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.
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.