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The Murderous and the Comic PDF Print
Written by Thomas Wrtche   
Saturday, 13 June 2009



Of all things, it is crime writing that is meant to adhere to a fictional concept based on the idea that ‘reality' can be ignored in favour of some aesthetic autonomy, that is not further define, or an even more numinous ‘entertainment'.

No, crime fiction, even in its nastiest and most banal forms, and, when necessary, highly mediated, is a reflection of this ghastly century. It takes explicitly as its theme violent death in all its aspects.


‘In the proper meaning of the word, the comic is something for laughter' as Helmut Plessner put it in his pleasantly precise words. That terrible century was not at all amusing, let alone comic.


And, if in fact, crime fiction specifically exploits that century, should it not also give cause for amusement - one would like to hope so. Still, we laugh at crime novels that are funny. Such as those by Dashiell Hammett, Jonathan Latimer, Eric Ambler, Chester Himes, Joseph Wambaugh, Ross Thomas, Robert Littell, Edmund Crispin, Pieke Biermann, Joe R. Lansdale, Jerry Oster, Reginald Hill, Jerome Charyn, Jean-Patrick Manchette, William Marshall, Paco Ignacio Taibo, Rubem Fonseca, Mongo Beti, Carl Hiaasen, and so on, right through the sub-genres, and across the continents.


Not all of this is witty, or comical in the manner of ‘soft' crime writing or those light-hearted detective novels beloved of housewives. When I talk about the comic, I don't have comfortable entertainment in mind either, since the comic is a category that does not become clear in its various manifestations, therefore in what we find as ‘funny'.

The comic is a universal phenomenon, which embraces all aspects of life and all aspects of aesthetics. The comic is not just one quality amongst others. It is a criterion of quality, especially in crime novels, which describe above all distressing, tragic and horrible events.

This is not a paradox, however. Not even if I have to admit that no one can be forced to recognise the comic. What is comical, for instance, about a murderer and Mafioso-like Jerome Charyn's character Isaac Sidel, who, the higher he rises in society's hierarchy up to the position of Vice-President of the United States, the more murders he commits, and the ‘better' he becomes as a human being? Or in the novel by Jerry Oster, when the mayor of New York sets homeless people on fire with his own hands in Central Park? I personally find something like that comical. But one can also see it as improbable, unrealistic, mad or regrettably deviant. That may suit some readers, if they leave aside the history of the comic and its various artistic forms, and are unable to identify its contemporary echoes. Because the reversal and the distortion of moral values in the works of Charyn, or the utter disproportion between action and character in those of Oster, derive directly from the tradition of Carnival, as Michail M. Bakhtin refers to it in the works of Rabelais and Dostoevsky, in his studies of traditional comic culture.

I have no wish to torture you with this history of humour. I just refer here to the fact that over Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Rabelais, Cervantes, Grimmelshausen, Swift, Sterne, Jean Paul, Hegel, Solger, Baudelaire, Fr. Th. Vischer, Wilhelm Busch, Henri Bergson, S. Freud, Joachim Ritter, Helmuth Plessner, as well as Bakhtin in all his divergence of position, whether psychologically, aesthetically, or anthropologically focused, there is again an essential aspect of the comic at the mid-point of creative practice and thought, that anti-seriousness, that opposition to officialdom, which constitutes the comic.

At this point one should further explain how the comic was an expressive form of popular humour and an organic part of the closed concept of the world of the ancient and medieval periods in which contradiction was admired, but which later, following the dictates of rationalism and the Enlightenment, was seen as ‘unreasonable' and ‘anarchic'. How it moved gradually into the realm of the particular, the location-specific, and finally into the private area, into the psychology of the individual, and finally, as knockabout and slapstick, into the commercial economy. And how, at the same time, it was pushed down the artistic hierarchy, and therefore down the hierarchy of literary genres. How it survived in a debased form in the so-called ‘popular' genres, and, even as an artistic form seen as being in ‘bad taste', challenged concerns about order and seriousness - in buffoonery, burlesque and cross dressing, and finally, in crime fiction. (Of course, not all manifestations of the comic have lost status. The subtler and less festive forms, therefore those aimed less at a mass audience and more at the personal and the intellectual, have, in a manner of speaking, moved upward. One example is irony.)

