Humor in Thrillers

by | Oct 14, 2018 | Karna Small Bodman | 6 comments

. . . 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

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Robin Burcell

    Great question, Karna. I adore humor in books. If it makes me laugh out loud, even more so. The biggest problem is that humor is subjective. What one person finds funny, another doesn't. But I think everyone can appreciate the light moments in a tense thriller. And as for Evanovich, I adore her books! She's the one who got me started writing mysteries. The very first one I ever attempted was much like Stephanie Plum (except west coast, and works for a police department. Or did, but lost her job.) Unfortunately (or fortunately, for everyone who doesn't get my brand of humor), I never finished the book as I sold Every Move She Makes, and ended up turning that into a series, because contract in the hand is worth more than the unfinished book on the computer! (Coincidentally, Janet Evanovich gave me a quote for EMSM, so I was very happy!)

  2. Lisa Black

    I think it's always vital to have amusing spots in your books, if for no other reason than to show your protagonist has a sense of humor (vital if we're going to get into their corner!).
    And I think I know the answer to the deputy's question–the bear will associate running with prey, so it isn't better to spend that six seconds running!

  3. Gayle Lynds

    I love humor in thrillers. Usually it's dry, witty, and often dark. But then what else can one say when the world is crashing down around one's ears, and all seems lost!

  4. Anonymous

    I do like a bit of humor and try to inject it in the death penalty cases I write about because in real life, funny shit happens when you have a murder case on your desk! Laurie Hernandez

  5. Chris Goff

    The story about the bears made me laugh. When I was in Alaska with my daughter, teaching on Kodiak Island (known for its grizzlies–though to be fair, it was winter when we were there). Residents informed us that in the summer all visitors were advised to take special precautions to avoid bear encounters. Hikers were advised to wear little bells on their clothes. That way the bears could hear them coming from a distance and wouldn't be startled, which might cause the bear to charge. Hikers were also advised to carry pepper spray, just in case a bear is encountered. Spraying the pepper into the air irritates a bear's sensitive nose, causing it to run away. It is also recommended for hikers keep an eye out for fresh bear scat. That way, they would know if any bears were in the area. Of course, one had to be able to recognize the difference between black bear and grizzly bear scat. Then came the punchline: Black bear droppings are smaller and often contain berries, leaves and possibly bits of fur. Grizzly bear droppings tend to contain small bells and smell of pepper.

  6. Jamie Freveletti

    Hi Karna! I like a little humor in thrillers as well. Sometimes they can have characters that are too "earnest" and that can make them seem one dimensional. Humor helps. I, too, saw plenty of moose in Jackson and so this post reminded me of the great time I had there!