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.
Indeed, McEvoy is in many ways everything the crime fiction hero should not be. The legacy of a drunken, abusive father has left him conflicted about his own capacity and appetite for violence. So far is he removed from the bed-hopping, womanising stereotype that he refuses to take advantage of Sofia, with whom he is besotted, on the basis that she occasionally confuses him with her long-lost husband, Carmine. The macho caricature of bad genre fiction is further undermined by the fact that McEvoy's business partner and friend is the "super-gay" ex-bouncer Jason, while McEvoy's sharp eye for women's fashion comes courtesy of his addiction to Joan Rivers's Fashion Police TV show.
Suffice to say that Dan McEvoy is a complicated man, and Colfer takes great pleasure in drop-kicking him into a story that reads a lot like a Coen Brothers' take on The Sopranos. Indeed, part of the pleasure of Screwed is Colfer's awareness of the conventions of the genre, and his willingness to bend them out of shape. The refreshing irreverence is there right from the beginning, when the novel starts with McEvoy explaining how Elmore Leonard has decreed that no story should begin with a description of the weather, "but sometimes a story starts off with weather and does not give a damn about what some legendary genre guy recommends". Fair enough, but McEvoy then neglects to tell us what the weather is actually doing.
That whimsical quality is probably the novel’s defining feature (“Men have climbed into wooden horses for eyes like that.”) but instead of proving a narrative distraction, the offbeat style is an integral element of Dan McEvoy’s attempt to cope with the way his life appears to be spiralling out of control.
In Plugged, this quality occasionally veered off-course to become self-consciously wacky and zany, but Screwed is noticeably more controlled and direct in terms of its narrative thrust.
It takes a deft touch to weld the darker elements of noir to slapstick comedy, but Colfer’s aim has a laser-like focus and the joins very rarely show. The result is a hugely enjoyable caper that also functions as an affectionate homage to the genre.