Even purely on historical grounds, it is in no paradox to suggest a relationship between crime fiction and the comic, even if that may not seem wholly plausible from our present-day point of view. As we have learnt in recent years, crime fiction has extricated itself from the lower orders and has made a leap upward in terms of quality, and is now to be taken seriously as one literary form amongst others.

Incidentally, the misattribution of crime fiction to the ‘lowly' genres has firstly nothing to do with the literary establishment bearing a grudge, or with the dogma of some ‘canon' or other. It has an historic, and also possibly a sound systematic sense - if we are only ready to perceive virtue in it. We take serious and reputable here to be the attitudes of officialdom, which, depending on the context, should be seen as variable. The cumulative irony of the ‘post-modern', for instance, would be one such official position. Another would be the earnest aplomb of a programme influenced by the Enlightenment, just like the possibly damning severity of a satire, which adopts a world view. To be none of those is no stigma.

Plessner sums it up in one sentence. ‘The comic is not a logical, nor an ethical, nor (in the narrow sense) an aesthetic conflict. It has nothing to do with the opposites of true and false, good and evil, or beautiful and ugly. He sums it up briefly: ‘These may be detected in it, but it doesn't resolve them'. In whatever fashionable disguise Officialdom comes, the comic is always there - as its other self.

But all that means that the comic, and that which, amongst other things, we understand as visible forms of the comic - wit, nonsense, or fun, need not always be concurrent. Humour that circulates with official approval is pretty disturbing, disgusting, and in extreme cases malicious, based as it is on power. As is widely known, Himmler laughed a lot - about the Poles, for instance, whom he ordered to be killed. But if we laugh with and at ‘Concentration camp Ehrhardt' in Lubitsch's To be or not to be, then we are laughing at the same time at the craziness of the world - if also out of despair. For our purposes it is enough to say that what is amusing, and what is humorous or joyful are only components of the comic, not its essence. The comic always has a ‘relational aspect', to quote Odo Marquard, to normative seriousness. And with that, a risky, provocative, non-consensual air, which can also be thoroughly/downright embarrassing.

This just leads us to the next question. If, in a novel by Joseph Wambaugh, an ordinary street cop with half of a female body, which he has just pulled out of a rubbish skip, dances a polka under the blue light of his police car, why do we laugh? Over the humour of the story? Or does the comical aspect lie more in the way that a terrible incident, revolting in itself, is depicted?

Here as well, the way that the picture of a grotesquely deformed body is used clearly refers back to a whole culture of traditional popular humour, in this case that of ‘grotesque reality' (Bakhtin), which was always linked in relationship with the hidden, repressed form of the physical - with the normative ascetic-spirit of the Middle Ages: with excretion, sexuality, birth and death, deformation and decay. In the works of Wambaugh in the Los Angeles of the nineteen-eighties, there is no longer any discussion about the universality of motive, but in view of the cynicism and the dangers of living on the borderline, which always characterise the street cops in the megalopolis, this motive links a currently plausible incident to a particular treatment of reality, in short, to a comedic one.

It goes without saying, that not all chipping and poking at dead and living bodies, that the ‘cheap thrill industry' supplies in countless serial novels, is legitimised by such an appeal. By no means everything that targets primitive emotions is funny.

This is where we would land up, with the comic as driving force of portrayal (W. Preisendanz). If crime fiction works with the reality of its time, that is to say, that of ubiquitous violent death, if it really is a so-called ‘popular' genre, if it doesn't seek to mourn  violent death or simply to record it, but recognises that murder is always both a private and public phenomenon - and therefore targets the whole of society - then it can, of course, very easily become ‘serious'. But then it steps outside its ‘genre'. It gains prestige within the artistic system, in the ‘literary field', to quote Bourdieu. It then adopts a ‘serious' demeanour at the same time, because its mode of expression cannot deny ‘serious' positions. Its structural meaning will decisively change. It can become socially acceptable, assuming that it is allowed to do so.

That is what has happened to a part of crime fiction. It conforms, for example, to the overall conviction of society, that crimes exist in individual ‘cases', that can be solved at any time; crimes are basically controllable and can ultimately (even teleologically) be eliminated. It accepts the bourgeois lifestyle (the expression is so nebulous, yet so clear, that one can apply it to individual cases - such as that of Donna Leon, her commissioner's family and her public, made up of the educated classes) and their standards. It accepts the imprecise but powerful criterion of ‘good prose'. Or it accepts the view that social enlightenment must proceed from be a particular position - the Mankell model, broadly put. Otherwise, there is ‘evil', in the metaphysical sense - the serial-killer model. It doesn't matter either, which representative standards and values it serves, this is what crime fiction is serious about.

A cursory glance through the history of the genre from Agatha Christie to Donna Leon to Henning Mankell reveals an absence of the comic. Its only expression is to be found in the eccentricities of some characters, a gentle pun every now and again and witty dialogue. Otherwise seriousness preponderates, appropriately enough when stories of murder and its resolution, ‘evil' doings or social abuse are being told. This seriousness is underpinned by the universal truth that murder is unacceptable, that its solution is desirable and that identifying and punishing the guilty makes the world a better place. What decent person would dispute this?

Any dissent focuses on this same universal truth, the eternal revisiting of the evidence creates an aesthetic and epistemological stasis, and so the universal truth is trivialised and made commonplace until it becomes almost a mantra.

Or worse, this universal truth is a generation principle completely confused ‘motivation from behind' (referring again to Clemens Lugowski's words): if the reality itself is not a universal truth, it is constructed in such a way that the universal truth appears time and time again. Agatha Christie and Donna Leon solve crimes and do so in particular in a way that would never occur in any sociological setting. Their meaning is unambiguous. We do not need the cognitive dimensions of the comic to understand it, because everything remains formal, semi-official, and is done in a tried and tested way, so to speak. The validity of the universal truth dominates the discourse and the details are imprecise, unimportant and arbitrary.

If we look just as quickly and cursorily through the texts of crime literature perceived as funny, we find an essentially more complex picture: Hammett's fat, murderous Continental Op or his other morally diffuse principal characters, Chester Himes' Harlem which veers between slapstick and chaos, the icy, bizarre cynicism of Ross Thomas, Pieke Biermann's permanent polyphony, the sustained fire of Taibo's various popular stories turned into comedy, the grotesque scenarios of Carl Hiaasen or the exalted laconic style of Lawrence Block which tips into the comic, the confused comedic worlds of William Marshall which stand apart from the ‘serious' texts of the aforementioned not only because of his clearly increased use of different narrative styles, breaks and contradictions but in their conception. Their humorous access to the world neither denies nor ignores anything which happens below the universal truth - simply the stuff of their narrative. On the contrary, their world is not geared to this universal truth. In this world disparity, heterogeneity, the anarchic, chance occurrences, ambivalence and polyvalence run riot, without any obvious meaning as is the case with Christie and her successors.

The dialectically questionable provocative element can of course lie in the fact that the universal truth still appertains. The approval the reader feels when a monster in one of Carl Hiaasen's books for example meets a particularly gruesome but funny end (death by liposuction tool, by swordfish or by wood shredder) makes this point very clearly. The universal truth and actual criminal phenomenology collide - the norm, according to which even such an evil rogue should not be killed, is not set against its counternorm (‘an evil rogue should be killed'). However through its comic element, an object is formulated without being explicitly stated, that is, without falling into the trap of creating a new meaning.

Wofgang Preisendanz described this principle using historical experience in narrative literature of the 20th century: ‘the comedic is indispensable when conveying a basic narrative perspective, in which the incommensurability of direct private experience of history and the historiographical comprehension of history are to be understood'. We have to use an analogy for what Preisendanz has seen here as experience of history, since even concrete experience of reality can seem incomprehensible, strange or even alien to us.

I have said previously that it is unlikely that the violence of the 20th century has not influenced a literature which itself deals with violence and crime and that a whole strand of crime literature is happy to exemplify a moral universal truth and that because of this, everyday realities become arbitrary. But this does not mean that actual realities almost inevitably have to be portrayed as comic.

