Make ‘Em Laugh*

Lots of people enjoy going to comedy clubs or watching comic routines on television or in the cinema. Whether you prefer sketch comedy, slapstick, cerebral comedy, or something else, there’s bound to be someone or other out there who makes you laugh. And that’s a good thing if you think about it; laughter is an important part of mental health, and a good laugh can make everything better. But the life of a comedian is not an easy one. There’s the travel, the low pay (unless you make it big), hecklers, and all sorts of inconveniences. Still, people dream of killing ‘em with laughter onstage.

You wouldn’t think that comedians and crime fiction would go together, but they can. For instance, Mark Billingham, who’s written a variety of successful crime novels, has also been a comedian. Benjamin Stevenson, who’s recently had big success with Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, is also a successful comedian. Jill Edmondson, author of the Sasha Jackson, PI mysteries, also does comedy.

Comedians are also characters in crime novels. For example, Ken Rothrock’s The Deadly Welcome is the story of Rick North. He works for an LA talent management agency, but his job is in jeopardy. He’s low man on the ladder and will lose even that slot unless he can find out who’s been threatening one of the agency’s clients, Rory Maclaine. Maclaine is an up-and-coming comedian who’s on the verge of national success, so the agency is determined to see to his welfare. One night, Maclaine collapses and dies just as he’s finishing his new routine. Now, North is going to have to find out what happened if he’s to save his job. He’s helped by the fact that he used to be a comedian himself, so he has a sense of what the life involves. Still, it’s not going to be an easy case, since the victim died in full view of a lot of people.

In Simon Brett’s A Comedian Dies, on again/off again stage actor Charles Paris and his on again/off again wife Frances are taking a seaside holiday one September. The town isn’t exactly throbbing with cultural life, but they find a variety show to attend. They’re especially looking forward to seeing Bill Peaky, a rising young comedian/musician with a bright future. The show begins, and various acts take the stage. When it’s Peaky’s turn, he makes an entrance and picks up the microphone to start his act. A few seconds later, though, he dies of what turns out to be electrocution. There’s not much else to do in town, so Paris takes an interest in the case. In a sense, he’s a witness, anyway, since he saw the acts that came before Peaky’s, and since he saw several members of the audience. He’s got a sort of vested interest in the case, too. One of the other acts (and a possible suspect) is Lenny Barber, a former vaudeville performer who used to work with a partner, Wilkie Pole. Pole has since died, and Paris has been asked to take his place for a revival of Barber’s act. As he starts to ask questions about the case, Paris runs up against the fact that Peaky was almost universally disliked. That means there’s a long list of potential suspects, and any one of them could have committed the crime.

Donald Westlake’s The Comedy is Finished was written in the 1970s, but Westlake didn’t have it published for a few reasons. In fact, it wasn’t published until after his death in 2008. In the novel, it’s 1977, and Koo Davis is a fading conservative comedian. The radical 1960s are over, and people just aren’t interested in jokes about them anymore. But Davis has been an entertainer for a long time, so he wants to do what he thinks he does best: make people happy. After one of his shows, he’s abducted on the way back to his dressing room. The group responsible is the People’s Revolutionary Army, a group of radicals who haven’t given up hope of being relevant again. They abducted a high-profile person not just because of the money they could get, but also because they believe it’ll make them high-profile, too. In fact, they want to use this abduction to get some of their comrades out of prison. As you can imagine, things end up going very wrong. Just as a side note, this isn’t really a comic caper sort of novel, the way Westlake’s John Dortmunder novels are; it’s darker than that. Still, it’s an interesting look at the changes that came to the country after the end of the 1960s. 

Derek Ansell’s Comedian takes place in South Wales, where fading comedian Jim Wilson has a week-long gig at the Carswell Bay Hotel. He’s a man of very regular habits, and he’s quite particular about what he wants and doesn’t want. Still, he’s settled into his hotel room and done his shows. At the end of his stay, he’s found dead in his bed. At first, it looks as though Wilson has taken his own life, and that wouldn’t be shocking. But his widow, Joanna, refuses to believe it. She is convinced that he was murdered and sets out to discover the truth. As she does, though, she discovers that her husband might not have been the man she thought he was. She also finds that more than one person could have had a motive for murder.

Alan Orloff has written a two-novel series, the Last Laff series, featuring comedian and comedy-club co-owner Channing Hayes. In Killer Routine, he’s still healing from a tragic accident in which his fiancée, Lauren, was killed. Instead of doing his own routines, he’s coaching Lauren’s sister Heather in the art of comic delivery. When Heather goes missing, Hayes starts looking for her. The stakes get higher as one of Heather’s former boyfriends dies. Then another does. Now, it’s clear that Heather herself is probably in real danger.

You might think that comedy and crime fiction wouldn’t have a lot in common, but they do. And the world of making people laugh is an interesting context for a crime novel. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Arthur Freed and Herb Nacio Brown.