Writing Mystery and Suspense with Humor
I believe that introducing humor into a mystery helps to heighten the effect of the scary, suspenseful or baffling parts of the story. Humor helps ground the plot in normalcy. I don't think a steady diet of cliff hanger suspense for three hundred pages is believable, because it runs counter to real life. Besides, it's exhausting to read. I like to place a funny chapter right after an intense, life and death chapter for the comic relief, and the space it gives the reader to 'exhale' and process what just happened. I also like to lull the reader into a sense of cozy security, and then BAM, drop in another unexpected twist or suspenseful event. To some, this must seem like plotting on a seesaw, but it works for me.
What is it about me that makes me want to write this way? I know part of this started in journalism school. To be a good reporter, you have to learn to be detached and to observe very keenly what is going on around you. So, when I would go on assignment and start observing, I noticed a lot of what I saw was funny. Ala Art Linkletter, people, not only say, but DO the darnedest things. If they are pursuing an important goal, they will go to absurd lengths to achieve it. Or if they are avoiding something, or, better yet, someone, they'll do really silly things to duck, hide or escape. Forgetabout Elvis. I believe that Kafka is not only very much alive, he is 'in the building.'
Sure, life isn't a succession of one liners. Tragedy is around every corner. Pain and sadness stalk each and every one of us. But the great thing about being human is our ability to joke about our dilemmas, even when we are still in the swamp with the alligators. It's how we cope. How we make it through the dark rooms in our lives.
We can find the humor in anything. We have to. A recent case in point is airport security. At the core of this problem are two very serious themes -- safety and privacy, but while we continue to debate these matters, we light up the internet with TSA jokes. Speaking of TSA, I share with Kafka a love of poking fun at bureaucracy. I think bureaucracies offer writers endless opportunities for rib-splitting humor, a good thing, because we have a lot of bureaucracy in our lives right now and more on the way. Think what Paddy Chayefsky (who wrote The Hospital) could have done with Obamacare!
I also think people take themselves too seriously at times. This happens to characters too. It is the duty of the writer to take them down a peg every once in a while. After all, who is supposed to be in control? Humor is a great leveler. Humor is democratic. It leaves banana peels for the humble and the mighty. The lofty politician and the street sweeper. The wealthy CEO and the dirt farmer. In my mystery, A POINTED DEATH, the main character, Nola Billingsley, is a brainy gal with multiple advanced degrees, but this does not protect her from making a fool of herself, through absentmindness, snap assumptions and poor choices. Hey, we've all been there, right? For example, in chapter... Wait a minute, I think you need to read the book and find out for yourself.
About the author ~
Kath Russell enjoyed over thirty-five years in marketing and communications management in the biotechnology industry. She was an executive with one of the first genetic engineering companies. Russell also was president of Russell-Welsh Strategic Life Science Communications, Inc., and founder and chief executive officer of an ecommerce company offering services for mature companion animals and veterinarians. Russell received her bachelor’s degree from Northwestern University, her master’s degree in journalism from Boston University, her master’s of business administration from the Kellogg School of Management, and earned her certificate in creative writing from the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Visit Kath's website - The Pointer Mysteries
Visit her blog
Email her ~ kath AT pointermysteries DOT com
The book ~
Welcome to the world of Nola Billingsley, a 40-something biotechnology whiz with an adored shorthaired pointer, who finds herself embroiled in both a nefarious murder and a blazingly hot new romance in the thriller A Pointed Death, by Kath Russell. When techno genius Nola Billingsley finds her former employee, an amoral creep who stole secrets, murdered, she doesn’t exactly shed tears. Instead, she begins a flirtation with the inspector assigned to the case. With her shorthaired pointer Skootch watching her back, Nola and her group of techno pals try to help solve the murder, bringing into play Nola’s feisty feminism and idealism, and putting both her life and her love affair at risk. Finding a link between the Chinese government and American thieves, she bands with a group who believes that biotech people should protect their industry from any evil abusers. Could there be a government plot afoot, and can she save the world even as she tries to salvage her love life?
Read an excerpt ~
The beefy hand of the liquidator, lifeline clogged with grease, sliced the air like a rattlesnake’s head. I covered the hovering palm with twenties. Don London had auctioned the assets of my failed dot-com and was delivering the remaining equipment I could not sell, because it was leased, and I would have to pay it off, into the garage of my San Francisco home. New businesses are supposed to start in California garages, not end in them.
Don’s crew rolled the last piece of equipment into the garage. The copy machine looked expensive and out of place sandwiched between my treadmill and the recycling bins.