All the examples of comic crime literature I have cited have in common that they come into conflict with reality. Of course that does not always have to mean that they pursue a meticulous circumstantial realism, but their starting point is an ‘experience of reality'. Whether the relationship to this reality is supported by real-life experience as in the former ‘street cop' Joseph Wambaugh or the environmental activist Carl Hiaasen, or Eric Ambler, Robert Littell and Ross Thomas who operate in the grey area of the secret services, is only marginally important. They all describe the life we live (‘lifeworlds'; see above) as it undoubtedly is and which even makes up what we recognise as ‘reality'. But direct experience of it is inaccessible for many of us, either because we really do not know it, or because we really do not want to know it (for example because we prefer surrogates in the media - keywords: police and television), or because for a thousand biographical or social-psychological reasons we see it as uncomfortable, repulsive, unsettling. In our cosy bourgeois world we would rather indulge our thrill-seeking in our imaginations than feel part of an unpleasant reality. However this ‘repressed', ‘hidden' or marginalised but no less real and powerful reality still needs to be processed in the narrative. It is the very stuff of crime literature. To pick up Preisendanz's words again, it demands the articulation of its incommensurability with systems of order and meaning

However the meaning is not demonstrated. This would be counter to the complexity of reality, to chance, to the jungle of particular interests, the ubiquitous structural and private violence and not least its diverse media pre-structuring which in any case is ideological. The ‘reality' in its myriad manifestations does not remain unaffected by human action, but processing it by means of art always requires some reduction, structuring, order, not only according to Niklas Luhmann. If this reducing, this structuring, this ordering happens ‘naively' or with a particular end in mind, then elements are suppressed. Insight is not permitted, seriousness and solemnity are required.

On the other hand the comic aspect of the plot at least keeps them still as a potential ‘other', keeps them alive in the mind or expresses them as denial: there is moral disgust in our laughter at Wambaugh's Cop, known as Bad Czech (the German translation ‘Schreckliche Tscheche' doesn't do it justice, because it loses the association of ‘bad cheque') dancing the polka with a female corpse and bawling at Shubiduuu. We have a bad conscience about laughing, about finding a macabre pleasure in a crazy situation, we feel consternation about how a job can make a man depraved, we brood about how veritable madmen can restore security and order, and so on.  As soon as it is taken out of this context and becomes a work of literature, a whole host of reflective connections can be found in this small vignette, one which seems entirely plausible in the day's work of the LAPD but which also seems bizarre. And even in a bad situation we are able and are allowed to laugh at it all. There is no doubt that crime literature, where it is comic, makes laughter stick in our throats. This is done by means of laughter itself.

This has nothing to do with Sigmund Freud's ideas of laughter as a release of psychological tension, which protects us by creating distance. Distance, fending off listlessness are surely more important functions of laughter in humans, but this concept is not enough to explain the comic as a form of artistic processing. Because comedy in so far as it is the way in which events are portrayed, is calculated, deliberate and has a long artistic as well as literary historical tradition. It is linked historically to the real-life laughter, but is however considerably different. It has also remained the subject of disapproval, just when it is presented as artistic process, as an intellectual attitude, as a stance towards the world. We all recognise the list of criticisms: it mutates, it is associated with the ‘Zeitgeist' and with contemporary history, but can always be summed up by the question ‘Is that allowed?'

We can invert this question to give ‘Do we have to do that?' In other words, how could I come up with the idea that comedy is a criterion of quality in crime literature?  To avoid useless debate, it is obviously not the only criterion. No, comedy is a criterion of quality if I see it as what is inappropriate in a situation, as provoking the narrative, as a carnivalesque, grotesque, bizarre, macabre, cynical narrative with the appropriate constructions, i.e. polyphonic, multiperspective, drawing from old images and motifs of a once universal but still influential culture of humour. With all its aesthetic and epistemological implications and above all with the sensory affect of laughter, the comic is almost unavoidably and necessarily bound up with criminal literature. Then how else should crime literature react to the world in which we interact? How to make it able to be recounted? I need to try to answer this by looking at what it is not.

None of us, except those engaged in transcendentalism or perhaps in theology, experiences the world as ordered, functional, but as chaotic, crazy, violent, murderous and senseless, and especially so in the area of crime literature. After all, as we have learnt in the 20th century, crime can not be stopped and can not be got rid of.  Perhaps we can still fight it, but only in societies that want to. Even these societies don't want to fight certain crimes, because from a political security point of view the state has long since pulled back to a caretaker function, creating peace and order for the interests of private industry. Fighting one Mafia means strengthening another - as a slogan about our current situation might read.

