I’m delighted to welcome Tom Halford here, today, with this most interesting and informative post.
Misunderstandings in Comedy and Crime Fiction
One common thread between the crime genre and comedy is that both rely on misunderstandings.
A hallmark of the crime genre is the Red Herring, which is a strategy used by many crime writers to distract or mislead the reader. More specifically, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is essentially about a series of misunderstandings. I’m going to describe the plot as vaguely as possible so that I don’t spoil it for anyone. People mistake an individual for someone he is not, and people mistake an animal for something it is not. The moment that Holmes and Watson are able to see things for what they truly are, the plot is essentially unraveled.
A similar argument could be made for The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe. Famous French philosopher Jacques Lacan argued that Poe’s story is based on a misunderstanding of what the letter means, and another equally famous French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, argued that Lacan deliberately misunderstood Poe’s entire story. I’m not sure I understand Lacan or Derrida, but my point remains: a good mystery is based on a clever misunderstanding.
Some of the best comedy also relies on these clever misunderstandings. In the sitcom Arrested Development, a wannabe film star, Tobias Fünke, believes he is attending Method One classes to improve his acting skills. He is amazed by the various, gritty monologues that people deliver about their lives. As the series goes on, Tobias discovers that he has actually been going to a methodone clinic, a support group for people who are addicted to opioids. It is a dark play on words, but it is also extremely funny.
In my novel Deli Meat, one of my main characters, Conrad Arms, is plagued by misunderstandings. He believes he has uncovered a conspiracy in the small border town of Plattsburgh, New York. Unfortunately, he is completely wrong, and his misunderstanding has disastrous consequences. The other main character, Effie Pitts, tends to misunderstand herself and her own motivations. Essentially, what I was trying to do was to combine this shared quality of comedy and crime. Some of their misunderstandings are comedic and some of their misunderstandings lead to crimes.
Why are misunderstandings so pleasurable in fiction? I’ve added that qualifier “in fiction” because in real life, misunderstandings are almost always unpleasant. In comedy, the pleasure of misunderstandings undeniably has an element of schadenfreude, or pleasure derived at the misfortunate of others. There is dramatic irony in that we know something that the character does not know, and there is humour in watching the various consequences of these misunderstandings. However, the case is slightly different for crime fiction.
A truly clever misunderstanding in a crime novel has a few unique qualities.
The first pleasurable aspect is that of surprise. As readers, we have assumptions about the characters and their motivations. A skilled writer gets us looking in one direction, essentially misunderstanding certain aspects of the story. Once the misunderstandings have been revealed, we have a moment of surprise when we find out that we have been wrong about the characters and their motivations.
The second pleasurable aspect is that of renegotiating meaning. After the initial moment of surprise, we find that we have to think back on the narrative and the assumptions that we have made. For example, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, we initially think that Holmes has left Watson in charge of the investigation, but when it is revealed that Holmes has been living in a hut and spying on everyone, we need to readjust our assumptions about whether or not Holmes truly respects Watson’s abilities.
The third pleasurable aspect is that of uncertainty. Readers are often certain that the plot is heading in one direction. Then they are surprised when a misunderstanding is revealed, and they are forced to renegotiate meaning. If a story has a truly well-developed Red Herring, then readers just don’t know what will happen next. They don’t know what else they have misunderstood and can barely wait for more surprises when all is finally revealed.
And what’s more pleasant than racing through the final pages of a crime novel to find out what actually happened?
Thank you, Tom, for making that so clear. I do wonder if it’s true that in real life, misunderstandings are almost always unpleasant. But I haven’t made a study of it. I know I quite enjoy listening to a conversation when I understand the participants are talking at cross purposes. I suppose that’s the same satisfaction I get from stories in which I know more than the narrator. As Tom says, “There is dramatic irony in that we know something that the character does not know.”
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