#SIMTalksWithMiriamI’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.

Tom Halford, author of Deli MeatA 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.

Deli Meat by Tom HalfordThe 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.”

Tom Halford is the author of Deli Meat, a fun crime novel, published by Crooked Cat Books and available from Amazon.

***

If you want to write a post – fact or fiction – on any of the three topics in this series, the information is all here.

Letters from ElsewhereWelcome to another letter from elsewhere, brought to you by Helen from The Forgotten by J.V. Baptie, due to be published by Crooked Cat Books on 13 June, this year. Over to you, Helen.

August 6th 1970

Dear Mum,

I’ve tried a few times to get you on the telephone, I hope everything is well at home. Not much new to report here. I’m sorry I missed Carol’s wedding. Did she get the card I sent?  The training is going really well at the police college and I couldn’t miss it. We’re training with the male police officers too and it’s quite strict. Once this is over I’ll be looking into missing persons.  How exciting!

I hope I didn’t let Uncle Bill down too much by turning down his lovely offer to work in his practice. Truthfully, I wasted two years after university working in Wimpey because I couldn’t face working in there. I think we both know if I had accepted that job I’d never have applied for the police.  There’s a few other things I need to tell you but it’s best to tell you them in person.

Talk soon love
Helen xx

Ah, now I’m wondering about those few other things…

questionmark

The Forgotten by J.V. Baptie, yet to be covered.

About The Forgotten

Newly promoted into CID, acting Detective Sergeant Helen Carter has a lot on her hands. When a body is found in an abandoned cinema, no one in the team has seen anything like it before and when the business card of an ex-cop private detective is found, the case takes a chilling turn.

As the body count mounts, can Helen find the killer while her own life is falling apart?

About J.V.

JV Baptie.

.

.

.

.

J.V. Baptie graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2017 with an MA in Creative Writing. When not writing, she is also an actress and has appeared in a variety of children’s shows and stage plays. JV lives near Edinburgh where her novel is set.

.

.

You can find J.V. on her website on Facebook and on Twitter.