With its model of crime and its resolution the crime novel disowns this actual basis and has lost the connection to its very own theme. But the crime novel has to deal with this confused situation in a literary aesthetic way, something it can do with aggression and anger, but these are not the methods of literary organisation. On the other hand, comedy is such a method, since it can make use of anger and aggression, resignation and other emotions. Any serious aspect however has to operate as if there were an Archimedean point outside of the action, from which it can be seen and be processed.  But there isn't. Neither has the serious aspect the ability to reflect on itself in relation to other aspects. It would not be serious any more. Comedy is self-reflexive and essential, be it as a bad conscience or as unease at one's own actions.

The connectivity and the communicative potential that the motive, images and the comic action have provided are just what crime fiction needs: they are directly linked to the ‘common people', the public, because at least the echoes, the disrespectful approach, the anti-authoritarian nature of laughter in the face of the harshness of existence are spared. Crime fiction was a low genre, rightly despised and put down by ‘literary' fiction, because the latter feared and should fear the relativising potential of the comic, since it relativises seriousness itself.

In this way crime fiction, wanting to be serious and perhaps in part already become serious, has lost the link with reality. It has sacrificed it for respectability, or has replaced it with a linear processing of reality, which takes itself seriously, but which runs the risk of becoming ‘dogmatic'. Anyone who maintains that appalling reality is too appalling to make a joke of has not understood the dialectic of the comic, since, as Odo Marquard' says: ‘Something is comical and makes people laugh, when it reveals the insignificant in what has been officially approved and the approved in what is officially insignificant.'

The level of my argument here is consciously relatively abstract and one could object that everything I have said about crime fiction applies to all types of literature, particularly comic literature. In fact my theme in the end goes back to the question of what distinguishes crime fiction from other fiction. Perhaps it is this: literature is always fiction, fiction is not the ‘truth'. Literature also conforms willingly or not, to the norms and parameters of aesthetics, especially in its internal structure. Crime fiction especially also conforms to the parameters of its own development as a genre. It is also part of general culture, and is even a subculture. However its subject connects in a particular way with the realities of life; because it is based on the , it has to take these realities into account in the way in which it deals with them. That fact that it is fiction does not release it from this basis in reality. A crime novel which is purely and simply aesthetic is not a crime novel at all.

Discussion about the narratability of the world might mean leaving the sovereignty over literary practice to the obligatory general aesthetic-theoretical discourse. Literary practice shows again and again that certain basic themes, that is crime and violence, make authors want to write about them. Over time this has led to a schism; there is crime fiction which reinforces mainstream opinion and which is rewarded by gradually being promoted to the status of literary fiction, or tries to attain this, something which, I fear, it will never have.

There is also troublesome crime fiction which tramples on opposing viewpoints and which subverts the creation of meaning - comic or comic-action crime fiction, which sees its humble origin as productive energy and exploits it.

This is a decisive mark of its quality, since the creation of meaning regarding the very real phenomena of violence and crime always lead to pragmatic options for action, regardless the way these are imparted, which affect us all and influence the lives of all of us. I don't want to go too far but it is a truism that a society's practices and its cultural symbols are not accidental. Crime fiction is the most widely read literature in the world and its ideological foundations, of all things, are not meant to find entry into society, again, regardless of the way they are imparted.

There is a paradox here. The readiness of high culture to blame the whole of crime fiction is significantly greater where the aforementioned likes of Agatha Christie are concerned rather than with ‘subversive' texts. The media success of Donna Leon and Henning Mankell also applies to the wider public - with such innocuous literature there is no danger of vested interests, for ideological or aesthetic standpoints or for certainties. It can sit at high table, even if at the very end of it. The subversives will be at the children's table or will have to stay outside. That's fine, because good crime fiction has throw up dirt, to burn, to mock and to spit. The ‘world-shattering' aspect of the comic according to Jean Paul has its legitimate place in the very serious themes of humanity.


© 11/2006 Thomas Wörtche
This text is taken from the collection: Thomas Wörtche, Das Mörderi-sche neben dem Leben. Ein Wegbegleiter durch die Welt der Kriminalliteratur. Libelle Verlag. Lengwil 2008. 208 S., 19,90 €

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