Terry Shames writes the bestselling Samuel Craddock mystery series, set in the fictitious town of Jarrett Creek, Texas. Her first novel, A Killing at Cotton Hill was a finalist for the Left Coast Crime award for best mystery of 2013, the Strand Magazine Critics Award, and a Macavity Award for Best First Novel of 2013. The Last Death of Jack Harbin was named one of the top five mysteries of 2013 by Library Journal. Her newest book is Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek. A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge will be an April release. Learn more about Terry and her books at her website.
Humor in Novels
I’m going to Bouchercon (the world’s largest mystery fan conference) in a couple of weeks, and will be moderating a panel on humor in mysteries. To prepare for it, I’ve been reading books by my five panelists—Sue Ann Jaffarian, Melodie Campbell, Diana Killan, Sharon Fiffer and Helen Smith. What strikes me about the books is how individual “humor” is. Some of it is witty, some is zany, and some dark. All of which got me thinking about humor in crime fiction. Even the darkest crime fiction has moments of levity. (Okay, I’m not sure that’s true of Joe Nesbo, but everybody else does). So where does the humor come from? What makes it funny?
All of us do clueless things at one time or another. I think an important source of humor is getting to laugh at characters who take cluelessness to extremes. Either watching the characters being unable to stop themselves from making disastrous mistakes, or hearing a character comment on that kind of behavior makes situations funny.
Next week I’ll be doing a reading at BookPeople in Texas from my latest Samuel Craddock novel, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, along with writer Rob Brunet, whose book is entitled Stinking Rich. (Pretty clever—dead broke vs. stinking rich.) I think the contrast between the two books illustrates what I’m talking about.
Rob’s book is snicker-out-loud funny; his characters are the dregs of society who have no impulse control—and don’t see any reason to have any. Brunet’s characters are my ex-chief-of police Samuel Craddock’s worst nightmare. Brunet’s characters get into endless trouble because they have no introspection or self-knowledge. They are egotistical and clueless. And funny. You end up rooting for them because you can’t help feeling sorry for them.
In a lot of humor the element of surprise is a driving factor. In Brunet’s book, he does the opposite of surprise. He sets up a scene, lets the reader know exactly what he’s up to, then pokes you in the side and says, “Watch this.” I found myself giggling in anticipation, knowing that poor Perko or Buzz or Billy were getting themselves into awful trouble, and knowing that they were completely helpless against their own worst impulses.
In contrast, Samuel Craddock has a sense of irony that allows him to see people’s foibles as funny and in internal dialogue he often comments to himself on those foibles. Here’s an example: In Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek Angel Bright, a washed-up country and western singer, is surrounded by her middle-aged fans. “I don’t know how y’all recognized me,” she says. Samuel notes to himself that Angel is wearing a shirt with her name spelled out in sequins so she’d be hard to miss. His internal commentary is like sitting with a friend you can laugh with about people’s foibles.
Humor isn’t always easy to come up with, and I’m looking forward to talking about this with my panelists to find out their insights into what makes their books funny!
Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek
Jarrett Creek is bankrupt. Gary Dellmore, heir apparent to the main bank, is dead, apparently murdered. Samuel Craddock thought he was retired but now he's been asked to return as police chief. Dellmore supposedly had a roving eye, although his wife says he was never serious about dallying. Still, Craddock wonders: Did the husbands and fathers of women he flirted with think he was harmless? What about his current lover, who insists that Dellmore was going to leave his wife for her?
Craddock discovers that Dellmore had a record of bad business investments. Even worse, he took a kickback from a loan he procured, which ultimately drove the town into bankruptcy. Many people had motive to want Dellmore dead.
Then the investigation turns up another crime. As Craddock digs down to the root of this mess, many in Jarrett Creek are left wondering what happened to the innocence of their close-knit community.