Can Crime Fiction Be Funny?

Colin Bateman at the Guardian UK asks whether crime fiction can be funny. While I don’t read much crime fiction, I do find something refreshing in his question in part because the constant repetition of  the serial killer and as he puts it, torture porn, is tiresome tedious and has seeped into so many TV and movies that the serial killer is can seem everywhere. While crime by its definition something bad, serial killers leave little room for individual decisions, and instead presents an implacable evil that is uninteresting, more horror than crime. I still remember a Thanksgiving some years ago when an 19 year-old proudly gave a run down of serial killers he knew of. He seemed proud of them, some how, and I thought what is the point? Are you getting some sort of sexual excitement from this? Perhaps the serial killer just reflects a sense of helplessness before something unknown.

However, as the most successful of all popular fiction genres, crime fiction rapidly descended into formula, with thousands of not very subtle variations of little old ladies investigating cosy murder mysteries or tough talking PI’s with a cool line in sardonic put-downs flooding the market. They not only became cliched, but even worse, the subject of parody from which they have never really recovered. Once Woody Allen sent up Bogie in Play it Again, Sam and Steve Martin weighed in with Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, there was really nowhere else to go.

Crime fiction was forced to reinvent itself, almost literally, in a new skin, and in doing so it caused not only a seismic shift in public taste, but also in how it was sold. Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs and Patricia Cornwell’s Postmortem became super sellers 20 years ago – laughs were out, torture porn was in – and their influence is still apparent in bookshops and supermarkets up and down the country; they and their successors actually form the bedrock of publishing in this country today. Pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap.