Have you ever wanted to kill someone? (I’m talking fiction here. I’m an author, not a marriage counselor.)
I think about killing people all the time: who, where, how. If you’ve ever uttered the words “Colonel Mustard in the pool room with the wrench,” he knows what I’m talking about.
I’ve planned hundreds of murders, and not once did I think, “How can I extract comedy gold from this guy’s brutal death?”
And yet James Patterson (my partner in crime in the NEW YORK POLICE RED series) has said, “Marshall Karp is the only author I know who can get a good laugh out of murdering someone.”
With all due respect to James, that’s not 100 percent accurate. When I hit someone, I don’t want you to bend over and hit your knee. There is no laughter as the rope tightens around someone’s neck, compressing their carotid arteries as they desperately clutch at their throat.
That’s because murder isn’t funny. In real life, it’s devastating. And in fiction, it’s not something I can milk for a laugh.
What it is funny, in life and on the page, is how people deal with the savagery and finality of senseless homicide.
Call it black humor, or black comedy, or whistling past the graveyard: it’s human nature to laugh in the face of death.
Not all authors take risks. It’s a slippery slope because if you don’t have time or your sensibilities are out of tune, your bon mot will just sit there like a rotten egg.
If you google “book genres” you will find that there are 18, 24, 35 or more depending on which website you trust. And while “Mystery,” “Suspense” and “Thriller” are in all of them, “Laugh-Loud Detective Fiction” isn’t. It’s not even a subgenre like “Cozy”, or “Legal Thriller” or “Hardboiled”.
And yet, if you Google “Mystery+Writers+Comedy,” you’ll find a long list of authors including Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, and one of my true heroes in the business, Donald E. West Lake. I’m on that too. (Hey, I’ve written fourteen murder mysteries, each packed with humor. It was meant to be on one list or another.)
It turns out that people like (to make need a) laugh at death. Real cops do it all the time. For many of them, being wise is the only way to deal with the hideous horrors of their work. But laughter is not meant to be disrespectful. It is a release so that you can prepare for the next attack.
Doctors and nurses are the same. They are surrounded by sickness, pain, anguish and sorrow every day. If they just absorbed it and had no way to download it, they would be too overwhelmed to function. If the average person could hear laughter coming from the break room of a university hospital, they would be horrified.
Early in my career, I spent three hours in the Los Angeles County morgue. Unlike the morgues he’d seen on TV, this place looked like something out of Edgar Allen Poe. There are no steel drawers, only stretchers. And no body bags. They cost too much. The corpses were wrapped in sheets, with their heads and feet sticking out the ends.
The air was thick with the smell of disinfectant, formaldehyde, and decaying humanity. It was somber. There was nothing funny about it.
But when the chief forensic investigator told me that there were 129 bodies waiting to be processed that morning, he punctuated it: “This is how we keep our prices so low. Volume.”
I laughed. I laughed throughout the tour, and then again in the gift shop. Actually, they had a gift shop back then. Coffee mugs, key chains, a barbecue apron that said “Little Ribs. Spare feet. Spare hands. And all kinds of fun clothes with the chalk outline of a corpse on it.
Signs on the door read “Thieves’ next of kin will be notified” and “To cash a check, you will need two forms of identification or dental records.”
Bottom line: murder, not funny; death, funny, in the right hands. But unless he’s a trained professional, he won’t start telling knock knock jokes at the next funeral he attends.
And speaking of funerals, when I was in the TV business, I worked with a legend and learned from her. His name was David Lloyd.
David wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Showand in 1997 his episode “Chuckles Bites the Dust” was ranked #1 on TV Guide‘s “100 Greatest Episodes of All Time”.