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?

Agatha Best First Novel Nominees

We are so tickled to host all of the nominees for this year’s Agatha Award for Best First Novel today on Mysteristas – including Mysterista emerita Cynthia Kuhn. Take it away, ladies!

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What book inspired you to start writing mysteries?

Marla Cooper, author of Terror in Taffeta (Minotaur Books)

Count me in for Nancy Drew! I used to read them and re-read them to the point where I could practically recite the plots. While Nancy Drew was definitely an early influence, I wasn’t reading them thinking, “Someday I’m going to be a mystery author.” That came a lot later. In fact, I never really saw myself writing a novel until I read Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. I loved his use of dialogue, his fast-paced plots, and the sheer amount of fun he seemed to be having. As for what steered me to mysteries specifically? I’d have to thank Jerrilyn Farmer and Laura Levine for that. Both of them are former TV writers who write humorous mysteries, and when I read their books, I got that little tickle in the back of my brain that said, “This!”

Alexia Gordon, author of Murder in G Major (Henery Press)

I’ll have to credit two sleuths instead of one book: Nancy Drew and Hercule Poirot. I devoured their series as a kid. Nancy Drew was a girl not much older than me at the time who was brave and smart and outwitted older, stronger criminals. Poirot was dapper and eccentric and the smartest guy in the room. As a teen I discovered Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I have to give them credit, too. I loved hanging out in the New York brownstone with Nero, Archie, Fritz, Theodore, and the orchids. I never could solve the case before the big genius, or even before Archie, but I tried. And I loved trying so much, I knew someday I wanted to create my own puzzles for a sleuth to solve.

Cynthia Kuhn, author of The Semester of Our Discontent (Henery Press)

Officially, Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew were the initial inspiration. They are the first mysteries I read, and I fell wholeheartedly in love with the genre. But it was Death in a Tenured Position by Amanda Cross (Dr. Carolyn G. Heilbrun) that introduced me to academic mystery and inspired me to begin thinking about writing my own mystery set at a college. Before I read that book in grad school, my mystery-writing plans were sort of like yes, someday (insert vague wave to indicate Down The Road); afterwards, I couldn’t wait to start writing one at the earliest possible moment. That’s how much of an effect it had. A little gentle satire that speaks to the environment in which you have been immersed for a long time is a powerful thing!

Nadine Nettmann, author of Decanting a Murder (Midnight Ink)

I grew up reading Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series and loved every single one I could get my hands on. I dreamt of exploring the English countryside and solving mysteries along the way with Julian, Dick, Anne, George (Georgina) and her dog, Timmy. If I had to pinpoint my love of the genre, I would say it began there. I also enjoyed Encyclopedia Brown and The Westing Game, but when I started reading Daphne du Maurier novels, I was swept away by the language, setting, and intrigue. I knew I wanted to create worlds full of questions and suspense, but where there was always an answer.

Renee Patrick (Rosemarie and Vince Keenan), author of Design for Dying (Forge)

VINCE: If we’re truly being honest, I have to reach deep into my childhood and pick any of the Three Investigators books, like The Mystery of the Screaming Clock. They were Hardy Boys books for kids who appreciated well-plotted mysteries. I loved them for two reasons. One of the titular trio specialized in library research, a job I felt I could do. And at the end of each adventure they’d go onto a movie lot and explain how they solved the case to Alfred Hitchcock, nurturing my love of show business.

ROSEMARIE: Even when I was in pigtails, my favorite books were mysteries. The ones I loved best were about a crime-solving family of five siblings: The Happy Hollisters. I had five brothers and sisters myself, and I’d picture us following a trail of clues to Ryskind’s candy store or Flushing Meadow Park. It wasn’t a big leap from imagining myself in those stories to writing my own.

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Marla Cooper is the author of Terror in Taffeta, an Agatha and Lefty nominee for Best First Mystery and book one in the Kelsey McKenna Destination Wedding Mysteries. Her second book, Dying on the Vine, is set in the California wine country and comes out April 4. As a freelance writer, Marla has written all sorts of things, from advertising copy to travel guidebooks to the occasional haiku, and it was while ghostwriting a guide to destination weddings that she found inspiration for her series. Originally hailing from Texas, Marla lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and her polydactyl tuxedo cat. Learn more at www.marla-cooper.com.

