By Kate Jackson
Mystery novels which have a comic style or component have always been a big draw for me. Modern day writers such as L C Tyler and Ian Sansom are two good examples of comic crime fiction done today, but in some ways, especially the Elsie and Ethelred series by Tyler, these works are indebted to an earlier era of mystery fiction between the 1930s and 1950s. So in this post I decided to share some of my favourite comic crime writers from this period and hopefully also shine a light on some unfairly less well known writers.
‘Q: Does that mean that he did it?
A: Judging from the standards of the average mystery novel, yes. Going by the ordinary standards of detection, no.’
[Inspector Minto using a Q & A format to clear his thoughts in Death at Anton]
“Grapefruit […] or Porridge?”
“What’s the name of the chef?”
“Bernstein sir.” “In that case, grapefruit […] If it had been McKenzie or McDonald, we might have risked the porridge. Being Bernstein, we’ll have the grapefruit.”
[Minto deciding what to have for breakfast]
‘Positively a walking Woolworth’s aren’t you?’
[Inspector Wilson in Quick Curtain responding to stage manager’s ability to give him whatever he requires from one of his pockets.]
Yet although these are predominately light hearted novels, Death in Anton has a fascinating blend of light and dark moments, with this complexity making it my favourite novel of the two.
Alice Tilton is my second choice and Tilton is the penname American mystery writer Phoebe Atwood Taylor used for writing eight novels featuring her amateur sleuth Leonidas Witherall, who starts out as a teacher and then becomes a mystery writer. I have only read one from this series, The Iron Clew (1947), but I loved every minute reading it. In this book, which I think is reflective of the series as a whole, is a screwball caper, where the action comes thick and fast, as Witherall gets into a bigger and bigger mess and the story does comically incorporate the innocent fugitive plot trope. Metafictional humour is a strong point in the novel as the events Witherall goes through in real life, mirror those he discusses overhand with his housekeeper in the opening chapter for his next book. The Iron Clew also gives us the brilliantly bizarre funny line of: ‘That old octopus of fate… had obviously slithered out from his printed words and into his own personal and private life.’
My next choice of author, Pamela Branch, although English was actually born in India and contributed four novels to the mystery genre. At her best, as she is in her first novel, The Wooden Overcoat (1951), Branch creates a superbly comic world with its own sense of subverted morality and the drive of the plot is less about seeing justice done and more about not getting caught. After all in this story there is a club established for killers who have got acquitted of their crimes. Branch is also often fond of placing her characters in bizarrely challenging situations, such as in this novel where some friends, house sharing, face the unenviable task of disposing of a body they believe the club members have dumped on them; (the club members are of course thinking house sharers are responsible) and you can be sure that nothing goes to plan. Branch’s second novel, The Lion in the Cellar (1951) is also worth a read, where again priority is given to personal safety over truth and justice. Yet unusually the reader themselves is not repelled by the principles Branch’s fictional worlds run on, but then again she does write it so amusingly:
“I don't believe for one moment that I killed him [...] But if I didn't, somebody else did. I must appoint myself Investigator. I must catch this malefactor, this pig. And if at any time it looks as if I am going to catch myself, I can always accept my resignation.”
[Taken from The Lion in the Cellar]
However, with my next choice of comic crime author, justice is always achieved, even if Joan Coggin’s serial amateur sleuth and vicar’s wife, Lady Lupin, is forever muddling up her domestic affairs and getting the wrong end of the stick. Though like Branch, Coggin only wrote four novels and one of the interesting features of this series is how the comedy develops as Lady Lupin matures. Furthermore, as well as comedy stemming out of Lady Lupin’s misunderstandings there is also social comedy, such as in Why Did She Die? (1946), when Lady Lupin in conversation is internally battling between her desire to be a good vicar’s wife and her own natural instincts:
‘“I am glad your husband is with him.”
Lupin was not sure that she was so glad. If Dick really had turned into a homicidal maniac she would have preferred him to choose someone else’s husband as his walking partner but she thought it might sound selfish to say so, so she sank down into a chair and lit a cigarette in silence’.
Moreover, Lady Lupin’s character engages in metafictional comedy, commenting on her own role as a sleuth:
‘They do if I am anywhere about […] I don’t know why it is, exactly, but there must be something queer about me, like those people in Greek tragedies, you know. The minute I appear upon the scene everyone cries, ‘Let’s have a murder!’
