. . . by Karna Small Bodman
We Rogues write thrillers and mysteries where we often see our novels described as tense, gripping, and explosive, with plots featuring spies, secrets and suspense. But do they — or should they — include a bit of humor (for “comic relief” perhaps)? When I read the previous terrific post by our Rogue August Thomas where she described traveling in Scotland and having to allow time for sheep to cross the roads, it reminded me of a scene in my new thriller, Trust but Verify.
Much of the action takes place in Jackson Hole where we had a summer home for many years and where I had the inspiration for the story. I wanted to write about a team of Russian oligarchs and mafia types who create a plot that targets a conference of international financial leaders — a meeting that does take place every year there at the Jackson Lake Lodge. When I asked a hotel employee how long it would take to drive from town to the Lodge, I was told, “It all depends on the moose breaks.” Huh?
I soon learned that just as August experienced in Scotland, to do my research and scope out the area, I had to deal with traffic jams due to the many moose who decide to hang out on the roadways. Of course, I had to include that tidbit in the story. Then I decided to include other “features” of life in Jackson. In the story my heroine is scheduled to fly from The White House to Jackson (where she later becomes a target of those same Russians), and I couldn’t resist creating a scene where her staff is briefing her on the upcoming trip.
Her assistant says, “Besides the usual hiking and raft trips, they’ve got a bungee trampoline, a marching band at the Pink Garter Theatre, a hootenanny and a fair that includes pig wrestling and Arapahoe dancers.” (All true). She goes on to say, “I think you have to watch out for the bears though. The Grand Teton National Park Foundation produced a video about how to tell the difference between a black bear and a grizzly.” (Also true).
“You’re really supposed to stand there and analyze the difference?” her deputy asks.
The assistant consults her notes. “Here’s what you’re supposed to do. Take your bear spray, and if you’ve got a grizzly in front of you, spray it for six seconds.”
The deputy responds, “Wouldn’t it be better to use those six seconds to run away?”
At this point my heroine shakes her head and says, “Are you two finished?”
As for injecting humorous dialogue into thrillers, it turns out that some of the most popular and best-reviewed thrillers certainly have relied on humor at times. Remember the great story written
back in the 90’s by Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana? It features Mr. Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman who becomes a spy to earn extra income. One reviewer wrote, “This crisply written novel will drag you down with unbearable tension, while at the same time make you giggle with its satirical parodies and absurd plot. A masterpiece!”
Another one that was also written decades ago was Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File.
In fact this great Cold War spy thriller is said to have “set the standards for the genre. Highly unusual, with a shrewd sense of humor.” The classic novel has a protagonist who, at first, is a nameless spy, but later is dubbed Harry Palmer when made into a feature film starring the talented actor, Michael Caine.
Here’s another example of a mystery where the author, Ed McBain, (who was a script writer for Hitchcock’s The Birds)
creates not only great tension but such a humorous plot, it’s easy to see how this particular writer is often called “the inventor of the genre.” The novel is King’s Ransom
. The story is about ruthless thugs who try to kidnap the son of a rich tycoon (shades of our own Rogue, K.J. Howe’s quite serious thrillers about kidnapping), but these ‘bad guys” mistakenly take the son of his chauffeur. You could call this one a wise-cracking police procedural.
Finally, an author who is an absolute master when it comes to humor, is friend and neighbor (in Naples, FL) Janet Evanovich. While not a thriller writer, per se, she does create what we might describe as “adventures” featuring a heroine, Stepanie Plum, the Jersey girl who works as a “bond enforcement agent” for cousin Vinnie’s Bail
Bond operation. Her job is to go after crooks who jump bail. She works with detectives and members of the local police force — men with jobs that are often featured in mysteries and thrillers.
Yet, Janet also creates characters that make you laugh out loud midst the chase scenes…characters like Stephanie’s Grandma Mazur who goes to funerals of people she doesn’t even know because she likes the cookies, or an uncle who talks to door knobs. Now, the 25th book in the Plum series, Look Alive Twenty-five, will be out in just a few weeks, and I can’t wait to take a break from tension and indulge in what I know will be a very funny tale.
Now a question: do you want your thrillers to stick to suspense, spies and secrets, or do you like authors to lighten it up occasion? If it’s the latter, what books have you read that interject humor into a traditional thriller format? Leave a comment below, or on our Facebook page (the icon is at the upper left of this Rogue page). And thanks for visiting us here at Rogue Women Writers.
. . . Karna Small Bodman