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.
Book Review: Mad- Doctors in the Dock: Defending the Diagnosis, 1760-1913 Reviewed by Linda Ledford-Miller
Joel Peter Eigen, Mad-Doctors in the Dock: Defending the Diagnosis, 1760-1913. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.
This meticulously researched text is the third and final volume in a trilogy dedicated to the study of insanity trials. The first volume, Witnessing Insanity: Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court, was published by Yale University Press in 1995; the second, Unconscious Crime: Mental Absence and Criminal Responsibility in Victorian London, was published by Johns Hopkins in 2003. Mr. Eigen is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and an honorary Principal fellow at the University of Melbourne. He has spent over thirty years engaged in research on the shifting definitions and courtroom use of insanity in British trials, and in preparation for his third book, he identified his true research question as : 'Where did these diagnoses come from in the first place?’ (ix).
Mad-Doctors contains an introduction, seven chapters, and a thorough conclusion. The book investigates the roles of all the players in court cases: the judge, the jurors, the attorneys, the witnesses, the accused, medical practitioners, and forensic psychiatric witnesses. By now Eigen has examined nearly 1000 cases, but the focus here is particularly on 1876 to 1913, the shift from relying on the testimonies of friends and associates of the accused, the increased testimony of medical experts, and the emergence of a diagnosis of homicidal mania as an acceptable cause of sometimes despicable and otherwise illogical murderous acts.
After explaining his investigative method in the Introduction, in the first chapter Eigen gives an overview of insanity trials in the period, observing in multiple instances that verdicts of not guilty due to insanity might lead to an acquittal and then a long internment in a mental institution . The second chapter provides the reader with relevant medical terminology used in trials: delusion, melancholia, mania—terms of broad meaning and broad application. Chapter three shifts attention to medical practitioners. Prison and police surgeons and alienists (the term for medical psychologists) had direct and often prolonged contact with the accused, and thus became increasingly more important in the courtroom, while the voice of the accused, friends and neighbors less important.
The following two chapters deal with courtroom diagnoses. Chapter 4 investigates delusion, the ‘most frequently invoked medico-legal term in medical testimony’ as lay observations of mental instability became much less regarded and the courtroom dominated by expert testimony (80). The fifth chapter examines how diagnoses were applied, resisted, and then defended, while further elaborating on how a particular diagnosis affected the actions of the accused and the accused’s understanding of those actions.
Chapter Six arrives at the true crux of the matter: the development of the diagnosis of homicidal mania, though the Preface presents a specific case of the diagnosis of homicidal mania where the mother drowned her newborn daughter in a pail of water ‘and fastened the lid ,’ but not before warming the water first in order not to be cruel (ix). It is in this chapter Eigen finally confronts his principal area of interest. Perhaps the explanations and research of previous chapters allow the reader to engage in this third volume with many connections developed more extensively in the first two volumes. And of course, the question/diagnosis of delusion runs throughout the book, and is cited by many mad-doctors to support the diagnosis of homicidal mania.
The seventh chapter turns to the role of judges in insanity trials. They worked to determine the validity of medical evidence and its relation to the case at hand and to keep jurors focused on determining to what extent the accused was aware of what he or she had done.
In the conclusion, Eigen examines the conditions, cultural and legal, that led to the rise of the forensic psychiatrist in courtroom testimony. Eigen calls the psychiatrist ‘The most culturally informed of medical specialties’ and charts how the psychiatrist became the new expert witness and homicidal mania the new expert diagnosis (178).
The book is exhaustively researched and contains extensive and thorough footnotes. There is no bibliography. Though well-written, the text is clearly for an academic audience rather than a popular one, and a specialized audience at that. For those interested in legal proceedings in the Old Bailey in London during this period and the history of medical testimony in those proceedings, this book answers the central question of the diagnosis of homicidal mania and hints at a number of areas for further research.
Bio: Linda Ledford-Miller is Professor of Spanish, Portuguese, and American Minority Literature at the University of Scranton, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She has degrees in English and American Literature from the University of California, Irvine, and in Luso-Brazilian literature and Comparative Literature from the University of Texas, Austin. She has published widely on travel writing and women writers. An avid reader of mysteries, she has shifted focus to crime fiction, working on Robert Downey Jr.’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, gender roles in the In Death series by the American J.D. Robb, the village mysteries of the Canadian Louise Penny, and the philosophical Inspector Espinosa series by the Brazilian Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza.
Tom Ue and Jonathan Cranafield (ed.s), Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes (Intellect, 2014), 153pp. Paperback £22, $29.50
Intellect describes its series Fan Phenomena as being ‘prompted by a growing appetite for books that tap into the fascination we have with what constitutes an iconic or cultish phenomenon’. The series started in 2013 and has continued steadily, with topics including Star Trek (2013), The Lord of the Rings (2015), and Game of Thrones (2017), among others. Sherlock Holmes, who needs no introduction, is such an iconic figure in fandom and popular culture that it is no wonder the character himself has inspired a volume under the Fan Phenomena banner.
In Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes, editors Tom Ue and Jonathan Cranfield bring together thirteen chapters, consisting of eight chapters and five ‘Fan Appreciation’ interviews. Since ‘the figure of Holmes has been constantly refreshed and renewed, adapted […] to new cultural moments’ (6), the editors’ stated aim is to ‘attest […] to the popularity of the characters and fictional world that [Arthur] Conan Doyle created’ (5). It is such a vast aim that no 153-page book could fully do it justice, but Ue and Cranfield have succeeded in providing a comprehensive and attractive introduction to some of the key themes in Holmes fandom.
The volume is beautifully laid out and illustrated. Intellect Books are designed to appeal to students and well-informed enthusiasts as well as scholars and researchers, so it is not surprising that Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes is visually appealing. The front and back inside covers are filled with Sidney Paget’s illustration of Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, tumbling down the Reichenbach Falls. The pages are well-spaced and easy to read, with a variety of images, and each contribution is prefaced with what some would call a Conanical quotation: a remark from Conan Doyle’s original texts concerning Holmes.
Particularly strong are the opening and closing essays. Tom Ue’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare’ (8-27) looks at ‘the numerous ways in which Shakespeare’s writing affected Conan Doyle in his creation and writing of Sherlock Holmes and his stories’, and Ue insists that ‘Conan Doyle’s reading of Shakespeare [lies] at the heart of his own writing’ (10). Both authors are authoritative voices in their respective historical contexts, but Ue points out a tradition of adaptation and allusion that positions the Holmes canon itself as a kind of fan fiction. Benjamin Poore, in closing the collection, offers a perspective on presentations of Moriarty on-screen in the twenty-first century (134-147). From Moriarty’s creation in 1893, ‘as a narrative tool with which to kill of Holmes’, which Poore says ‘backfired spectacularly’ (135), the character and his relationship to Holmes have gripped the public imagination, with a significance both on and off the page that cannot be easily separated. As such, Poore argues, ‘Holmes and Moriarty’s activities suit the porous boundary-crossing tenor of the times, where the Internet has increased the ways in which we commingle reality and fiction’ (142).
While some of the interviews with authors veer into promotional, rather than informative, territory, it is fascinating to see the variety of approaches to often similar concepts: for example, two of the interviews are with co-authors of distinct ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ graphic novels (80-89; 100-108). The final interview is with Robert Ryan, author of Dead Man’s Land, a 2013 novel set during the First World War and featuring Dr Watson (124-133). The novel is not a conventional Holmesian pastiche, and Ryan is open about not being ‘a Holmesian’, although he admits that ‘nobody who writes crime thrillers […] can escape the long arm of Baker Street’ (128). Ryan’s perspective offers points of contrast to the others, and nicely rounds the overall tone of the volume. The interviews intersperse the essays, two of which are written by authors – Jonathan Barnes (110-117) and Shane Peacock (118-123) – outlining the process of writing new Holmes adventures. This creates something of a slant towards authors-talking-about-their work. Some other essays are written by fans, and some by academics, which creates a welcome sense of variety. The different contributors’ styles may not rest in easy harmony, but the result is a volume with something to suit most tastes.
Jonathan Cranfield’s ‘Sherlock Holmes: Fan Culture and Fan Letters’ (66-79) is a fascinating study of ‘the writing of [real] fan letters to [the fictional] Sherlock Holmes – which has occurred continuously from the 1890s until the present day’, exploring how early letters ‘herald the coming multiverse of Sherlockian fan phenomena’ (67). Cranfield attests that ‘early Sherlock Holmes fan culture […] established a basic pattern for the ways in which later phenomena [such as online fan fiction] would function’ (75), which, as with Ue’s contribution, establishes Conanical links and presages to twenty-first century Sherlockiana. However, the delights of this chapter bring to mind the book’s one notable omission. While several contributors mention fan fiction, which is hugely important in the world of Sherlockiana, and a burgeoning field of study in its own right, no contributor has chosen to focus on it. A chapter on fan fiction would have made this already exciting volume stronger still.
Sherlock Holmes is as important a populist figure today as he was in the late nineteenth century. Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes testifies to this significance, with real-life implications playing out in its contributors’ varied backgrounds. It is undoubtedly a useful resource as studies of fan fiction and of fan phenomena continue to gather momentum. Conan Doyle’s creation continues to provide fertile ground for individuals within and far beyond scholarship. As Holmes himself declares, in ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’, ‘What one man can create, another can discover.’
Bio: J.C. Bernthal sits on a tutor panel at the University of Cambridge and is an associate lecturer at Middlesex University. He is also a private researcher to a major crime writer, and the author of Queering Agatha Christie: Revisiting the Golden Age of Detective Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).