“Dying is easy, comedy is hard” is a classic line about acting, but it could apply to crime writing as well. A sense of humor is hardly essential equipment for the job, and it’s tough to get it right, but some of the finest, from Dashiell Hammett to Elmore Leonard, have used their wit to great effect. So what a lucky surprise to discover three releases this month that show what an asset humor can be.
Before the breakthrough success of Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears came S. A. Cosby’s first novel, published in 2019, and now reissued by Flatiron Books. In his foreword to My Darkest Prayer, the author asks us to approach it like a wobbly foal, but it’s more robust than that. The book has plenty of energy, a rogues’ gallery of characters that pop off the page, and, to offset the frequent and imaginative violence, a killer sense of humor. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much at a crime novel with a double-digit body count.
The novel’s narrator, Nathan Waymaker, is a bi-racial former Marine and ex-cop who now “handles the bodies” at his cousin’s funeral home in rural Queen County, Virginia. Nathan has major anger issues, largely because the prominent citizen responsible for his parents’ death, in a car crash, was given a pass by the corrupt police department where he worked.
From that experience and his military service, Nathan has formulated this philosophy: “There is no safety. Just downtime between tragedies.” When he agrees to look into the shooting death of Reverend Esau Watkins for a couple of church ladies who don’t trust the local sheriff, he ushers trouble back into his life.
Nathan discovers that Watkins, a supposedly reformed sinner, hadn’t exactly left his old life of crime behind, and lots of dangerous people would like to thwart his investigation. When not fending off a steady stream of scary dudes—sometimes with the help of his professional-killer pal, Skunk—Nathan manages to work in some off-the-books loving with Watkins’s estranged daughter, a porn star known as Cat Noir.
The ample sex and mayhem of My Darkest Prayer follow the pulpy conventions of hard-core noir, but Cosby’s prose, salted with tasty similes and pungent observations about race relations in the contemporary South, reveals a writer who had already found his voice. It’s well worth reading on its own merits and, despite the ominous title, very funny.
My Darkest Prayer has plenty of energy, a rogues’ gallery of characters that pop off the page, and, to offset the frequent and imaginative violence, a killer sense of humor.
The number of oddballs per capita is even greater in Cold Storage, Alaska, John Straley’s community of rugged individualists, wounded souls, and free spirits featured in three previous novels. It’s 1968, the Vietnam War is raging, and an assortment of strangers has descended on the rough-hewn fishing town, all with different agendas.
The most benign is a Cistercian monk who goes by the name of Brother Louis but is known to the world as Thomas Merton. (Straley’s inspiration for dropping this historical figure into the novel is the fact that Merton actually did visit Alaska in 1968.) He’s seeking a quiet place to pray and contemplate, but Cold Storage turns out to be not so much a refuge as a kindler of emotions he’s trying to tame. And he could do without the ubiquitous brown bears.
Less welcome than the famous writer is a boozy duo of rabidly racist fishermen from the Deep South who are trying to locate a mummy called the Old General, which is stored in the root cellar of Ellie’s Bar. The good old boys believe it’s the preserved body of John Wilkes Booth, which they hope to procure for their own depraved purposes. Further muddying the waters is a former F.B.I. agent and slippery character who happens to bear the name of the Union soldier who shot Booth, Boston Corbett.
Once the bad intentions of the southerners emerge during a confrontation at the bar, the situation escalates to violence and kidnapping, but do they ever choose the wrong victim.
Though written with a straight face (as any good tall tale must be), Blown by the Same Wind is a trip, as the hippies of Cold Storage would say. Outlandish, yes, especially the conspiracy theory involving its nuttier characters, but the grounding presence of Merton and a traumatized Vietnam vet he befriends lend the book a gentle spirituality. Even in a world torn by war and racism, they exemplify the notion that goodness and grace are possible.
The English writer and winner of just about every possible mystery-writing award Peter Lovesey is not as overtly comic or outrageous as Cosby and Straley. His humor is wryer and often at the expense of his most enduring character, Bath detective superintendent Peter Diamond, but there’s something pleasurable about his style—you always know you’re in for a good time with one of his books.
Though written with a straight face (as any good tall tale must be), Blown by the Same Wind is a trip, as the hippies of its setting would say.
Lovesey has taken on the entertainment world before, most memorably in Stagestruck (2005), about a pop star whose face is scarred just before she can make her theatrical debut. While Showstopper may not hit as many high notes, it’s still quite a captivating look at big trouble behind the scenes of Swift, a hit TV show filming in Bath. Over its long run, Swift seems to have lost an alarming number of personnel, most recently a technician who disappeared after a couple of days on the job. Coincidence or pattern? Diamond and his team suspect the disparate mix of deaths, disappearances, and mishaps may be connected, while his officious senior officer, Georgina Dallymore, waves them off, insisting there’s no case.
You always know you’re in for a good time with one of Peter Lovesey’s books.
As usual, she’s wrong. A large man in dated suits, Diamond is defiantly old-school, a tech dinosaur who may be startled whenever his cell phone rings but is nobody’s fool. Though Dallymore is threatening him with extinction in addition to pooh-poohing his professional instincts, Diamond perseveres and deftly steers her around to his point of view. Which turns out to be the correct one.
The team’s interviews with everyone from the show’s glamorous star to the nasty key grip paint a detailed picture of the daily grind of a grueling action show that’s found its groove but may be stuck in a bad place. In addition to some iffy members of the Swift cast and crew, a charismatic homeless man who wanders onto the scene also falls under suspicion.
Showstopper’s conclusion may at first seem to come from left field, but it’s all there if you look closely. Lovesey manages to make the scenery so diverting that you hardly notice the clues. Not bad for an octogenarian who, like his detective, shows no signs of slowing—or stepping—down.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for AIR MAIL. She lives in New York City