Through a Glass, Lightly:
Humor in a Dark Story
James W. Ziskin
I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series featuring a young newspaper reporter set in the early 1960s. Through seven of these books, I’ve tried to create realistic situations and characters, plausible twists and resolutions, without resorting to fantastic coincidences or feats of superhuman strength from my heroine. Even if readers are willing to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, provided the story and characters are compelling, I wanted my books to be believable and “realistic.” I wanted readers to feel they could do what Ellie Stone does in my books. She’s no Jack Reacher or V. I. Warshawski. As much as I love those characters, Ellie is nothing like them. She’s not going to beat up any bad guys or carry a gun. She’s a reporter. A damn fine one, yes, and the smartest person in the room. But she‘s barely a hair more physically imposing than Miss Marple. Her lack of brute strength and her aversion to violence were two “realistic” touches I decided to make from the very start of the series. Another was the inclusion of humor in Ellie’s first-person narration.
To be clear, there is no frivolity in my books. At least not where murder is concerned. The stories are dead serious. There are real issues at stake and no throw-away victims. If someone dies in my books, people mourn them. There is heartbreak and sorrow. Ellie herself often shares the grief that the family and friends feel for their lost loved ones and uses that grief as inspiration for finding the killer. Empathy, in fact, is one of her strongest traits. She takes the time to care for the unfortunate and forgotten souls throughout the series. From a haunted Holocaust survivor driving the F Train in STYX & STONE, to a bullied gay man in CAST THE FIRST STONE, to the beautiful but hopelessly inept and antisocial racehorse, Purgatorio, in A STONE’S THROW, Ellie shows compassion for the misfits and victims others choose to ignore.
But this piece is about humor in a dark story. And that’s where Ellie’s wicked wit and idiosyncratic vision of the world come into play. Ellie narrates her own stories, giving me the chance to reveal something of her character in virtually every word she uses.
Humor is a well-known coping mechanism for tragedy. Even dark humor. We’ve all heard the “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” jokes. I like humor in a grim story. A balance of tragedy and comedy. It makes things more realistic and compelling. And while Ellie never uses her sense of humor to mock innocents, she can cut a boorish man down to size in a trice with her wit, giving readers a chance to smile, even in the middle of a tragic or dramatic scene. It’s fun and provides a brief moment of respite. A chance to draw a breath and fortify our resolve to go on.
“I see. And my second question is, why do you care?”
“I don’t,” he said with his sinister smile. “At least not too much. She wasn’t the nicest girl I ever met. Plenty pretty back then, but surly-like and greedy. Wasn’t going to win any Miss Congenitalia contests. Too bad for her, but life goes on.”
I thought Jimmy should return his grade-school diploma—if ever he’d managed to cheat his way to one—with apologies for the offense given to his school.
In the seventh Ellie Stone mystery, TURN TO STONE, it’s September of 1963, and Ellie is in Florence, Italy, to attend an academic symposium honoring her late father. But just as she arrives on the banks of the Arno, she learns that her host, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, has been fished out of the river, quite dead. Then a suspected rubella outbreak leaves ten of the symposium participants quarantined in villa outside the city with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales and gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine. And as they do, long-buried secrets about Bondinelli rise to the surface, and Ellie must figure out if one or more of her companions is capable of murder.
In the opening scene of TURN TO STONE, Ellie describes the man sitting next to her on her transatlantic flight to Rome. He’s not an important character in the story. His presence is mentioned only to tell us how Ellie views him. And that tells the reader a lot about her.
Moments later, I boarded a gleaming Pan Am 707, destination Rome, and found my seat next to a ruddy-faced businessman in a tight-fitting seersucker suit. He introduced himself—Harvey Turner of Portland, Maine—and, squeezing my hand in his death grip, nearly crushed four of my favorite fingers and three perfectly fine knuckles. With growing dread, I soon realized that my chatty neighbor intended to chew my ear off for the next nine hours whether I liked it or not.
