Ten Funny Moments from Mysteries, Novels, and Much More
On paper, the idea of a brutal murder or two doesn’t exactly sound like a laugh riot.
But there’s a Joss Whedon quote that gets thrown around the Internet a lot these days: “Make it dark, make it grim, make it tough, but then, for the love of God, tell a joke.” Joss isn’t always right (he killed Tara on Buffy Season 4) but when it comes to mysteries, he’s got a point. Nothing goes quite so well with murder as a nice comic set piece.
Here are some of my favorite funny moments from detective stories.
Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod
There’s a wicked perfection in the opening scene of this book. A college professor, after years of being pressured to decorate his house for Christmas, finally wreaks terrible revenge, albeit in Christmas light form. He spends a fortune, decking out his house in every possible holiday tshotchke, and then immediately vanishes, boarding an ocean liner and leaving the town to suffer in his holly-jolly wake. MacLeod’s description of the ensuing monstrosity is the tackiest, most Vegas-y description of Christmas excess I’ve ever read, and I think of it every year.
“Pearls Are a Nuisance” by Raymond Chandler
Drinking Scene / Fight Scene
Hands down, the funniest fight scene ever written is in this Raymond Chandler novella. The whole thing is a riot from start to finish. Chandler ditches his classic detective main character for a foppish, Jane Austenian-professor type. But he keeps the rest of his writing as hard-boiled as ever, and Chandler makes this mismatch so funny that you’ll have to take breaks as you read.
“With a messed up mug like mine? A dame like that wouldn’t give me a second look.”
“Perhaps, but you are unquestionably virile.”
“Christmas Party” by Rex Stout
(All of it!)
It’s hard to pick a single Nero Wolfe moment, as Rex Stout mined a lot of humor out of the characters over the years. My favorite is this short story, which is practically Wodehousian in its construction. Archie pranks his boss by telling him that he just met someone, is getting married, and that his new wife will move in with them. Wolfe, in his desire to learn who this harlot is, dresses up as Santa Claus and poses as a bartender to gather information. It’s delightfully silly and a great holiday treat.
Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
Speaking of Wodehouse, how about this one? In this, the first book in the Blandings Castle series, there are disguises, subterfuge, and no less than three separate jewel thieves. It’s a great caper! Psmith is also Wodehouse at his most youthful, and there’s a ridiculous exuberance to the book that can’t be beat.
My favorite bit: Freddie schedules a secret incognito meeting, whereupon he has told his guest to wear a carnation in his lapel so that he will recognize him. But he has unfortunately confused carnation with another word.
Death and the Dancing Footman by Ngaio Marsh
Is there a premise as gonzo as the one in Dancing Footman? It’s practically nuts. A wealthy eccentric has longed to become a playwright but realizes that he doesn’t have the talent for dialogue. His solution: create living theater by throwing the worst dinner party of all time, secretly inviting guests who hate each other to his remote mansion for the weekend. And also a critic to watch. Right before a snowstorm. Sure, Ngaio, why not?
It’s the sheer improbability of this list that makes it so funny; it includes, among other things, a woman with severely botched plastic surgery and the European doctor who destroyed her face. It’s a collection of people that even a reality television producer would look at and say, “Maybe we should tone this down.” But the excess is why it works.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
I’m sheepish about including this one because I’m sure all of you have read it, but gosh, the denouement of this novel is perfect. Flavia, finally rescued from danger, is greeted by her sisters in a shower of kisses. It’s sweet and wonderful until you realize that her sisters’ lipstick had been (lightly) poisoned earlier and that they are now pranking her with rashes. Then it becomes wicked and sweet and a perfect consummation of the novel.
Maskerade by Terry Pratchett
(The Murderer’s Reveal)
Pratchett is a fantasist but his eighteenth book in his Discworld series is a delightful (and magic-free) parody of The Phantom of the Opera, complete with kidnappings, looming stagehands, and grisly murders. Even if you’re not a fantasy person, check this out: you’ll love it.
The murderer’s reveal in this book is utterly brilliant, a take on the overwrought “Yes! It was me! I killed him! Me!” scene that can show up in the hackiest of detective fiction. Pratchett leans into the hacky here, doing the moment as big as anything I’ve ever read, and goes on for pages and pages. It luxuriates in the confession. It’s positively operatic.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
A mystery that was never marketed as a mystery, STICP is the story of Blue van Meer, an overachieving, Harvard-bound high school student trying to navigate her final year at boarding school—and also, gradually, solve the murder of her mother.
Written in the style of a school essay, the book delights with its footnotes, literary references, wordplay—everything a high school senior would be using to try to impress you. Blue is constantly trying to show you how smart she is, and her unrelenting (and amazingly detailed) footnotes are a wonderful comic touch to what is a pretty harrowing journey.