So this serial killer walks into a bar...
The tone, style, content...pretty much everything about my debut novel Sleepyhead, came as something of a shock to those who know me as a stand-up comedian. The book is not exactly a laugh a minute, and while this might not surprise some who have seen my act - I have to say that before they do - the question I am asked most often in interviews is why a stand-up comic would want to write a novel so dark. Why should a gag merchant be so obsessed with death and matters even more disturbing? Why should somebody who spends his nights on stage trying to slay an audience and avoid dying, spend his days at the word processor making his characters do exactly those things...?
There are lots of reasons, none of which will be particularly surprising. What is surprising however, is that writing a dark and disturbing crime novel and performing stand-up comedy are not as different as one might suppose.
I am not the only reader who, in the books he reads, seeks something far removed from the world he inhabits. Thus, when I settle down with a book, comic-crime novels are pretty much as close as I come to a busman’s holiday. The novels I read, though never completely without humour, lean far more towards the hardboiled and darkly disturbing. The word caper in the blurb is pretty much guaranteed to make me leave any book exactly where I found it. When it came to writing Sleepyhead, I was basically trying to keep it simple, and write the sort of book I would like to read. No surprise then that it didn’t turn out to be a comedy crime novel.
This isn’t to say that Sleepyhead is without humour - even if does come from the most surprising direction - or that I never tried my hand at a comic crime novel. Two years ago, at the same time that I was writing the beginning of what would eventually become Sleepyhead, I began what would hopefully be a funny crime novel set in my home town of Birmingham. When both books were about 3000 words long I sent them off to the only contact I had in publishing (a well-respected editor at a major house), along with a couple of agents. The response was unanimous. Forget the comedy. I think this was more a comment on the tastes of publishers than the comic content (or otherwise) of what I had written. I was told in no uncertain terms that comic crime scares the pants of most publishers. This is borne out by the dearth of big name writers in this field. Everyone always mentions Hiaasen, or possibly Evanovich and that’s about it. The fact that in the UK, bar Ripley, Gutteridge and maybe Chris Brookmyre and Marc Blake, there is pretty much nobody selling any books in this sub genre, would seem to confirm that the advice I was being given was sound. That year, at Deansgate, there was a panel entitled “does humour hurt your sales figures?”. That put the tin lid on it. Comedy and crime were not for me...
The subject matter of Sleepyhead and its recently completed follow-up could not be further removed from that which I trot out at the Comedy Store or Jongleurs. However, answering the frequently asked question that I began by quoting, has made me realise that the same techniques are required when writing crime fiction and performing stand-up comedy.
A strong opening is of course, crucial. That first gag has got to be a cracker if the crowd is to trust you and to relax into your material. Ditto the readers of your book. Most have not got time to give a novel the ‘benefit of the doubt’ or to ‘persevere’ if it doesn’t grab them straight away. If the audience/reader is to be engaged, it needs to be done pretty bloody quickly. Whether in a sweaty, smoky club or nestled in a favourite armchair, good money has been paid and the attention has got to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck if you are not to be heckled off the stage or find your novel discarded in favour of the latest Alan Titchmarsh opus. The same applies to the climax of your act/novel. The big finish is all important. Whether your loose ends are to be tied up or left dangling, whether you leave the audience on a shaggy dog story or a song, a bang is always preferable to a whimper...
The most striking similarity between these two, outwardly very different art/entertainment forms is the use of the reveal, or (to give it its full and more pretentious name) the pull back and reveal. In joke terms, this is the moment when it becomes clear that you have been led down one path only for the punchline to come rushing up the other and smack you in the face. This usually involves tags along the line of “and that was just the receptionist!” or in the case of a gag involving a frenzied bout of Onanism and a dirty magazine - “...and then they threw me out of the newsagent.” Much the same technique is used by crime writers. The best example I can think of comes from “The Silence Of The Lambs” in which, as the SWAT team prepares to descend on the killer, Clarice Starling is tying up a few loose ends of her own. Clarice rings a doorbell, the reader turns the page and in a heartstopping reveal, realises that Clarice is actually the one at the killer’s door.
Crime or mystery fiction uses moments such as this all the time. The reader is manipulated artfully, and preferably without them knowing it, until the writer chooses the most effective moment to reveal key information. This is often a clue, though the biggest reveal of all of course, is usually the identity of a killer. In the case of whodunnits, it might be said that the whole book is one extended pull back and reveal.
There are, of course many differences between writing crime fiction and performing stand-up. Writers don’t get heckled (though some might say that’s basically what critics do) and comics don’t get advances (most of them would fail to turn up if they did). The most obvious difference though, is in terms of reaction. The comic knows if a gag works or, more painfully, does not, instantly. A book on the other hand is just out there and one can never be sure whether it is being enjoyed or thrown across a room.
Far and away the simplest answer to why I do both these things is that I enjoy them. If either were to cease being enjoyable I should stop doing it but right now that seems unlikely. For the present I get the best of both worlds. Death, blood and terror. And then there’s the crime writing...