The British have always been good at black humour. An older friend told me that when she was a little girl in WW2, there was a litter bin at her local shops. It had Adolf Hitler’s face painted on it and you threw the rubbish into his mouth. When the name of Osama bin Laden began to strike terror around the world, one of the British tabloids rechristened him, Osama bin Liner.
Irreverence instantly defuses anxiety.
If you read the experiences of the Beirut captives, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan, you soon discover that their very dark humour was vital to their survival, although I’m betting a lot of it was far too rude to go into the books they wrote. I met a woman once who had been in a Nazi concentration camp; she told me people found it uncomfortable to hear that humour had been a part of her life there. It seemed inappropriate to them but it was a survival strategy to her.
Ah yes, inappropriate humour. Er, I plead guilty to that, m’lud. I’m the woman who cracked jokes all through planning her mother’s funeral and at the service, conducted by a jolly old locum vicar who must have been well over eighty and very doddery, I nearly disgraced myself by thinking how lucky it was that the funeral was at the crematorium and not at a graveside. It was a cold, windy day and I knew mum, wherever she was, would have been on tenterhooks lest he fall into the grave with her. I swear I heard spectral giggles when the image slid into my mind.
Back to the books then. When I was struggling to get published an experienced writer told me to work out what it was that always turned up in my writing. ‘There’ll be something,’ she said. ‘What crops up in your writing however hard you try to suppress it?’
‘That’ll be the jokes then,’ I confessed.
‘But didn’t you say you’re writing a murder mystery?’ she exclaimed.
Let me get one thing straight. Murder isn’t funny. In my books I don’t trivialise either the act of murder or the effect it has on people. What does turn up though, are the everyday little sillinesses that go on cropping up at the most inappropriate moments. A doddery old vicar who falls into the open grave isn’t actually funny, it’s horrifying, but like the proverbial banana skin, the image provokes a hastily suppressed shiver of mirth.
Humour is an outlet for other emotions because it creates a distance from the horror, almost turning it into a fantasy and this is common in a ‘cosy’ mystery. In ‘Spotlight’ by Patricia Wentworth I found this: ‘We’re talking like this because we’ve got to make it all seem like nonsense. It’s like turning it into a play – it stops it being real – and frightening.’
I tell people I write cheerful murder mysteries; there’s no other way to describe them, really. Not laugh out loud, but sneaky humour that creeps up on you and I’m happy to say that readers have commented on my ‘obviously irrepressible sense of humour’ (thank you, blogger Geranium Cat!)
So there you have it: In the midst of doom, gloom, despair and terror, ‘cheerfulness will keep breaking in.’