Kathleen here, and I’m so pleased and honored to welcome Gabriel Valjan today. Gabriel is not only a wonderful, Agatha (and other!) award-nominated author, but also one of the biggest champions of the writing and reading community, continually promoting, encouraging, and cheering on his crime fiction brethren. But enough fan-girling from me. Let’s get into what Gabriel has to say about comedy and crime.
Crimes are horrific deeds done by terrible people. While we can admire a genius criminal mind, we root for the PI or for law enforcement to lock up the bad guy. Justice served is as ancient as it is tribal. Crime fiction takes readers into the darker frontier of human behavior.
Call it gallows humor or a perverse sense of humor, readers need to laugh, and there are crime writers who have given us laughs around the chalked outline. Spend time with Rachel Howzell Hall’s Elouise “Lou” Norton, Elmore Leonard’s Chili Palmer, Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder, Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, or resident Chick on the Case Kellye Garrett’s Dayna Anderson, and you’re sure to laugh while the crime scene is being processed.
The old Hollywood canard (usually attributed to comedian Steve Allen) says, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Let’s face it: we’ve all laughed at things we shouldn’t have. The annual Darwin Awards provides laughs and often includes fatal acts of stupidity. Laughter, in my opinion, is a defense mechanism. Something has to give in all the darkness. Writing a comedic scene does require special writing chops. Timing is as important as the punchline or the prop. Humor has to be neutral, and what I mean by that is that it has to be something everyone finds funny and relatable. Here are two samples from my own writing (selected by my readers):
Item 1. The Naming Game, book two in the Company Files series (Winter Goose Publishing, 2019). Vera is a Hollywood actress, whom the industry considers a has-been because of her age. Leslie is undercover as Maggie, a secretary to a shrink named Phillip. She works for the newly-formed CIA, and she’s part of an investigation into the murder of a screenwriter, who expedited scripts between studios and blacklisted writers in 1951 Los Angeles. Here, Leslie as Maggie is acting as Vera’s insecure protégée. Disclosure: The Naming Game was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery.
“I’m not trying to down you or tell you what to do, Maggie. You’re your own woman. Do what you want. You’re young and you’re holding the deck of cards. Take it from me, you’re holding aces.”
“You’re not exactly retired.”
The coffee was ready and Vera poured.
“I might not be Miss Haversham, but I didn’t marry a Thalberg to secure my future.”
“You seem to do just fine.”
“All I’m saying, Maggie, is use men before they use you. Men talk. Learn to listen. Phillip is a talker. He doesn’t seem like it now, but he’ll talk. He’s just a little shy boy. Mother him a little. The problem right now is you intimidate him.”
“I intimidate him?”
“Honey, you haven’t seen his other secretaries.”
“You think Phillip will open up more?”
“I do. Give it time. But be ready to be disappointed.”
“Yep.” Vera stopped for a sip. Leslie did the same. The coffee was strong.
“Phillip is like the winter weather report. You hear all the hype in the forecast. When the storm happens, all you get is a few inches that’ll leave you wondering if it was worth all the publicity.”
Item 2. Dirty Old Town: A Shane Cleary Mystery (Level Best Books, 2020). The mystery series is set in Seventies Boston. Shane is broke, a PI, and on the outs with the police department. He has a cat named Delilah, who often acts as his conscience.
I needed coffee better than the Folgers Instant in my office. Delilah insisted on lap time, which made a review of the photostats difficult. She kneaded my upper thigh. The way her eyes squinted and opened wide and her claws hooked into me said she had sensed another woman. “It’s not what you think,” I told her.
Funny is hard to explain, and dissecting humor often kills it. Comedy, for me, always reveals truths about Time, Place, and Character. In these two examples, I think what makes the two scenes amusing is that talking about sex can be funny, and people do talk to their pets because they are family members and our nonjudgmental companions. Well…maybe not cats, especially not Delilah.
When he isn’t appeasing Munchkin, his cat, with tuna, Gabriel Valjan enjoys the restaurants in Boston’s South End. Nominated for an Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery for The Naming Game, he has been a finalist for the Fish Prize, shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and received an Honorable Mention for the Nero Wolfe Black Orchid Novella Contest in 2018. Gabriel is the author of two series, Roma and Company Files, with Winter Goose Publishing. Dirty Old Town is the first in the Shane Cleary series for Level Best Books. Gabriel is a lifetime member of Sisters in Crime.