Alexia Gordon has been a writer since childhood. She continued writing through college but put literary endeavors on hold to finish medical school and Family Medicine residency training. Medical career established, she returned to writing fiction. She completed SMU’s Writer’s Path program in Dallas, Texas. Henery Press published her first novel, Murder in G Major, book one of the Gethsemane Brown mysteries, in September 2016. Book two, Death in D Minor, premiers July 2017. A member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the Writers’ League of Texas, she listens to classical music, drinks whiskey, and blogs at www.missdemeanors.com. AlexiaGordon.net

Cynthia Kuhn writes the Lila Maclean Academic Mystery series, which includes The Semester of Our Discontent and The Art of Vanishing. She teaches English in Denver and serves as president of Sisters in Crime-Colorado. For more information, please visit cynthiakuhn.net.

Nadine Nettmann, a Certified Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers, is always on the lookout for great wines and the stories behind them. She has visited wine regions around the world, from France to Chile to South Africa, but chose Napa Valley as the setting for her debut novel, Decanting a Murder. The next book in the Sommelier Mystery Series, Uncorking a Lie, releases in May 2017. Chapters are paired with wine recommendations. NadineNettmann.com

Renee Patrick is the pseudonym of married authors Rosemarie and Vince Keenan. Rosemarie is a research administrator and a poet. Vince is a screenwriter and a journalist. Both native New Yorkers, they currently live in Seattle, Washington.

Why is Rhys Bowen Funny?

Crowned and Dangerous

Rhys Bowen is my go-to author when I need a laugh. So, in service of this month’s topic, humor, I bought her last audiobook in the Royal Spyness series, Crowned and Dangerous, and began critically listening in hopes of understanding why she’s funny.

My first point will be: it helps that she has a talented reader. Katherine Kellgren’s voice reminds me of Dudley Do-right’s girlfriend, Nell Fenwick. One just expects funny from her.

Ms. Kellgren narrates in first person as the Lady Georgianna Rannoch, the 35th person in line to the throne of England. The stories are set between the first and second world wars, a time during which, as all of who watched Downton Abbey knows, was hard on aristocrats.

Just stop and think about that for a moment. I, for one, being Irish, do not naturally feel sorry for the progeny of in-bred descendants of Norman thuggery who have dominated the social, economic and political structures of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales for centuries, yet when this one aristocrat falls on hard times, I feel sorry for her – a tribute to the author’s talent.

Georgie’s father lost the bulk of the family fortune gambling on the Riviera, so when he died, passing the title and lands to her brother, Binky, there wasn’t enough left over for Georgie. She is impoverished and must make her own way.

Nevertheless, she is up-beat, self-effacing, resourceful and self-reliant. In every story, the first question is (even before the whodunit): where is Georgie going to live and how is she going to get fed? Not naturally funny material, but the author works it. In earlier books, Georgie sometimes lived in the family’s London home without servants or heating, scrounging for income at various amusing occupations to support herself. She failed as a model. She failed as a housekeeper. She failed working the perfume counter of a department store. These situations often give rise to some amusing slap-stick like clutzy accidents in front of the Queen, or becoming entangled as she dons haute couture. And, all the while, she is dreaming of marrying her Anglo-Irish boyfriend, the charming and handsome, but penniless, Darcy O’Mara. They will live on love.

Along the way, Georgie meets an amusing cast of characters reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s comedies of society: the stingy Yorkshire innkeeper, the snobbish German countess who doesn’t understand British idioms, the slinky Polish ex-pat princess, the lecherous Frenchman, the sinister, scheming Mrs. Wallis Simpson and the overly-familiar, over-fed and incompetent maid, Queenie.

Because the tone of the books is uplifting, putting the reader in a receptive mood for humor, when the slapstick appears, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. It’s been said before: dying is easy, comedy is hard, and I don’t know how she does it. Conjuring these silly romps amongst the royals is Rhys Bowen’s talent and gift to her readers. Brava, Ms. Bowen!

So, Mysteristas: what authors make you laugh out loud?

Oh, the Spectacles We Make!

Being socially house-broken means that we usually don’t laugh when people fall on their patoots.  Unless it’s slapstick, and then it’s okay to laugh.  Slapstick usually means it’s intentionally funny.

But what about those times when it’s not?

We all agree that humor is tough to do, and then someone on the blog mentioned the closeness of laughter to crying.  The memory of my first black belt test came rushing back.  It isn’t funny.  (Or maybe it is.)  I gotta admit that yes, we must’ve all looked pretty funny–on the verge of tears, with our tongues hanging out and sagging in our twisted stances.  But bear with me, ’cause there’s a lesson in this.

