After earning a degree to teach Spanish, D.R. Ransdell moved to Durango, Mexico. Her favorite Saturday nights were spent at house parties where guests fought over the guitar. When she returned to the U.S. five years later, she was so homesick for Mexico that she joined a mariachi band. Within weeks she had ideas for dozens of murder mysteries! She’s published six novels using some of those ideas, and has pieces in three of the Chicken Soup … series. Here’s her take on the difficult job of working humor into murder mysteries.
The funny thing about murder is that it really shouldn’t be funny. Oh, it’s swell to kill off the bad guy when it’s a bad boss, bad relative, bad neighbor, bad lover, etc., etc., but for a mystery to pull any emotional weight, there needs to be an undeserving victim. Some kind of right should be wronged, but since there’s a price to be paid, the story shouldn’t actually be funny, right?
When a friend reviewed a draft of my latest mystery, he questioned me on this topic. “The ending is awfully dark,” he said. “Are you sure that’s what your readers want?” I went back to see if I could change the final paragraphs. I understood my friend’s comment—yes, the ending put a damper on things. The heroine didn’t quite get what she wanted. She wound up more pensive and confused at the end than at the beginning—in some ways she hadn’t made much progress. But she’d also lost someone dear to her. She needed a way to deal with that, didn’t she?
I’ve come across this conundrum in my writing a couple of times. While I like using humor in my mystery series—my protagonist, a male mariachi violinist, does make lots of mistakes that get him into trouble with friends and loved ones—so far the endings have all been gray.
For a while I kept trying to figure out why I couldn’t reconcile the desire to be light-hearted and entertaining with my characters’ reactions to the deaths of their friends and acquaintances.
The useful writing guide Story Trumps Structure by Steven James helped me analyze this issue. James explains that cozy readers want something safe and fun. They’re looking for a light-hearted puzzle. That’s well and good, but there’s a catch: “This genre presents a difficult balance of trying to care for your readers’ expectations while not diminishing the value of human life—a challenge for even the most gifted authors.” (In Chapter 4, “Escalation.”)
James is quite right. The cozy—or any humorous mystery—is tricky. You want your protagonists to care, but you don’t want them to fall apart to the point that they can’t function; after all, they might have to get back out there and save the day. But James’ observation does point to a dilemma. Do I want to simply provide my readers with an enjoyable read, or do I want them to think about moral dilemmas?
In the Andy Veracruz series, I want to provide readers with insight about music or give musicians the chance to ponder familiar situations. I’ve been toying with an idea for a new murder mystery series that would take place in Italy and focus on culture/language/travel. In both cases, I certainly want readers to laugh. I want them to keep reading and be thoroughly entertained. The appropriate level of humor, however, is yet to be determined.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to collect ideas for future murder mysteries. Cozy or not, there are still plenty of people out there who deserve the best fictional death I can muster for them. While I don’t want to let my protagonists off the emotional hook, I’ll try to include some comic relief. Humor is a valuable tool in our daily lives, so we need to embrace it. After all, who hasn’t told a few jokes at a funeral parlor?
What are your own views about the use of humor in mystery? If you’re a writer, how do you deal with the situation yourself? If you’re a reader, what do you prefer?
JIM: Thanks D.R. for some food for thought. I hope some of our readers will leave their thoughts on humor in a murder mystery.
Her latest release is Dizzy in Durango (funny, but not too funny!) Missing women, abandoned children, and a crazy mariachi fan add up to further trouble for Andy Veracruz. Soon he’s stuck with an angry would-be girlfriend and a self-appointed younger brother who is more reckless than he is. No wonder he feels dizzy!
And give us your thoughts on this conundrum. Thanks.