Fri 8 Mar 2013
by Marv Lachman.
Rereading portions of the Sir Henry Merrivale series recently made me realize again how humor in the mystery has deteriorated since the days of Carr-Dickson, Craig Rice, and Alan Green. Nowadays the closest we come to humor is the first-person narrator emulating a stand-up comedian with wisecracks. Spenser, Claire Malloy, and Kinky Friedman are examples.
In the Merrivale series almost every book had a slapstick sequence that was the mystery equivalent of the Marx Brothers. Take the riot Sir Henry causes on the New York subways in A Graveyard to Let (1949).
The humor in the series is not entirely visual — e.g., the delicious confusion between the words “kleptomania” and “nymphomania” in Fatal Descent. Sure, John Rhode is listed as co-author of that 1939 book, but does anyone really think Rhode could have written those lines, even if his life depended on it?
In the same book, the unimaginative Inspector Hornbeam says regarding a corpse discovered in a double-locked “room” (a sealed elevator car within a sealed elevator shaft): “There’s a flaw somewhere. There’s got to be. Otherwise the thing’s impossible. And it’s impossible for a thing to be impossible.”