“Better luck next time, Nola.” Don hefted his corpulent frame into the driver’s seat of his truck.
“Don’t wish me luck, wish me venture capital.”
“You entrepreneurs are a persistent breed.” He slammed the driver’s side door.
“Persistent or plain stupid!” My shout startled an umbrellatoting woman walking her poodle down the sidewalk of our
peaceful, manicured block. Hell, there you go disrupting things, Nola Billingsley. You can never leave well enough alone. A rambunctious, independent woman who has to have the last word.
As Don’s truck pulled away, I turned and surveyed the stacked equipment. Over the copy machine, suspended from a
redwood rafter, an artificial Christmas wreath drooped. All it needed was a rest-in-peace sash to become a memorial tribute
for my defunct start-up. I owed $13,500 more on this collating colossus. Our dot-com’s accountant had negotiated the lease in
one of his last official acts before absconding with a sizable chunk of my capital. What a depressing end for an entrepreneur. I
made my way along the narrow aisle that remained of my garage toward the kitchen and the scotch bottle. The next morning, as I sat down to yogurt and coffee, I realized I had no place to go. My former offices, the scene of much pain and frustration as the business lurched toward collapse, were at least a destination. I looked across the table at my mother. Crap, you’re a forty-eight-year-old woman with no visible means of support living with your mother. How low can you go?
Turning from the blaring television, Janie Belle read my thoughts. “You should reopen your consulting business. Why don’t you call up some of your old biology contacts?”
“That’s biotechnology, Mother. I plan to, but I have to tie up loose ends on the cyber-business.”
My mother is a vibrant eighty years young. She has survived depressions, wars, hurricanes, miscarriages and cancer. She is
a displaced Southern girl who wields her accent like a passport. Everywhere she goes, she brings a moving van chock full of
eighteenth-century furniture, china, crystal, and family portraits. The gilt-framed, manor-born ancestors were all here on
the Left Coast, hanging on the living room walls, mildewing genteelly in the California damp.
She lifted her coffee cup, pinkie curled. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Not unless you change your mind and learn the computer.”
“Absolutely not! I am not going to start that at my age.”
Janie Belle has mastered many things: needlework, stenciling, gourmet cooking, Girl Scout leading, duplicate bridge,
gardening, even chicken farming. She also has conquered things technological. She handles the digital gadgets in the car with
skill, channel-surfs with the cable remote, gabs on the cell phone, and nukes with the microwave, but she will NOT go
near a computer.
I got Janie Belle an e-mail address once. I would come home to a cheery drawl, “Have I got maaail?” I printed messages off
for her, and she answered them with handwritten letters on monogrammed stationery. She is complete, resolute, and content
in a way modern women, especially we boomer women, can never be.
At this moment, the love of my life thundered into the room. Skootch E. Hurry is a pointer dog. I wish I could be more
specific as to the exact breed of pointer he is, but we met at the SPCA and his lineage is a mystery. The “E.” does not stand for
anything; it is just that the dog has such presence, he deserves a middle initial.
At the pound, Skootch attracted my attention by wagging his tail against the cage so hard it bled. I took pity and brought
him home. He is a spoiled, undisciplined, overweight slob, and the dearest creature on the planet. Janie Belle insists he dipped
the tip in catsup. She says he is a con artist in dog’s clothing. They are tight as shrink-wrap. Skootch sauntered up to the kitchen table with a selfdeprecating sway. This is a prelude to the Lunge. Eighty-pound Skootch, who fancies himself a lap dog, drapes his upper torso across your lap to get a better view of your breakfast plate. He spied my yogurt and harrumphed in distaste.
“Nola, why don’t you take that mangy dog for a walk. He’s so fat you can’t see any of his ribs, and his privates are disappearing
in his tummy roll.”
Skootch left my lap for the greener pastures of Janie Belle’s side of the table. Janie Belle continued, “It’s your fault the canine
is corpulent, you spoil him nonstop.” The Lunge was repeated. Skootch’s head lowered into position over her half-eaten breakfast. His tongue made fast work of the left side of the plate. Janie Belle executed an ineffectual shove. “He must be
twenty pounds overweight. How you can look the vet in the face?” The tongue swirled around the right side of the plate, a
movement as elegant as Renoir’s brushwork. Skootch aimed a wistful gaze at the butter dish. His neck extended outward in
its direction. The spunky eighty-year-old smacked him on the nose and pushed him off her lap. “That’s enough! Y’all should be ashamed of yourself.”