by David L. Vineyard

   A funny thing happened on the way to the post …

   Most of you have had your own ISP nightmares so I won’t bore you with mine, but because of the down time between your comments on my Fifty Funny Felonies and my getting back to it, Steve suggested I do a post rather than bury my comments at the end of the original.

   First, I’m gratified with the responses, and the only thing I would point out to any of you is that I warned from the start my choices were subjective and favorites instead of bests. Almost every name everyone mentioned could easily have been on the list, and in some cases nearly were.

   In the end I tended to go with some more offbeat choices and a few certainly more eclectic ones, but only because if you don’t, these lists can easily end up nothing more than a rehash of the same titles; a bit like those AFI 100 Best specials that always end up with Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and The Wizard of Oz in some variation of the top five films.

   Among the writers I was surprised no one brought up were Michael Bond of the Monsieur Pamplemouse books, Robert Barr’s Eugene Valmont stories, Agatha Christie (in Tommy and Tuppence mode), Michael Avallone (who granted was sometimes unintentionally funny — at least I think it was unintentional), and Damon Runyon.

   As Steve pointed out in one of his comments these could easily run to five hundred titles in short order.

   There was one deliberate omission on my part. And please be gentle — but I just don’t like Ross H. Spenser that much. I found it a one joke gimmick that was amusing one time, and after that the books more annoying than clever. Again that is a subjective judgment.

   I didn’t find him.

   That funny.


   I probably would have included Robert Barnard, Simon Brett, Colin Watson, or Sarah Cauldwell, but it has been a long time since I read them, and they just weren’t fresh in my mind. As it is I have no excuse for leaving off some of Michael Gilbert, Peter Dickinson, certainly John Mortimer, Jasper fforde, Liz Evans (I even reviewed one of her books), or some of the others. As I said, at different times I might have gone with some different writers.

   In regard to Geoffrey Household, since his favorite form of novel is the picaresque (a la Don Quixote, Candide) and at least one of his short stories was filmed as the delightful British comedy Brandy For the Parson (1952) I was surprised there was any question about including him.

   Many of his short stories (and he did at least four collections of them) are humorous, and there are humorous elements in many of his books. Granted there aren’t a lot of laughs in Rogue Male, Watcher in The Shadows, or Dance of the Dwarfs, but Fellow Passenger, Olura, and The Life and Times of Bernardo Brown are all picaresque tales and there is some rather black humor in A Rough Shoot, A Time to Kill, and The Courtesy of Death.

   Victor Canning and Eric Ambler aren’t generally laugh riots either, but both wrote some comic works. Graham Greene is one of the few writers who was ever tragic and comic at the same time in the same book.

   I was a little surprised no one questioned my choice of Allingham’s Sweet Danger, so I’ll defend it anyway. The opening sequences in the French hotel are as good as anything in a classical farce. That’s the whole defense.

   So there.

   Re Edmund Crispin and why Love Lies Bleeding, I grant it is not as farcical as some of the others, but it is my favorite because it includes one of the great dogs in the literature, a creation of Falstaffian complexity, whose passing may be one of the rare times in any kind of fiction you will be laughing and crying at the same time.

   I grant The Blind Barber is funnier than Arabian Nights, I just happen to like the latter and think it gets less attention than it deserves. If nothing else it is worth reading just to see Carr’s portrait of what he considers a sexpot.

   For that matter a few of the Carter Dickson are probably bigger belly laughs than any of the Fell novels. Sir Henry Merrivale’s summation to the jury in The Judas Window is one of the high points of Carr-ian humor.

   I seriously debated 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, so count yourselves lucky.

   In regard to Jonathan Latimer I don’t disagree with Curt’s points about the necrophilia, sexism, and racist language in Lady in the Morgue, but much of that went part and parcel with the whole screwball school of the hard boiled mystery and many of its proponents like Richard Sale, Norbert Davis, Geoffrey Homes, Cleve Adams (at least in the Rex McBride books), Robert Reeves, Dwight Babcock, and Robert Leslie Bellem worked similar territory.

   Since Latimer didn’t have to deal with pulp prudery he went farther than most and pushed the boundaries, but it’s honest writing, it feels real and not contrived, and “readers were supposed to be shocked.”

   I know that may seem far removed from today’s market where almost nothing is shocking any more (Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho — a black comedy most took seriously — is a rare exception), but once upon a time there were writers who dared to dare us — to shock, titillate, and even challenge us — and Latimer was one of the best, and did within the framework of some first class detective work too.

   I would only point out that Curt’s reaction was exactly what Latimer wanted much as Chandler would use a rough rather black and grim humor to color his stories and novels. Both writers wanted the reader to notice “the tarantula on the angel food cake.” It’s a very American tradition that goes back to Washington Irving and Poe and is notable in Mark Twain. In some ways it is the American literary voice.

   Again, thanks to everyone for the intelligent and cogent comments and additions. The comic mystery too often gets short shrift in the histories of the genre, as if somehow producing genuine laughs and good detection was simple or easy, and I’ve never understood why. It’s far easier to be grim than amusing, and much simpler to perplex a reader than to make him laugh. These responses show that some of us appreciate the effort.

   And on a personal note I find, that while I still appreciate the thrills, puzzles, and scares, the older I get the more I appreciate the ones that made me smile, laugh, or just chuckle in recognition.