Here’s how it went down:

  •  6 months previous, my sensei announces that he will hold a test, and I am eligible.  (Serious??  *uncontrollable laughter*)
  • After a lot of sweat, The Big Day arrives, and a dozen or so of us brown belts are onstage.  The watchful eyes of the peanut gallery are upon us as we “warm up” with hundreds of exercises in sets of 50’s.  Then we run through the entire curriculum a couple of times.  (So, when is the test going to start?  I am getting seriously tired.)
  • We spar for about half a lifetime, and one of my partners kicks me onto my patoot (hoots and hollers from the peanut gallery, but no sweat–they’re usually vocal)
  • We run through the curriculum a couple more times.  (Oh no!  Is this finally the real test starting up?  I am completely drained.  No way I can pass now.  Hmmm.  Guess I’ve got nothing to lose anymore.)
  • So I keep going, limping through the moves on automatic, even though I know I look slapstick ridiculous with my stumbling moves.  Maybe I only imagine the snickers — my brain’s not working so well, either.

My conclusions:  I did my best.  I couldn’t do any better than my ability at the moment.

Sound familiar?  You bet.  It’s the same in writing.

When the test was finally over, my sensei peeled me up off the floor and tied my new black belt around me.  But, wait.  Hadn’t he noticed all my mistakes?  All my sloppy moves?

Yes, of course he had.  What I hadn’t realized until then was that it wasn’t so much about perfection as much as it was about persistence.  I hadn’t given up, and that’s what mattered.

The same is true for writing.  There’s always time to perfect our ability if we give ourselves enough time to persist.

As for the laughs along the way, whether they’re real or imagined, I ask you:  who’s gonna end up with the last laugh?  The one who stays in the game, or the one who never tries?

Guest Post: Wendy Tyson

Welcome back Mysteristas friend Wendy Tyson, author of the Greenhouse Mysteries and the Allison Campbell Mysteries.

Lighten Up

BitterHarvest frontThe mention of this month’s theme caused me a moment of panic. You see, I don’t write books that would be characterized as humorous mysteries. If you pick up a novel from the Allison Campbell Mystery Series or the Greenhouse Mystery Series, you’re probably not expecting the kind of belly-aching laughter you might get from reading authors like Janet Evanovich or Chris Ewan or Gretchen Archer. My novels, especially the Allison Campbell books, are more suspense than comedy. But what I’ve come to realize over time is that while crime is, well, crime (and what’s funny about that?), crime fiction provides the perfect backdrop for humor.

Let’s face it, humor serves many masters. It can be an end in itself, of course. But within the context of a mystery it can also help to alleviate tension, create relatable characters (who isn’t attracted to a strong sense of humor?), denote character, highlight or create conflict, and show the relationship between characters. Think about Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. While you won’t find them listed on many Humorous Mysteries lists, Detective Barbara Havers’ often fumbling relationship with life is quite funny, as are the interactions between Barbara and her boss, the Oxford-educated, aristocratic Inspector Lynley.

While my mysteries may not elicit guffaws, humor is woven throughout. It’s in the banter between Megan and her veterinarian boyfriend, Dr. Denver Finn. It’s in Bibi’s often ironic proclamations about life. It’s embedded within new-farmer Megan’s internal and external conflicts—conflicts that affect her decisions and her relationships with others. (There is something funny about a woman arguing with a goat.) And it’s in the antics of Winsome’s quirky townsfolk. Same for the Allison Campbell Series. Simply the notion of an image consultant solving crimes in the upscale Philadelphia Main Line is amusing, and Allison doesn’t take herself too seriously. Despite often dangerous situations and dark issues, Allison maintains a sense of humor about who she is and what she does—and therefore so does the reader.

I saw somewhere that the television show Malcolm in the Middle relied on music rather than canned laughter to denote the funny parts. Upbeat songs served to lighten the mood, signaling the humorous portions of the story line. Thankfully with books readers don’t need a signal. In fact, humor is often the signal that things are about to change. Whether it’s an out rightly funny slapstick scene, elements of dark humor, or simply witty dialogue that reflects the absurdity of everyday life, crime fiction is often loaded with laughs.

It turns out solving crimes can be downright funny.

