My first thriller, Highland T’ing, was met with critical acclaim and commercial success and, to my surprise, much laughter. It was not meant to be funny. I was delighted, however, to get that reception. That’s just how my life is, I suppose. People often have a good belly laugh when I am talking although I am not trying to be Mr. Chuckles. Indeed, the one and only time I did a comedy stand-up evening there were no sides split whatsoever. I survived, but have no interest in revisiting it. In fact, the very thought of being funny on cue, in front of a paying audience, fills me with horror.
Opinion is widely divided about humor in crime fiction. Some worry, and with good reason, that readers won’t be sure if they should laugh or cry. Laugh at the material or cry that they parted with their hard earned cash to contribute to yet another slice of the rain forest ending up on the printing press. Creating giggles about death is a path many authors actually do tread . . . whether they intend to or not.
Publishers fear writers ending up with egg—or, worse, Moose—on their faces, and they gaze with suspicion on the humorous crime novel.
“Why Moose?” you may ask, if you don’t know your Broadway history. Moose Murders was spawned from the imagination of Arthur Bicknell and opened on February 22, 1983. If it was intended to be another Mousetrap we will never know as it closed the same night. The reviews were savage. To my knowledge no other play had had a member of public exit the theatre summon a policeman and exclaim, “Officer, arrest that play!” Characters by the names of Snooks, Howie, Joe Buffalo Dance, and Stinky, to name only a few, wove a tale that included many murders, incest, a forest of moose heads on the walls of the set, and (because no play would be complete without it) a bandaged paraplegic who exits his wheelchair to slam a kick into the crotch of another . . . dressed as a moose.
One person connected with the production was asked when they knew the show had closed. The answer? “When I came in the next morning and saw the entire set in the gutter outside the theatre.” The Eugene O’Neill Theatre was the site of this travesty, for those historical buffs, amongst you. Strangely enough the play saw the light of day again, in Makati City, in the Philippines. I do not know if it lasted more than one day.
Frank Rich, the New York Times theatre critic announced that Moose Murders “was the worst play I have ever seen.” And this some eleven years after he first reviewed it. When it comes to bad plays, time, obviously, is no healer.
On paper, Moose Murders should have worked; it would never have made it to Broadway if it hadn’t. There were some laughs in there. But its abysmal failure begs the question: do crime and humor belong together?
Some authors certainly think so. Both Joan Hess and Janet Evanovich mix the two to great effect, as their longstanding series attest.
Christopher Brookmyre also gets it just right. I find his books really funny and exceptionally well written, with some gripping plots. The titles are among my favorites of any books, anywhere. How can you argue with Big Boy Did It and Ran Away? He has not written anything even remotely resembling a moose when combining laughs and murder.
I may well beat him to it. . .
Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.