Screwed, by Eoin Colfer
When did crime fiction get so serious? The banter between Holmes and Watson, Poirot’s peacock posturing, Philip Marlowe’s zingy one-liners – for some of the genre’s most accomplished practitioners, humour was an essential element when it came to creating fully rounded characters.
These days the fashion is for dark, gritty realism. There are crime writers who employ humour to a greater or lesser degree, such as Colin Bateman, Elmore Leonard, Janet Evanovich, Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Brookmyre, but comic crime fiction remains, relatively speaking, a rarity.
This may well be because many of the genre’s fans refuse to read comedy crime, for the very good reason that murder is no laughing matter. That interpretation, however, is another variation on the canard that comedy is necessarily a more trivial form than tragedy. Raymond Chandler once suggested, rather glibly, that if a writer was ever in doubt as to what should happen next, he should have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. But whether the man is holding a gun or a custard pie is irrelevant; what matters is the man.
Humour, and in particular a well-honed appreciation of the absurdity of human self-delusion, has long been a staple of Eoin Colfer’s work. As a best-selling author of children’s fiction, he struck gold with the blackly comic teenage criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl, and also wrote And Another Thing . . . (2009), the sixth instalment in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Colfer’s Half-Moon Investigations (2006) was a private-eye novel, although the quirk there was that Fletcher Moon was a 12-year-old shamus prowling the mean streets of his school’s playground.
It would have been a surprise, then, and possibly even a criminal waste, had Colfer abandoned comedy for his first adult crime offering, Plugged (2011). That novel featured Daniel McEvoy, an Irish Army veteran who once served in Lebanon and still suffered the psychological scars. A casino bouncer in the upscale New Jersey town of Cloisters, McEvoy got caught up in the murderous scheming of Irish-American mobster Mike Madden, and a ramshackle comedy caper ensued, in a style reminiscent of the late Donald Westlake.
Dan McEvoy returns in Screwed, now the co-owner of the casino but no less indebted to Mike Madden. Commissioned by Madden to deliver a package of bearer bonds to a New York address, McEvoy understands that he is being set up as a patsy, but is nonetheless sucked into a turf war. The politics of gang warfare mean nothing to McEvoy, who is far more concerned with how the war might affect his personal relationships. Armed with a unique set of lethal skills, he sets about defending his own tiny patch of turf.
On the basis of that set-up, you might imagine that any movie adapted from Screwed would probably feature Liam Neeson growling threats into a mobile phone. McEvoy, however, is a decidedly unconventional crime fiction hero. Despite his army training and combat experience, he is a man plagued by self-doubt. McEvoy may well be skilled at killing a man at long or short range, but his thought processes are so tortuous – the novel is told in the first person – that the intended victim is likely to expire from natural causes before McEvoy makes up his mind about the morality and necessity of a murder.