Once we were airborne, he puffed away on a cigarette, going on about himself and chuckling at his own wit. My attention strayed. I wondered where middle-aged men got their wealth of confidence with young women. Surely not from the mirror. Still, I had to be polite, listen to his golf jokes, and endure his accolades of my beauty, which—apparently— grew more bewitching with each cocktail he consumed. At length, the Old Fashioneds worked their magic and, head back and mouth open wide, he commenced to snore louder than the four jet engines roaring outside the window.
Insufferable men— especially the ones who make unwanted passes at her—are Ellie’s favorite targets. In fact, she often zeroes in on the one feature that paints the picture not only of the subject’s appearance but his personality as well.
Franco Sannino wasn’t quite charming. Nor was he self-conscious, despite speaking English—as the French would say—like a Spanish cow. Switching to Italian, he described his field of study, which seemed so utterly arcane and tedious that I wanted to stick a knife in my ear, just to see if bleeding would make the droning stop.
“That sounds fascinating,” I said.
As in real life, my books feature the occasional pratfall or half-gainer down a flight of stairs. These things happen and they make us laugh. With humor, restraint is key. Too much or too broad can break the spell of suspense and leave readers confused. Is this a thriller or P. G. Wodehouse novel? Sue Grafton walked this line masterfully, doling out the perfect mix of humor and drama in her alphabet series.
But obnoxious men aren’t the only subjects worthy of Ellie’s ridicule.
Veronica slept through the night. I can attest to that since she snored like a well-fed porker from the time I retired at about two a.m. till the cock crowed outside our open window at 5:43 sharp. Lying there in my hard bed, puffy-eyed and dry-mouthed, I swore I would convince Berenice to take an ax to that damn rooster’s neck and serve his remains for dinner that evening, burnt to a crisp if possible.
Holding a pillow over my head didn’t do much to dampen Veronica’s snoring. It might have done more good had I squashed it over her face for about three minutes instead.
Humor needn’t be broad or camp to break the tension. It can be gentle and melancholy, making a sad moment more poignant and powerful.
“He never told me the story of how he rediscovered the Lord,” said the priest, bringing the eulogy of his friend to a close. “He insisted that it should remain between him and God. I reminded him that he was a Catholic, not a Lutheran, and it was only proper that he should share the story with his confessor.”
The crowd managed a low chuckle despite their tears. I, too, felt a tightness in my throat and had to dab my eyes. Padre Fabrizio folded the paper he’d been consulting and mopped his brow again. Then he recited a prayer in Latin and offered encouraging parting words for the success of the symposium.
Why put a few laughs in a dark tale? Because these dashes of humor imitate life and, therefore, create a sense of realism. Well-placed comedic moments also help develop clearer portraits of characters, including first-person narrators. Furthermore, the odd chuckle can ease readers’ anxiety, setting the stage for the author to ratchet up the tension again, sometimes in unexpected ways. And in a mystery or thriller, that’s gold for the writer.
The above quotes are from TURN TO STONE, OUT NOW!
About the Author
James W. Ziskin, Jim to his friends, is the author of the seven Ellie Stone mysteries. His books have been finalists for the Edgar, Anthony, Barry, Lefty, and Macavity awards. His fourth book, Heart of Stone, won the 2017 Anthony for Best Paperback Original and the 2017 Macavity (Sue Feder Memorial) award for Best Historical Mystery. He’s published short stories in various anthologies and in The Strand Magazine. Before he turned to writing, he worked in New York as a photo-news producer and writer, and then as director of NYU’s Casa Italiana. He spent fifteen years in the Hollywood postproduction industry, running large international operations in the subtitling and visual effects fields. His international experience includes two years working and studying in France, extensive time in Italy, and more than three years in India. He speaks Italian and French. Jim can be reached through his website www.jameswziskin.com or on Twitter @jameswziskin.