Friday, May 25, 2007

Laughs and death, or, what are the funniest crime stories ever, and why are they so funny?

The spring issue of Mystery Scene magazine (sample articles here) includes Art Taylor's article on "10 Comic Crime Movies." The list includes Sherlock Jr., After the Thin Man, Arsenic and Old Lace, Kind Hearts and Coronets, A Shot in the Dark, Murder by Death, Foul Play, Raising Arizona, A Fish Called Wanda and Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Discussions of the individual movies mention scores of other films. Unless I missed something, Taylor omits Big Deal on Madonna Street, possibly the funniest caper movie ever. Still, his list will generate a thousand arguments, conversations and DVD rentals.

What belongs on a similar list of comic crime novels and stories? I'd start with 32 Cadillacs and Cons, Scams and Grifts by Joe Gores, Donald E. Westlake 's Dortmunder novels and Bill James' Harpur and Iles books. Norbert Davis' stories about Bail Bond Dodd and Max Latin deserve a place, and I'd make room for Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr as well as Bruen's Brant and Roberts series. Janet Evanovich's first and fourth Stephanie Plum novels offer deliciously comic opening scenes, and the set pieces with Plum, her father and her grandmother are gifts.

I like to think that most of my choices work both as comedy and as crime writing. How about the movies on Taylor's list? Most are fine film comedies. Are they fine crime films as well?

OK, now it's your turn. What are your favorite comic crime stories, and what makes them so funny?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

With a few honourable exceptions (Bill James, Mike Ripley, Peter Gutteridge, Christopher Brookmyre), comedy crime fiction seems unfashionable these days. Much of the best stuff appears to be lurking only in the dustier corners of the secondhand bookshops. What about Dan 'Julian Barnes' Kavanagh's blackly hilarious Duffy series? I still harbour vague hopes that one day Mr Barnes might put aside all that literary stuff and write us another one. Or Colin Watson's delightful Flaxborough Chronicles? Or Tim Heald's Bognor series? I think there might be an omnibus edition of some of the Heald books still around, but sadly the rest are long out-of-print.

May 27, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. I had not thought about comic crime fiction in terms of current fashion, but I suppose you're right. So much seems to be about forensic pathology and alcohol these days, when it's not about grim peeks at the side visitors never see of some gorgeous city.

I've read some of your suggestions, looked for others, and not heard of the rest. I'll add all to my list and see if they can produce laughs and tell a good crime story at the same time, and whether those laughs avoid the easy trap of arch yukking it up.

And now, I'll head for a secondhand bookshop with some new names to look for.

May 27, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Colin Watson is in the air on at least three continents. I bought Plaster Sinners and Lonelyheart 4122 at my local secondhand bookshop today, and then I found this new review on the Australian Crime Fiction site:

May 27, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Colin Watson is one of my great comfort reads - to the point where they go in the fire safe over summer - I'd be saddened beyond belief if I lost my precious copies (yes I know, sad as :) )

Liz Evans is also a big favourite of mine in the comic category. But nothing can beat Christopher Brookmyre - his books are clever - funny social commentary and a health dose of scepticism, irony and downright lunacy.

May 27, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Au contraire, Karen. Considering the junk that some people regard as precious, I'd say your attitude toward your Colin Watsons is eminently sane.

Liz Evans has been recommended to me before, quite probably by you, and you'll notice that Michael Walters also recommended Christopher Brookmyre. When I think of great comic crime fiction, I think of Donald Westlake, Ken Bruen and Bill James, which demonstrates that comic crime fiction is like crime fiction: It comes in many varieties.

Colin Watson seems like he might be great reading for summer vacation, except there is no way I'll hold off reading them until then.

May 27, 2007  
Anonymous Paul Perry (Melbourne) said...

Pamela Branch died tragically young.
But we are very very lucky to have what we have.

April 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't know she had died young; thanks for the note. I learned of Pamela Branch only late last year and made a post about one of her books here.

April 08, 2010  

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