*****

Wendy tyson picWendy Tyson’s background in law and psychology has provided inspiration for her mysteries and thrillers. Originally from the Philadelphia area, Wendy has returned to her roots and lives there again on a micro-farm with her husband, three sons, and three dogs. Wendy’s short fiction has appeared in literary journals, and she’s a contributing editor and columnist for The Big Thrill and The Thrill Begins, International Thriller Writers’ online magazines. Wendy is the author of the Allison Campbell Mystery Series and the Greenhouse Mystery Series. Her latest Greenhouse novel, Bitter Harvest, was released March 7, 2017.

Laugh so you don’t cry

I’m relying on a lot of television for escapism lately. Jump on my Twitter feed and you’ll know instantly how I feel about our current political climate, our actual climate, and the refugee crisis. The mercury has shot way up on my depression thermometer. (I’m probably depressing you all now, aren’t I?) Anyway, I self-medicate with TV. As an author, I find television informs my art. It also makes me happy.

In no particular order, here’s Dr. Kim’s (I’m not a real doctor) television prescription for dealing with life’s downturns.

Comedy recommendations!

Schitt’s Creek (Seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix): Created by eyebrow-goals Eugene Levy and his dapper, handsome son, Dan Levy, this Canadian import is about a wealthy family who loses everything when their tax accountant embezzles from them, and is forced to move to a rural town that they own called Schitt’s Creek. The episodes are 20-minutes long and super bingeable. My favorite character is David Rose, the stylish, somber son whose explanation of his pansexuality using wine as a metaphor is the best thing I’ve ever heard. This is a comedy about a tight-knit family coming together in a crisis.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CW, Seasons 1 and 2 on Netflix): Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca Bunch, a late 20-something Manhattan lawyer who chucks it all, and follows an old boyfriend to West Covina, California. Rebecca suffers from anxiety and depression, and her delusions are manifested in song! This show is so clever. Feminism, mental illness, cultural identity are all deftly explored. And it’s freaking funny. My favorite tunes in Season 1 are “Jap Battle Rap,” “Sexy Getting Ready Son,” and “I Could If I Wanted To.”

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You’re the Worst (FX, Seasons 1-2 on Hulu): There’s something so compelling about watching two selfish, yet damaged, people fall in love in Los Angeles. Gretchen and Jimmy are the worst people and yet, you root for them anyway. Jimmy is a snarky Brit who’s also a novelist! My favorite line that he delivers is about scrambled eggs, “A dish so pedestrian, its name is the recipe.” And Gretchen is a messy, detached publicist who suffers from depression (props to the writers for portraying this so accurately). The ensemble cast makes the show. From Lindsay, Gretchen’s idiot best friend, to Edgar, Jimmy’s veteran roommate who suffers from PTSD to Sam, Gretchen’s client who delivers my other favorite line: “Garbage people do not get iphones” (or something to that effect). Watch it.

The League (Netflix, 7 seasons): If you had asked me if I would want to watch a comedy about fantasy football, I would’ve said, “hard pass” (sports pun!). But, this Seinfeld-esque ensemble show is so freaking funny that I watched seven seasons in about a month. My favorite character is Rodney Ruxin, mainly because he’s obnoxious. And a germophobe with a laundry list of killer catchphrases.

Okay, that’s my list. Take two shows and call me in the morning. What comedies do you recommend? I could use some new ones.

Interview: Carolyn Mulford

Welcome Carolyn Mulford, author of Show Me the Sinister Snowman (what a title!).

What’s your idea of a perfect day?

perf6.000x9.000.inddThe day would begin with a simple breakfast on a terrace with a view of mountains. I grew up in northern Missouri’s rolling hills and returned to them ten years ago, but I taught at 8,000 feet in Ethiopia, edited a magazine a few hours from the Austrian Alps, and hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail while writing a travel book. Mountains delight the eye, refresh the spirit, and convey strength and serenity.

Then, with a cup of rich coffee in hand, I’d read a good newspaper—the paper edition. I crave unbiased, in-depth reporting, and I relish coming across unanticipated headlines. News articles also spark plot ideas, including contemporary rustling in Show Me the Deadly Deer.

Morning is prime writing time. I get a major charge from starting a new book, stumbling through unknown territory toward the right path for the story. The accelerated action at the end speeds up my fingers. In between, I get a big kick out of writing scenes in which humor diverts readers’ attention from important clues.

