So, there’s this guy Euphiletos who’s up on a charge because he’s killed a bloke called Eratosthenes. (None of your simple names like Tom or Dick in ancient Greece, but let’s call them Euphie and Eratie.)
Euphie’s beef was that Eratie was having it away with his wife. Euphie knows the only way he can get off the charge is if he makes the killing seem like a bit of giggle. If everyone is laughing, they’ll let him go.
So Euphie spins a tale that puts a smile on his accusers’ face. He explains how Eratie first got the hots for his wife at his mother-in-law’s funeral. She was even making a bloody nuisance of herself while lying in her coffin.
Euphie decides a bit of self-deprecation is the order of the day. He makes himself look like a bumbling old cuckold. It’ll take a bit of living down, but infinitely better than being dead. He gets everyone chuckling about how a slave girl helped Eratie and his wife get it together under his very nose.
Everyone’s beside themselves as he describes how practically the whole street knew about the affair, apart from himself. They’re falling off their chairs as he tells how an old woman he’d never met before tipped him the wink about the affair. And in the end Euphiletos talks himself out of trouble.
So what were they all laughing at? Murder isn’t supposed to be funny.
The ancient Greek story shows that, in books at least, there’s nothing new when it comes to people having a good laugh about murder. But that doesn’t necessarily make the job of writing comic crime mysteries any easier, as I discovered when I started the Crampton of the Chronicle series. For a start, a comic crime mystery is going to fall very firmly as the cosy end of the spectrum. No dark gritty Scandi noir here, thank you very much.
The humour comes from three main sources – the characters, the locations, and the plot.
The characters have to be that little bit larger life – but not so cartoon-like that they seem unreal. My main character is Colin Crampton, a crime reporter on an evening newspaper in 1960s Brighton. In the tradition of hard-boiled crime fiction, Colin is a wisecracking protagonist. (In fact, one critic described my combination of character and plot as “soft boiled”. I think it was intended as a compliment!)
In a comic crime mystery, both the good guys and the bad guys have to be partly normal, partly quirky. They have to be real people but with features that make them stand out from the crowd – like news editor Frank Figgis’ addiction to Woodbines.
Location also provides some comic opportunities, especially when Colin finds himself in a tight spot. He’s faced down the bad guys in places such as a cross-channel ferry in a storm, a ghost train, and a chicken barn. Get the location right and it’s possible to write a scene which squares the circle between the suspenseful and the humorous.
Finally, plot. As with any crime mystery, it has to move along. But in a comic mystery, I’m constantly looking for ways in which an amusing incident can advance the story. In one of the books, a performing poodle plays a key role in how events turn out. In another, bed bugs persuade Colin to sleep elsewhere – which saves his life. Even the murder weapon can provide some comic opportunities. One victim gets bludgeoned with a coconut.
But in the cosy tradition, a comic crime mystery doesn’t dwell for too long – or sometimes at all – on the blood and gore. You won’t find any lengthy descriptions of eviscerated corpses in the Crampton books. That’s because millions of murder mystery readers enjoy the chance to unravel a baffling mystery rather than revel in a brutal murder.
And if they can have a laugh as well – why not?
About Peter Bartram
Peter Bartram brings years of experience as a journalist to his Crampton of the Chronicle crime series – which features crime reporter Colin Crampton in 1960s Brighton.
Peter has done most things in journalism from door-stepping for quotes to writing serious editorials. He’s interviewed cabinet ministers and crooks – at least the crooks usually answer the questions, he says.
He’s pursued stories in locations as diverse as 700 feet down a coal mine and a courtier’s chambers at Buckingham Palace. (The former is easier to get into but at least you don’t have to wear a hat with a lamp on it in the latter.)
Peter wrote 21 non-fiction books, including five ghost-written, in areas such as biography, current affairs and how-to titles, before turning to crime – and penning Headline Murder, the first novel in the Crampton series. As an appetiser for the main course, there is a selection of Crampton of the Chronicle short stories at www.colincrampton.com. Peter is a member of the Society of Authors and the Crime Writers’ Association.
A Crampton of the Chronicle adventure
The mother of all murder mysteries…
There are just four days to Mother's Day and crime reporter Colin Crampton is under pressure to find a front-page story to fit the theme. Then Colin and his feisty girlfriend Shirley Goldsmith stumble across a body late at night on a lonely country road.
Colin scents a story when the cops dismiss the idea of murder. Colin and Shirley flirt with danger as they investigate the killing. They take on a crazy hippie commune, an eccentric group of church bell-ringers, and a chemistry teacher with an unusual late-night hobby.
And that's before they tangle with the mothers… Colin’s landlady has been thrown out of the Mothers’ Union. And Shirley’s mum has gone missing – in a town where a serial killer is on the prowl. Join Colin and Shirley for a madcap Mother's Day mystery in Swinging Sixties England, where the laughs are never far from the action.