In this, our third installment of what gives a book the elusive element of fun, I’m going to talk about something that may seem obvious, but which is hard to quantify: wit.
In these times where far too many people treat ignorance as something of which to be proud, the word “wit” seems at times to have fallen into disrepute. It carries with it a vague aroma of snootiness, of elitism, of cruel jibes delivered over dry martinis by callous sophisticates.
But wit–which I define as intelligent, incisive language that also manages to be amusing–is one of the things that can make a book fun to read. As just one example, take the works of Laura Lippman. Laura writes two kinds of books: her standalones, like her most recent book I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, are engrossing, heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and gorgeously written; her Tess Monaghan series, about a female PI in Baltimore, are all of those things, and they’re also huge fun to read. The difference is wit. When Laura writes of a character, as she did in her book IN A STRANGE CITY:
Tess Monaghan couldn’t help thinking of her prospective client as the Porcine One. He had a round belly and that over-all pink look, heightened by a rash-like red on his cheeks, a souvenir of the cold day. His legs were so short that Tess felt ungracious for not owning a footstool, which would have kept them from swinging, childlike, above the floor. The legs ended in tiny feet encased in what must be the world’s smallest–and shiniest–black wingtips. These had clicked across her wooden floor like little hooves.
you can’t help but see him, and you can’t help but smile at the image, if you don’t actually laugh out loud. The wit comes from the delicious, wicked sharpness of the picture.
Sometimes wit comes out of a deadpan description of the mundane that ignores the big, dark, sometimes even scary thing that’s really going on. The humor comes from the dichotomy created by the characters’ apparent obliviousness or nonchalance about the rabid elephant in the room. Examples are the opening conversation in RESERVOIR DOGS, or this exchange from Donald E. Westlake’s BANK SHOT:
Kelp drove one-handed for a minute while he got out his pack of Trues, shook one out, and put it between his lips. He extended the pack sideways, saying, “Cigarette?”
“True? What the hell kind of brand is that?”
“It’s one of the new ones with the low nicotine and tars. Try it.”
“I’ll stick to Camels,” Dortmunder said, and out of the corner of his eye Kelp saw him pull a battered pack of them from his jacket pocket. “True,” Dortmunder grumbled. “I don’t know what the hell kind of name that is for a cigarette.”
Kelp was stung. He said, “Well, what kind of name is Camel? True means something. What the hell does Camel mean?”
“It means cigarettes,” Dortmunder said. “For years and years it means cigarettes. I see something called True, I figure right away it’s a fake.”
“Just because you’ve been working a con,” Kelp said, “you figure everybody else is too.”
“That’s right,” Dortmunder said.
Kelp could deal with anything at that point except being agreed with; not knowing where to go from there, he let the conversation lapse.
Often, wit takes the form of an impossibly perfect and well-composed comeback, the sort of riposte that you realize no human being could ever come up with on the spur of the moment, but which you wish you could. Like this exchange from Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP:
I grinned at her with my head on one side. She flushed. Her hot black eyes looked mad. “I don’t see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped. “And I don’t like your manners.”
“I’m not crazy about yours,” I said. I didn’t ask to see you. You sent for me. I don’t mind your ritzing me or drinking your lunch out of a Scotch bottle. I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings. But don’t waste your time trying to cross-examine me.”
It’s sort of like one of those Eric Clapton guitar solos where he tears off on a phrase so long and harmonically complex that you can’t imagine a human mind creating it, much less doing so on the fly.
Other times, wit isn’t so elaborate, but instead lightning quick, like the jab that you don’t see till your opponent’s pulling it back and you’re wondering where that ringing sound is coming from. Ken Bruen is a master at this sort of thing, as in this quick yet perfect description of a cop at a traffic stop:
He wasn’t wearing shades, but he wanted to…and badly.
Note that you’re unilikely to find the works I’ve quoted above are to be found in your bookstore’s humor section. some of them, like Our Ken’s work, are downright dark. All of them have humor, however. Smart, witty humor, and that’s one of the things that makes them fun.
Tell us, O ‘Rati: Who are your favorite witty, fun writers?
Hardly any contemporary writing is as much fun as Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad". It's my favorite book of all time, and I try to reread it about every 10 years, enjoying it just as much as I did that first time.
In historical mysteries, Alan Gordon is the master of wit. His Jester series has a great combination of humor (they're jesters fergoodnesssake) and drama (there are things at stake) and of course being jesters, they are sharp in seeing the joke in the situation or conversation. In relationship stories, Nora Roberts is wonderful at casual, witty banter between friends.
Karen beat me to Twain. Ed McBain never received the credit he was due for the many throwaway lines he'd drop into his books, especially the later ones. Nothing the book couldn't have lived without, but these little gems made it that much more fun to read.
Elmore Leonard is probably the godfather of the funny line that wasn't meant to be funny, at least not by the character who used it. Lots of writers do it now, but he perfected it.
I want to wear shades while I grieve during the long winter evenings, but that would no doubt be considered redundant.
