the climactic scene is surprising. Scott confronts a man who has married a not terribly attractive heiress just for her money and begun cheating on her right away, and he talks the man into doing the right thing. The surprise is that the man agrees.. There are no such surprises in any of the Shell Scott novels I’ve read, which were almost completely shtick

Both with Richard Prather and Norbert Davis, I found that the humor worked better in a short story than in novels. Maybe that’s because once a story attains a certain length, it needs more than jokes to keep it going. That’s why I’m so impressed when I find a humorous crime novel that works.

November 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You read one of the weaker Hiaasen titles, I'm afraid. (Or started it, it appears.)

Go back to the early ones, especially Tourist Season and Skin Tight.

December 16, 2006  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Jeff. I can't even claim to have started that Hiaasen book; I just flipped through it in a bookstore, Of course, your comment may have referred to the Hiaasen novel Damien was reading, and not the one I had looked at.

The opening obviously made an impression; that's why I remembered it. On the one hand, it was memorable. On the other, it may have been memorable precisely because it was a bit too farcical for my tastes.

Carl Hiaasen and I were employees of the same corporation for a while, so I suppose I feel an affinity for him in a small way. He is (or was) a columnist for the Miami Herald; I work for the Philadelphia Inquirer (curse its name). Knight-Ridder used to own both papers until that corporation sold off its parts, dissolved itself, and gave its top executives multimillion-dollar bonuses for their trouble. Not that a best-selling novelist like Hiaasen needs his newspaper salary, but Herald employees are faring much better under their paper's new owners than my paper's employees are.

And Dave Barry is from the Miami Herald, too. It's statistically improbable to have even one funny writer at an American newspaper, much less two such fabulously successful ones.

December 17, 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home