Top Ten Quips from Mystery Novels
In all areas of life, I’m a sucker for a good joke. Humor is perhaps my primary consideration when I pick out books, TV shows, and life partners, and it’s something I try to foreground in my own writing, hoping a joke or two might make up for a plot hole or seven. And so it’s no surprise that I would gravitate toward crime fiction as both a reader and a writer, because its levity is frequently in direct, balanced proportion to its darkness, which means that mysteries are usually very funny indeed. In that spirit, here are ten of my favorite crime fiction quips—a very tiny sample from a very clever genre.
- “‘I gave up looking for the drycleaner,’ Chili said. ‘This place’s all freeways, you can drive around forever and ever and never leave town. How’d you get in here?’
“‘I told them at the desk I was you,’ Bones said. ‘I acted stupid and they believed me.’” (Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty)
If I were hard-pressed to name the crime writer who is my greatest role model … well, okay, I’d probably choose Dorothy Sayers, but Leonard would come in a close second. He can do smart funny, stupid funny, and most delightfully (as in this case), stupid-that-thinks-it’s-smart funny.
- “Miles had his faults same as the rest of us, but I guess he must’ve had some good points too.” (Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon)
I often think about adapting this for my Twitter bio.
- “From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.” (Raymond Chandler, The High Window)
A sick Chandler burn of the kind that’s worth keeping in your pocket for future use. Wait until you’re in a crowd of people you hate and trot it out between sips of your gimlet.
And speaking of booze…
- “We got enough champagne here to start a France.” (Ed McBain, ’Til Death)
Okay, so McBain isn’t exactly known for his humor, but it’s my list, darn it, and this is one hell of a joke.
- “Yancy knew the sheriff was sending the arm to Miami because Miami was the floating-human-body-parts capital of America.” (Carl Hiaasen, Bad Monkey)
So many Hiaasen lines to choose from, but I’m a fish in a barrel when it comes to making fun of Miami.
- “‘What can ail you, Claude?’ I asked, and he told me it was his practise.
“‘Still practising?’ I raised an eyebrow. ‘I thought you might have got the hang of it by now.’” (John Mortimer, “Rumpole and the Boat People,” from Regina v. Rumpole)
The Rumpole stories started as a TV series, but the barrister’s witticisms work as well in print as on screen (although, admittedly, when I’m reading it’s Leo McKern’s voice I hear in my head).
- “That’s what the owner said. He’s got a new BMW now, thanks to the Galaxy. He can’t spell it, but he can drive it like crazy.” (Lawrence Block, ”The Burglar Who Dropped in on Elvis.” This story first appeared in the 1990 issue of Playboy, but it’s probably easier to read in public if you pick up the collection Some Days You Get the Bear.)
I can only dream of coming up with a single joke to equal just one of the many quips that pepper the Bernie Rhodenbarr books. The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams has an amazing riff on the construction of Sue Grafton titles that I would quote in its entirety if this post didn’t have a word limit.
- “No man was ever taken to hell by a woman unless he already had a ticket in his pocket, or at least had been fooling around with timetables.” (Rex Stout, Some Buried Caesar)
Ohio’s Surprisingly Multitudinous Contributions to Comedy, featuring Dave Chappelle, Bob Hope, Molly Shannon—and Archie Goodwin. This nonsequitur doesn’t make much sense to me…it’s really out of the blue.
- “There was nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.” (Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool)
A line this Angeleno quotes on a regular basis—along with everything else on this list, if I’m perfectly honest. Because as Peter Wimsey says in Have His Carcase,
- “I always have a quotation for everything—it saves original thinking.”