The first writer that comes to mind is Robert B. Parker, who elevated sarcasm to an art. Spenser’s repartee with Hawk and numerous other characters can be laugh out loud funny. Another odd place to find humor is Nelson DeMille’s John Corey. His last book THE LION had a very serious tone, as it was about revenge, but usually Corey is very funny. There are some great laughs in WILDFIRE. Dana Andrew’s books are always funny. Milo in Jonathan Kellerman’s books is so cynical some of his observations are so over the top they are very funny. As I mentioned in another post, I have discovered a new author, Gail Carriger. There are plenty of laughs in her book SOULLESS. Of course, there are Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. As some of you know I love puns and there is no place like Piers Anthony ‘s World of Xanth to find them. Finally, there is our own Toni McGee Causey and her so funny Bobbie Faye books
Good suggestions, all. Karen in Ohio, I thnk we must be kindred spirits. Love Twain, love IA.
Dudley, PK, thanks for the suggestion. PK, have you ever read Christopher Moore's FOOL?
Dana: Leonard! Of course….
I so much admire great wit! It doesn't matter if the book is "dark" or "light", wit transcends tone.
Toni's Bobbie Faye series, of course.
JD Robb. Her Eve Dallas character has an innate wit in how she views the world and the people in it. When you're in Eve's head and viewing a crime scene, or encountering someone who irritates her, you can't help but be amused at her assessment.
Some of Stephen King's best work has a dark wit that I enjoy, like the opening of UNDER THE DOME.
Jennifer Crusie writes some of my favorite romantic comedies, so they are intended to be humorous and they always hit my funny bone. She's a master at witty dialogue.
Dana, thanks for the mention of Elmore Leonard! I add him to my list, too. 🙂
Having just read Hammett's Thin Man for the first time, I have to add him to the "wit" list.
I also get moments of LOL out of Eric Flint's 1632 books– an alt history series.
And I have to add, the Gilmore Girls TV series was just about the best for fast-paced dialogue with loads of wit. I read somewhere that it was torture for the actors because they had to nail dialogue precisely, but what a joy to listen to!
Have to echo the Elmore Leonard votes. Great one-liners. I think Lehane's Patrick Kenzie has some good stuff, especially in his debut, and I don't think we can discuss funny without a nod to Joe Konrath (if for no other reason than the fact he might barge in and wonder why the hell he was left out in the first damn place).
Mm. Cornelia. Witness above.
Now as Mork would say, Nano-Nano.
Stuart Pawson isn't nearly as well-known a crime writer as he deserves to be. His DI Charlie Priest books are full of witty lines like the image of a detective 'pecking at his computer keyboard with all the confidence of a novice bomb-disposal expert' or a shotgun-suicide being 'dead before he hit the ceiling'. And how can you not love books with titles like GRIEF ENCOUNTERS, or LIMESTONE COWBOY?
I like Robert B Parker's wit, too, and Chandler, and JD Robb, and Toni's Bobbie Faye books. And John Billheimer is a constantly underrated writer for that gentle natural-sounding humour that's so difficult to pull off, but he manages it in style.
"They dined together sumptuously. The wine flowed freely, as indeed it had all day. Sir Mulberry drank to recompense himself for his recent abstinence; the young lord, to drown his indignation; the remainder of the party, because the wine was of the best, and they had nothing to pay!"-Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens
Any book by Dickens, nearly any page! The wit's in the dialogue, narritive, the descriptions, and in the characters. Any author whose characters become nouns and verbs in everyday language and use suggests that there's more to the writing then simply clever character names.
And Kagey, "Oi with the poodles already!" 🙂
Reine, shouldn't that be NaNoWriMo? (Yes, I should not have clicked send on that one…and yet I did!) XD
Yeah, Debbie, XD. I'm surprised it's so much fun. Why do people call it NaNo Hell? I just let that chopstick go, replace the blue Ace Paper Tak every now and then. When my hand gives out I take a nap. Maybe if I had a day job? Don't know how long I can continue, but "NaNo-NaNo."
Reine, don't worry about the word count, have fun! Set your own goals-nobody else's matter and they never will because goals are inherently personal. Unless you're cheering someone on, in which your goal becomes to support them in theirs.
On that note, Alex congrats on the release of your latest book, The Shifters. We all miss hearing from you but I remember you saying October is a busy month for a thriller writer. (Especially when she's got Book Of Shadows newly released too!)
The late Kage Baker, especially her Facilitator Joseph character. A wise-ass to rival Spenser.
And, yeah, this new kid who's got all the Dover clip art books and ain't afraid to use 'em . . . Smeed, Cordelia Smeed, I think. I kept laughing out loud during her dark-toned INVISIBLE BOY.
I agree with Allison and Zoe. I love J.D. Robb's wit.
Robert Crais in his Elvis Cole series.
Isn't JD Robb a pen name of Nora Roberts?
yup, JD Robb is indeed Nora Roberts
The first author who comes to mind is, Dean Koontz. His sense of humor is very much like my own, so everyone might not agree with me. But, he gives me the most LOL reading moments these days.
Ross Thomas. There was always a sly quality to both his plots and his prose. Sadly, I believe most of his books are out of print.
Sorry I'm so late to the party, Duster.
Damn good post, great, great examples of wit. The Lippman quote is perfect! I haven't read her work and now you've got me going. Reading a paragraph like that is going to make me reach harder and higher to create better character descriptions in my own work. She handled that masterfully.
Really great post.