In the evening, I’ll eat a nice dinner with a friend and go to a play or concert.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase/expression, or meal?

No, but when I give a book talk, I wear clothes that match the cover’s colors. When I attend a three-day conference, I plan outfits with the dominant colors on my book’s cover. For Show Me the Gold, I augmented basic black with a gold long-sleeved blouse, a short-sleeved yellow blouse, and a yellow jacket. Wearing the same color scheme each day helps people remember who you are.

Which books/authors inspired or influenced you the most?

Many books have made deep impressions over decades of varied reading. My most lasting treasure is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The teacher in my one-room school read it to us chapter by chapter to quiet us after lunch when I was in first grade. It was funny and scary and totally engrossing. I read it for myself in fifth grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade, college, and at least three times since then. Each time I read a different book because I understand more. Twain’s characters and plots have multiple layers, and his humor softens strong social commentary. I was particularly aware of layers as I wrote Thunder Beneath My Feet, a middle grade/YA novel that takes place during the devastating New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812.

When I began the transition from nonfiction to fiction, I read mysteries for guidance. Among my numerous guides have been Elizabeth Peters (well-drawn characters, appealing humor, excellent pacing), Sara Paretsky (research on serious societal problems enhances rather than burdens the story, compelling minor characters, strong sense of place), and Nevada Barr (outstanding descriptions of nature and action scenes that raise blood pressure).

Do you listen to music when you write?

Only if it’s related to what I’m writing, as when my protagonist plays Mozart on the piano to help her analyze her findings. In the first book, Show Me the Murder, she plays classic country in a bar while undercover. In my new book, Show Me the Sinister Snowman, people trapped by a blizzard entertain themselves by singing Gilbert & Sullivan songs.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?

Dark chocolate with a touch of marmalade because it’s a Missouri twist on the traditional British locked-room mystery.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?

Three factors came together. First, in each book I link the plot or a subplot to a societal problem. In Show Me the Sinister Snowman, that’s the danger and practical considerations of escaping from an abusive husband. I’ve been concerned about that since I wrote magazine articles about it more than 30 years ago. Second, I move the characters along in their lives, and it was time for the retiring sheriff to try to realize her dream of running for Congress. Third, I liked the challenge of trapping my ongoing characters in an isolated mansion with several suspects inside and a known killer outside.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?

Almost all mysteries describe the pursuit of justice, whether it be legal or moral. My characters deal with the friction between investigating by the book and using whatever works. Another theme is the dynamics of relationships under stress, particularly that of three women who grew up together, trod very different roads for thirty years, and have reunited as each faces a personal crisis.

Tell us about your main character.

Phoenix Smith, a wounded former CIA covert operative, returns to her hometown in northern Missouri to recuperate and relax with a lifelong friend, civic leader Annalynn Carr Keyser. Her husband just died violently, and she begs Phoenix to help discover the truth about his death (Show Me the Murder). A caring friend, the tough ex-spy adapts her tradecraft, including illegal procedures, to investigate this and other murders with law-abiding Annalynn, a melodramatic singer, and a K-9 dropout called Achilles.

Phoenix willingly, and skillfully, shoots to kill. She also protects innocents threatened by the bad guys or by the law.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.

I’ll let a Library Journal reviewer answer that for me: “This character-driven series will intrigue fans of female PIs such as Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, or Joanna Brady.”

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?

Let’s split it between past and present. The ghosts: Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie. I’m not sure how they would get along, so I’d invite three of my favorite contemporary writers with pleasant dispositions: Margaret Maron, William Kent Krueger, and Carolyn Hart.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a series featuring a freelancer trying to escape writing tweets and blogs and build a career as a crime reporter. I also plan to write some short stories/novellas featuring Phoenix Smith and friends, including her dog, Achilles.

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Carolyn Mulford set out to be a writer shortly after learning to read in a one-room school in Missouri. She postponed her writing career to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Dessie, Ethiopia. That experience fostered a fascination with other cultures that led her to work as a nonfiction writer and editor on four continents. She moved from nonfiction to fiction and from Washington, D.C., to Columbia, Missouri, in 2007, the year her first published novel, The Feedsack Dress, came out. Show Me the Sinister Snowman is her seventh novel and twelfth book. To contact her and read her blogs and the first chapters of her novels, go to http://carolynmulford.com. You also can follow her on Facebook and Goodreads.