Mystery Writer Casually Jokes About Murder; Does Not Go Well…

Today I want to talk about humor in mysteries—specifically cozies—and the challenge of keeping something as serious as murder light-hearted.

It’s a delicate balance.

The death needs to impact the amateur sleuth enough so as to be realistic and so they don’t appear callous, but the story also needs to stay light enough to satisfy traditional cozy readers. After all, we don’t read cozies to feel woefully depressed (that’s what the news is for, ha!).

Here are a few tricks I’ve learned to do this:

  1. Leverage voice—have the MC make funny observations about her/his world or the investigative process. BUT the catch is to also maintain a depth of emotion between quips.
  2. Slapstick—put your amateur sleuth in funny scenarios that tend toward hilarity. Consider having her/him trip over the body or act clumsy in some other way (think Stephanie Plum).
  3. Witty dialogue—even the most intense scenes can benefit from witty dialogue. Plus it’s realistic; we all know those folks who crack jokes as a way to process.
  4. Comedic relief character—have one character who always seems to lighten the mood à la C3PO in Star Wars.
  5. Cats—there’s a reason cozies always feature a cat (or other cuddly creature); they’re cute and never fail to lighten every scene they appear in!

Writers, how do you balance humor in mysteries? Readers, can you think of humor in cozies you have especially enjoyed?


Author: Kate Lansing

I write mysteries, YA novels, and short fiction. I also read A LOT, travel as much as possible, and take way too many pictures of my cat.

16 thoughts on “Mystery Writer Casually Jokes About Murder; Does Not Go Well…”

  1. I belong to a writers group of non-mystery authors. When I wrote the second book in my series, one of my groupmates read it for notes and was so upset that my protagonist was making quips after finding a body. “Somebody died, for godsake!,” she wrote in her notes. That taught me to write to the real of how someone would react if they discovered a murder victim. There can be humor before and humor later. But that moment has to be step-by-step how a character would feel in that moment – scared, upset, even sick. BTW, just occurred to me – that’s the book that just won the Lefty for Best Humorous Mystery. Hadn’t thought about that until now.


  2. Congrats on your Lefty, Ellen!! How inspiring! You’re exactly right; that scene is so pivotal and that’s a really great rule of thumb. I’ve started focusing on the same thing after receiving similar feedback. Beta readers/critique groups are so important!


  3. I love cozies. I have a draft of one on my computer. I love crime, but shudder when it’s too macabre and cozies provide the best mix of puzzling out a crime and enjoying characters. The funnier, the better, in my opinion.


  4. Congrats on the Lefty, Ellen!

    My humor comes out in my deputy coroner character. He, like so many in his field, as a rather warped sense of humor when he’s working a murder scene. One of my critique partners said, “He’d never say that, it’s so callous!” and another said, “Oh, he’d totally say that. In front of the right audience.” For me that’s the key with this character to keep him funny and not tacky.


  5. Kimberly, cozies really are the best! And I agree, bring on the humor 🙂

    Liz, your deputy coroner sounds like quite the character! You’ve touched upon another major challenge of humor: the subjectivity. Thank goodness for good critique buddies!


  6. Love this! I really enjoy a nice, sarcastic or witty protag, but you make a great point–it is a delicate balance. I just finished Miranda James’ most recent book, which was well done, as usual. I do lean toward the cats! Cynthia Kuhn did a lovely job with her series, and there are quite a few others that I think strike the right balance. Oh–Janet Bolin’s Threadville series, which is sadly not being continued by the publisher, is wonderful! Great balance. Love this post, Kate!

    Congrats, Ellen!


  7. I’ve heard cop and forensic team specialists at conferences say there is often a fair amount of sarcasm, wisecracking, and joking going on at a crime scene–not necessarily directed at the deceased (depends on the circumstances). That’s shocking to a lot of people, but they say it helps them deal with constant death, horror, and grief.


  8. Thank you, Pamela! Ooh, I’m definitely checking out the books you mentioned…And I agree, Cynthia did a fabulous job balancing humor in her Lila Maclean series!

    Lisa, how interesting! I always appreciate hearing real forensics specialists and law enforcement officials speak at conferences and such. It’s so enlightening! Goodness, they’ve got a tough job.


  9. Except for the fab Lefty, I have a similar story to Ellen’s. I’d forgotten that tiny smidge of humanity in my protagonist. And, because we’re around those jaded professionals, we know how sarcastic they are, but our readers may not. You can combat that by having some other character express shock or horror that they’d say something so callous. And then give another callous, sarcastic comment.


  10. Becky, what a great tip!! I love that. It reminds me of another trick I sometimes use which is to have the MC reflect on how inappropriate one of their remarks/jokes might be, making them more empathetic.


    1. Exactly. And so the reader isn’t pulled out of the story because they’re grumbling about it. Hubs and I did that watching a movie last night. We missed the next 5 minutes because of our whining and grousing.


  11. Great post, Kate! Having worked in an ER and with the police as a recovery diver I can attest to MASH humor, that way lies sanity, but it’s oh so audience specific, and as a reader, I always remember PD James’s Dalglish taking one of his team (not Haver’s but someone else) seriously to task for it. I keep his dressing down in the back of my mind when I bring gallows humor into my story. Now I’ve got Becky’s tip to temper it too. Barb – mega congrats on the Lefty.

    Diane Mott Davidson always had the funniest of corpses to my mind. Goldie did trip over them, pushed them out of the way (unknowingly, of course, she had to get into that law office somehow- how was she to know the corpse was blocking the door), etc.


  12. Thanks, Sam and Peg!! 😀

    Sue and Kait, I’m not really familiar with MASH humor but it sounds extremely delicate… That makes me think of the most recent Louis CK standup because I felt guilty laughing at some of his jokes–genius. And oh my, Kait, I bet your experience as a recovery diver inspires a lot of ideas for your mysteries!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s