MRM Reviews in the spotlight reviews About MRM Advertising with MRM Contact Us MRM Home Image Map

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Death and Comedy By Esri Allbritten

Author Esri Allbritten is treating us to a guest post today, sharing her thoughts on striking the delicate balance between humor and the grim reality of murder in mystery writing...

If you ask mystery readers why they read crime fiction, one answer you won’t get is that they love murder – because that would be creepy. No, mystery readers like the exploration of personality, getting to know recurring characters, a good puzzle, and the drama of people dealing with extreme circumstances. Some of us want all of those things, and we also want to laugh.  

Treating death with humor without being tasteless can be a fine line to walk, but there are some proven methods.  One of the most rewarding ways to take the sting out of death is to make the victim so unlikeable that you’re positively gleeful when he croaks. As much fun as that is for the reader, it’s even more fun for the author. Nasty characters are a blast to write, and can also be a great opportunity to fictionally punish annoying people from your past.  Some of my favorite authors who make death funny are Laura Levine, Joan Hess, and Carl Hiaasen. Laura Levine murdered the eponymous victim of Killing Bridezilla by having her fall off a sabotaged balcony and onto the raised arrow of a Cupid sculpture.

Readers can also smirk at a victim who brings it on himself. M.C Beaton, author of the Hamish Macbeth and Agatha Raisin series, is brilliant at the he-had-it-coming death. But the one I remember best is from one of her drolly ridiculous regency romances (Susie, written as Jennie Tremaine). Right at the beginning, a lecherous older man forces the dewy heroine (all of 17 years old) into marriage. He buys a new bed in anticipation of ravishing her. The bed turns out to be so well-sprung that when he jumps on to give it a test bounce, he rebounds out the open window and falls to his death. I remember gasping at the unexpected hilarity of it. The heroine inherits everything and spends the rest of the book trying to convince the love interest that she’s not a murderess.

Of course, the actual death doesn’t have to be funny for the book to deliver laughs. Janet Evanovich is perhaps the most famous comedic mystery author writing today, and while there is often humor in the death (or the handling of the corpse), it’s her stable of regular characters – gun-toting granny, ex-hooker, and horny, hamster-owning bounty hunter – that provide the laughs. 

The biggest challenge with comedic mysteries is finding an author who shares your taste. Drama is dramatic to everyone, but what’s funny to one reader will make another grind his teeth. Because humor is so subjective, there’s a famous quote among actors and stand-up comedians: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

I’m going to leave you with a joke Tina Fey uses as an example of really “dark” humor. It also shows how laughter can be wrung from the grimmest scenario. 

A young man and his new wife are on their honeymoon when they have a car wreck. They’re taken to the hospital, where the man’s injuries are declared minor. But his wife’s are not, and she is in surgery for hours and hours. Finally the surgeon comes out, looking solemn. “We were able to save your wife’s life, but she had extensive head injuries. Your marriage is going to be very different than you envisioned. You’ll have to help her get out of bed and dress in the morning, feed her, take her to the bathroom, clean her up afterwards – basically take care of her every need.”

At the sight of the man’s stricken expression, the doctor suddenly grins and claps him on the shoulder. “I’m just kidding. She’s dead.”

Esri Allbritten is the author of Chihuahua of the Baskervilles (available in hardback and ebook, paperback available June 23), and The Portrait of Doreene Gray, available in hardback and ebook as of July 3. You can read the first few chapters of both these book on her website, EsriAllbritten.com.


  1. Visit Esri on her site for another bit of comedy:


  2. Mrs. MRM here...I had to laugh when I read your reference to Susie...I didn't remember the title, but I vividly remembered reading that scene. I devoured regency romances as a teenager/young adult! Thanks for your post!

  3. Mrs. MRM: It really sticks with you, doesn't it? The other Marion Chesney scene I always remember is from one of the Hamish Macbeth books. Hamish is at the Italian restaurant with some gal, and they notice that his dog, Lugs, is outside the window. The gal says something like, "I thought you said he was guarding the station," and Hamish glances out the window to give Lugs a dirty look, only to find he's gone. I'm not telling it well, but it was such a funny, low-key joke. I'm very influenced by Beaton. Even my main sleuth's name, Angus MacGregor, is named after one of her very minor characters.

  4. I love Hamish and wanted to name our Italian Spinone that,but was overruled. We'll see in the future ...
    Humor IS so tough to find the right balance. A lot times I think it comes from the visual you create, as when Hamish looks out the window and Lugs is gone.


Contact Form


Email *

Message *