I told you June was going to be busy. As well as my ‘Mervyn Stone’ and ‘Dr Who’ audios, I’m also heading to Bristol for this:
‘Crimefest’ is a splendid convention for fans of murder in all its forms. I’ve visited both sci-fi and Crime Conventions now, as ‘Mervyn Stone’ rather clumsily straddles both genres, and the differences are quite marked. There’s less cosplay in a Crime convention, which is a bit of a shame as I’d quite like to see a fat Moriaty duke it out with a female Sherlock Homes in a deer-stalker themed corset outside the hotel restaurant.
I’m interviewing Mark Gatiss, Sue Vertue and Steven Moffat about ‘Sherlock’ on saturday. It’s very interesting when you think about that picture; there’ll be four people up there on that stage who started in comedy, and who somehow ended up working in crime fiction. Start making a list of others, and you’ll be going ‘ooh! And him/her too!’ for the rest of the day (Mark Billingham, Hugh Laurie, Ben Elton…)
I don’t know about the others, but comedy and murder stories don’t seem that different to me. I do love the fact that structure is king in both genres. Just as there is a ‘three act tragedy’ in crime, there is also a rule of three in joke-telling. Any gag that contains three individuals from various parts of the United Kingdom entering a pub is an excellent example of a thriller in microcosm.
There is a comfortable familiarity about the style of joke (three stereotypes going for a drink), combined with a gag, which – hopefully – provides a surprise at the end. Even though we know the Irishman is going to say or do something daft, we don’t know what kind of daftness it’s going to be. It’s that tension between familiarity and surprise that makes the best kind of crime thrillers. Take the climax of any Poirot; we know a Belgian, some Englishmen and a Policeman are going to walk into a drawing room, that much is certain, but the punchline is tickling the back of our brains, just out of reach.
At the moment I’m making a circuitous route to ‘proper’ crime. I’m writing a serious thriller at the moment (my first), but up ’til now I’ve written that curious hybrid, the ‘comedy crime novel’. I do enjoy putting those two elements together, I like that tension; the one you get in your face for trying not to laugh at funerals.
It is the ultimate irony for humorous crime-mystery fiction; the act of murder should never be shown. Read any murder book, not just comedy crime, anything that isn’t steeped in grimness, and the murder isn’t there. The victim walks into a room, the murderer is behind the door and…End of chapter, and five pages later someone opens up an ottoman and there’s a body.
It’s exactly like sex in a ‘Mills and Boon’ romance. Murder/sex is the whole point of the book, the element by which, if removed, the reason the book exists disappears, yet if you actually dwelt this act too much ( like writing a chapter depicting a murder/a sexual act in graphic detail) it would destroy what you’re trying to do. The moment the murderer gets his knife out, just like the moment the ‘Mills and Boon’ hero unsheathes his pork sword, is the moment you have to pan away quickly to a crackling log fire.
Both incredibly important things, sex and death. Both can be the most serious things in the world, that can be wielded as the most terrible weapons against a person, and yet shine the kaleidoscope of human attitudes on top and they can both be utterly hilarious. Just watch a fat Moriarty fight a lady Sherlock Holmes in a deerstalker corset in a hotel foyer; if fat Moriarty suddenly clutches his chest and dies, then of course it will be terrible at the time, but at the same time you will be definitely thinking ‘this is going to be the bloody best ever anecdote for me to tell for ever and ever.’
It’s quite comforting that in amongst the parts of the brain that’s bred for fight-or-flight, for survival, for cruelty, there’s an equally big chunk devoted to taking the piss.