It is hard to not find Lady Lupin a loveable sleuth and it is a shame so few mysteries were written featuring her.
If you are a big fan of crime fiction pastiches and parodies then Leo Bruce is an author you must try, as his mystery novel Case for Three Detectives (1936), (the first in the Sergeant Beef series), in many ways is the ultimate golden age mystery fiction pastiche and parody novel. It features a country house murder, upon which three famous sleuths are called in to investigate. It doesn’t take Miss Marple to figure out which three sleuths are being parodied. There is Lord Simon Plimsoll, who ‘stepped out of the foremost of three Rolls-Royces, the second of which contained his man servant […] Butterfield.’ The second sleuth is M. Amer Picon, whose ‘physique was frail, and topped by a large egg-shaped head, a head so much and so often egg shaped that [the narrator Townsend is...] surprised to find a nose and mouth in it all, but half expect[ing] its white surface to break and release a
chick.’ The final detective is ‘a small human pudding’ named Monsignor Smith, who is described as having ‘a number of parcels and […] a green parasol.’ This story is an excellent send up of the genre, which also manages to contain a very clever puzzle and throughout the Sergeant Beef series, Bruce in a variety of ways plays with the conventions of the genre and also uses humour to undermine his characters’ self-importance and social snobbery.
My final choice of writer is Delano Ames, who is the only author on my list with a serial sleuthing couple. Ames wrote 12 novels featuring Jane and Dagobert Brown, whose unconventional careers lead to cases taking place around the world. The comedy in these books is not as overt and intense as it is in Pamela Branch and Leo Bruce’s novels, but is more understated and centred on the dialogue which takes place between Jane and Dagobert. With Dagobert’s maverick and unpredictable nature, a lot of the series’ comedy lies in how Jane has to deal with the unexpected events which occur due to being married to him. In Death of a Fellow Traveller (1950) she says that ‘I have been married to Dagobert for nearly two years, and I have never had a dull moment. I could do with a dull moment.’ The power balance between the two of them also creates marital comedy as although Dagobert can act dominantly, Jane is the narrator of the stories and therefore how her husband and herself is presented is in her control and I think the dialogue between them also shows her humorously bringing Dagobert down to earth during his wilder moments of fancy:
Dagobert: ‘I might try that trick of ‘reconstructing the crime’.’
Jane: ‘I’ll play the part of the person who shoves you off the cliff…’
Whilst I primarily read comic crime novels for their entertainment value, the more I read them, the more I often find that such works can also have something to say on a range of other topics from gender roles, the state of the nation after world events, relationships and morality to the mystery genre itself. Therefore it is a shame that the work of writers such as these are far from easy to get a hold of (with some of the Ames’ novels being sold for over £150!), when they provide stories which will make you laugh out loud and also make you pause for thought when you least expect it.
An Interview with Anya Lipska
Sponsored by the International Crime Fiction Association
Friday 28th July 2017, 7pm-8.15
at Mr.B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, 14/15 John Street, Bath BA1 2JL
Anya Lipska is a British crime writer, TV producer and scriptwriter. Lipska’s crime thriller series, set in East London, follows the adventures and investigations of Janusz Kiszka, tough guy and fixer to the Polish community, and the sharp-elbowed young police detective Natalie Kershaw. The Kiszka & Kershaw series has won critical acclaim and was recently optioned by BBC Drama as a potential TV crime series. A radio story featuring the character of Kiszka was broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Poles in the UK’ series on Radio 4 in 2015. Anya’s debut, Where the Devil Can’t Go, led to her selection by Val McDermid for the prestigious New Blood panel at the 2013 Harrogate Crime Festival. It was followed by Death Can’t take a Joke, and A Devil Under the Skin. She is supported by the Polish Cultural Institute in the UK, which is dedicated to bringing an understanding of Polish arts and culture to a UK audience. Anya is currently working on a new standalone novel.
Married to a Pole, Lipska lives in East London. She works as a TV producer and has credits on a wide variety of factual programmes on many different topics, whether it’s Neanderthal archaeology, saving the clouded leopard in the wild, or Italy’s Renaissance Gardens. Check out her website: http://www.anyalipska.com/
Follow Anya @AnyaLipska
This is a free event, which includes a wine reception. Registration is required please email firstname.lastname@example.org to secure your place.
CfP: Detection across Borders: Mobility, Liminality and Transgression in Contemporary Crime Narratives Tiina Mäntymäki, Maarit Piipponen, Eric Sandberg, eds.
The editors would like to invite proposals for chapters that deal with the theme of mobility in contemporary crime narratives in relation to any of the four main perspectives outlined below (history, border, self, and affect). Please submit a five to six hundred word proposal indicating your topic and approach, and briefly outlining the argument that you will develop, by 1 August 2017 to (cc) email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. As the scope of the volume is international, we welcome proposals addressing both Anglophone and non-Anglophone crime narratives.
Mobility, transgression, and boundary-crossings characterise the crime narrative on a fundamental level. The initiatory crime––be it a murder, a kidnapping, or any other breach of ethical and legal norms––disturbs a settled order and, like a rock thrown into still waters, sets events in motion. However, mobility takes many other forms in crime narratives. In Golden Age detective stories such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, mobility is manifested in various transportation technologies (travelling by car, train, aeroplane); in movements across various boundaries (from indoors to outdoors, from the city to the countryside, from England to the Orient); in entering closed or otherwise restricted spaces such as manors or archaeological sites, or even the proverbial locked room; and in mass communication technologies like telephones and telegrams which link distant physical spaces. In American hardboiled, the borders between the criminal world, big business, and government are shown to be permeable, as the physical movements of a private eye like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe through the modern metropolis reveal the illicit commerce between the gang and the government.
In contemporary crime narratives, however, crime and mobility acquire even more complex dimensions. In the TV detective series The Bridge (Bron/Broen, 2011), crime is graphically embodied as a transnational phenomenon which exceeds by definition the borders that demarcate elements of the social, cultural and political world. In terms of production and consumption, too, this ‘Nordic Noir’ series demonstrates the international mobility of the crime genre. It thus serves as an excellent example of the movement of popular culture texts across national, cultural and linguistic boundaries. Contemporary crime narratives such as Bron/Broen are marked by global social, political, cultural, and economic transformations––especially the impact of multinational, neoliberal capitalism, global consumer culture, network systems, and digitalisation, as well as the acceleration of human mobility across borders. In contemporary crime stories, crime is no longer a locally, spatially and temporally limited event that only concerns the victims, the detective agency and the criminal. Instead, it is conceptualised as networked, embedded in a spatio-temporal, historical, global and transcultural context, and of the utmost collective concern to multiple societies. Contemporary crime narrative is concerned with offering social critique across time and space, engaging and directing the affects and emotions of global audiences, and rendering mobile seemingly fixed cultural norms through new generic strategies.
Detection across Borders will demonstrate how the complexity of contemporary societies, the visibility of contemporary conflicts, and the way both respond to far-reaching transnational developments have changed the ways in which social analysis emerges in stories of crime in the contemporary era. Its individual chapters will explore patterns of mobility in contemporary crime narratives. While mobility as a theory has multiple, shifting and at times ambiguous meanings across several academic disciplines, and is an inherently multidisciplinary term, this volume will see mobility in both literal and abstract senses, referring to the physical transportation, traffic, and flow of people and goods, but also to the movement of ideas, texts, images, affects, and ideologies.
1. Landscapes of the past
Because of the centrality of time and space, crime narratives can function as a vehicle for (re-)examining the relationship between the past, present and future: for remembering the past, questioning established truths about history, or projecting contemporary concerns through narratives set in the future. Possible areas of interest include:
2. Border stories
In this volume, borders are approached not only through national, cultural and linguistic perspectives but also through generic conventions. Crime narratives fundamentally and generically deal with transgression, but the definition of crime and justice is slippery to agree upon in a world of changing allegiances, conflicting value systems, and eroding (locally) shared values. Possible areas of interest include:
3. Mobile selves
Mobility, mobility practices, and mobile technologies have come to define human life in the postindustrial age. This section approaches mobility both in terms of human mobility and mobile technologies. Possible areas of interest include:
4. Being affected
The ‘affective turn’ in popular crime stories is related to the introduction of social realism, and thus a discourse on, and aesthetics of, violence to the genre. This section examines how affect and emotion are mobilised through themes, narrative conventions, and other means in contemporary crime narratives. Possible areas of interest include:
Dr. Fiona Peters is Reader in Crime Fiction at Bath Spa University in the UK. She is a Patricia Highsmith scholar and is director of the Captivating Criminality project.