There is nothing inherently funny about being shot with a revolver at close range. Or stabbed with a knife in a back alley. Or being beaten to death by a blunt instrument. So how is it that murder can be funny?
It's a question I puzzled over quite a bit when I started to write the Crampton of the Chronicle series of humorous crime mysteries. There is a long tradition in literature of mixing dark deeds with comedy. Think Macbeth, where Shakespeare writes the hilarious scene with the drunken gate porter immediately after Duncan's murder.
But the question I had to answer was how to create a humorous crime series in the modern world. I was encouraged by the fact that other writers have done it with considerable élan. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum is a brilliant comic creation.
I read lots of humorous crime mysteries and it seemed to me that the key to making murder a laughing matter laid in creating the central character. I realised I needed a protagonist who could solve mysteries - and win smiles.
But my hero could not be a mere clown. He had to be serious at the core but humorous in voice and manner. Karl Marx on the inside, Groucho Marx on the outside.
I was also struck by the fact that quite a high percentage of humorous crime mysteries are narrated in the first person. That is important because the first person gives the author the opportunity to let the central character tell his own story. The classic example of this, of course, is Raymond Chandler's hero Philip Marlowe.
The voice of the protagonist is the key to humorous crime fiction. It is the voice of the hero - essentially his inner perception of the events taking place around him - which either lightens or darkens the tone. The voice needs to be a unique way of seeing the world.
And that voice may set a whole range of tones - cynical, sardonic, flippant, sarcastic, resigned, angry, and many others. The voice of the hero should give the reader a humorous take on a mundane event - like a job interview. “I was calling on four million dollars,” says Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
Someone said that comic characters see the world through the wrong end of the telescope. It’s their different view - so unexpected we’ve not considered it before - which creates the humour.
Colin Crampton, my hero in Stop Press Murder is a crime reporter on a Brighton evening newspaper. As a journalist myself, I’ve spent a good few years working with other journos. There are some who could “make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window” (Chandler again) and others who never seem to catch a waiter’s eye. So it’s a milieu which offers plenty of opportunities for fun.
But Crampton’s humour also comes from a flaw in his character. He battles against odds to fight for justice - but he’s a master at pulling outrageous newspaper scams to get his stories. He reaches high, but acts low. He’s a knight in armour with a rusty sword.
Comic crime fiction, in one sense, is a sub-category of the traditional cozy mystery. It's important to ensure the reader never gets close enough to be splattered with the blood or smell the rotting corpse. In the Crampton series, Colin's investigations become something of a romp which he tackles with a cast of colourful characters - aided and abetted by his feisty on-off girlfriend, Shirley Goldsmith.
Since I started writing these books, I've been very encouraged by messages from readers who've enjoyed a lighter mystery than, for example, the gritty and often gruesome "Nordic noir".
But I've also learnt one important lesson about humorous crime fiction. No matter what difficulties Colin Crampton encounters, he must always have the last laugh.
Stop Press Murder: a Crampton of the Chronicle Mystery is published by Roundfire Books.
There is also a free Crampton taster novella - Murder in Capital Letters - available to download at www.colincrampton.com.