Book Review: The Funny Thing About Murder: Modes of Humor in Crime Fiction and Films Reviewed by Anna Kirsch
David Geherin, The Funny Thing About Murder: Modes of Humor in Crime Fiction and Films (McFarland, 2018 ) $ 39.95 www.mcfarlandpub.com Phone: 800- 253-2187. Reviewed by Anna Kirsch.
The Funny Thing About Murder: Modes of Humor in Crime Fiction and Films promises to reveal the humorous side of crime. As a reference work, this book will be invaluable to those working on any of the authors covered, and this is a broad since Geherin’s work is, while not meant to be an exhaustive guide, covers 30 authors and 42 movies and television series. Notable authors include: Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Rex Stout, Edmond Crispin, Sue Grafton, Fred Vargas. Additionally, Geherin also discusses the work of Arthur Conan Doyle and his character Sherlock Holmes through his analysis of the BBC television series Sherlock. David Geherin is Professor Emeritus of English at Eastern Michigan University and the author of The American Private Eye: The Image in Fiction and Scene of the Crime: The Importance of Place in Crime and Mystery Fiction, both of which were finalists for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award. A review of his other most recent work Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction can be found here.
In The Funny Thing About Murder Geherin quickly characterises the three main theories of humour as:
1. The Superiority Theory, one of the earliest theories of humour with proponents such as Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbs which suggests we laugh at others and find humour in the misfortunes of others because we feel superior to them
2. The Relief Theory with the notable proponents Sigmund Freud and Herbert Spencer which argues that laughter serves as a social and psychological release of emotional energy which serves as a cultural safety valve to address feelings about taboo issues that would otherwise not be expressed publicly.
3. The Incongruity Theory which was first proposed by Francis Hutcheson in 1725 in Thoughts on Laughter and more famously expanded on later by Arthur Schopenhauer. This theory is widely popular today and suggests that laughter occurs when there is an anomaly or incongruity relative to some framework of what we expect the world to be.
For the rest of the book, these theories are implicit as Geherin organises the book into individual descriptions of the authors/ films in question. None of the three theories on their own seems flexible enough to cover why we laugh, and Geherin himself does not explicitly state which of the three theories he favours instead informing the reader that he considers crime fiction as ‘an effective weapon in exposing mankind’s evil or foolishness” (8). This statement is most consistent with the relief and incongruity theories of humour. It would seem that for Geherin it is not why we laugh that is interesting, but rather the fact that we use humour as a narrative tool that has some applicability towards social activism. Geherin’s belief in satires ability to expose the evil and foolishness of the world is demonstrated by his decision to favour authors who actively use humour as a blunt force antidote to human stupidity such as his inclusion, among others, of Carl Hiaasen, Donald E. Westlake, and Joseph Wambaugh. Geherin also discusses author’s who are more quirky and understated in their writing, such as Fred Vargas and her Adamsberg series. This attention to the nuances of humour would suggest that Geherhin has a nuanced methodology behind his investigation of humour, but as with much of Gherhin’s work, that methodology is not made explicit to the reader.
Geherin’s ability to quickly summarize an author’s work is both a weakness and a strength. The organisation of The Funny Thing About Murder is reminiscent of his previous work in Small Towns in Recent American Crime Fiction which was broken into sections specifically devoted to a single author. Readers should be aware of Geherin’s tendency to bury his critical opinion within seemingly straightforward statements of fact, a habit that forces the reader to take the time to evaluate his opinions and decide which ones are representative of their own experience of the texts or authors in question.
Geherin’s eagerness to simplify can lead to statements that are only partially correct. For example, in his section on Elmore Leonard Geherin insists that Leonard “Never produced a series and seldom used the same characters in more than one novel” (61) which is a questionable statement because there are highly visible contradictions to this assertion. Leonard wrote Pronto, Riding the Rap, Raylan, and the short story collection ‘Fire in the Hole‘ which all featured the US Marshal Raylan Givens as well as two novels featuring Chili Palmer Get Shorty and Be Cool. Additionally, Leonard also had a character called Jack Ryan, not to be confused with the main character of Tom Clancy's series, in The Big Bounce and Unknown Man #89. It is clear from these examples that Leonard does repeat characters for specific purposes, and more importantly, that those marketing Leonard’s work interpreted these instances of using of the same character more than once as a series particularly in the case of Raylan Givens.
In Part II Geherin shifts his attention from humorous crime texts to humorous crime films and television series. Despite Geherin's confident textual analysis of humour in crime fiction in Part I the shift from a textual to a visual representation of comedic crime fiction seems to make him retreat in Part II into a style that reads like an extended film synopsis. One positive thing about Part II is the way Geherin separates different kinds of crime films into sub-genres such as the familiar heist/ caper films and cop films, but also into categories that recognise the importance of the audience's perspective in a narrative. In addition to the division mentioned above, heist/ caper films from cop films Geherin adds two more sections that divide films into narrative perspectives. One where the film focuses on the thought process of the criminal with the aim to encourage the viewer to be sympathetic to the criminal through watching and participating with them as they craft the crime and another where the viewer is focused on the detective, whether they are amateur or professional, and their personal struggles to catch the criminal. However, this is not enough to allow Geherin to finish his work with the same clear textual analysis he began the book with.
The Funny Thing About Murder is undeniably an enjoyable read. For the non-academic crime aficionado, the book offers an intelligent and witty summary of numerous authors writing humorous crime series . However in a classroom setting The Funny Thing About Murder is perhaps slightly disappointing for those searching for an explicit methodological exploration of the humour in crime fiction. However, because of Geherin ‘s tendency towards summarisation, The Funny Thing About Murder has great potential as a reference work to comedic crime series which should hopefully assist in the pursuit of a more targeted approach to the study of the use of humour in crime writing.
Bio: Anna Kirsch completed her English Studies MA at Durham University and is currently doing a PhD on violence and consumerism in crime fiction. She is also the Book Reviews Editor for the International Crime Fiction Association. Her thesis was on Environmental Ethics and Morality in Carl Hiaasen’s Crime Fiction. Her research interests include Crime Fiction, American Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental History. Her Twitter is @kucerakirsch.