Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Comic relief and tension-breakers: Two examples, and a question for readers

I've recently read two very different crime novels that used a similar device for comic effect. Andrea Camilleri's The Paper Moon and Blood of the Wicked, by Leighton Gage, punctuate their narratives with humorous, sometimes absurd confrontations (or avoidance thereof) between the protagonist and his superior officer.

Camilleri's running joke is a constantly postponed meeting between Inspector Salvo Montalbano and the commissioner he despises. In Gage's grim story about murder and the fight for land reform in northern Brazil, the one comic note is the phone calls between detective Mario Silva and his dim, pompous supervisor, or director, who insists on being updated on Silva's investigation "twice daily, at noon and at six."

Camilleri makes the reasons for the missed meeting grow wilder and more elaborate. Gage has the harried director grow more and more exasperated, enumerating his woes as the news gets worse, the bodies pile up, and the possible repercussions for his own career grow ever more worrisome. The phone calls, made comic by their regularity, begin to affect Silva even when they don't arrive. Each author repeats the joke but varies it just enough each time to keep the reader interested, something like a musical theme and successive variations.

Before I offer one example each from The Paper Moon and Blood of the Wicked, you get your chance to weigh in. What running jokes do crime novelists use to add humor or release tension? How do they hold the reader's interest when repeating a joke throughout a novel?
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"He said that 'cause they're having the furinal services for that sinator that died and seeing as how the c'mishner gotta be there poisonally in poisson, atta furinal. I mean, the c'mishner can't come to see youse like he said he was was gonna do. Unnastand, chief?"

"Perfectly, Cat."

– The Paper Moon
"Good evening, Director."

"Silva?"

It wasn't the director.


– Blood of the Wicked
© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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2 Comments:

Blogger Simona said...

So, that's how Catarella speaks in English. I wonder how it is perceived by the reader. This is something I don't know and I don't think I can learn.
I am reading my 3rd Commissario Brunetti novel and there as well we had a boss subject to running jokes. I have to say, it is probably the thing in the novels that I like the least. It feels overused.
Fortunately in the other novels I have been reading, by Augusto De Angelis, the protagonist has a very different relationship with his superior. By the way, I found an article in English about De Angelis: http://heldref-publications.metapress.com/app/home/contribution.asp?referrer=parent&backto=issue,2,5;journal,10,15;linkingpublicationresults,1:119949,1
I have not yet read it, but I will try to obtain it: it sounds interesting.

March 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter said...

The article calls De Anglis a "theorist of the Italian giallo," and it also refers to the realism of detective fiction. It's available to subscribers only, so I'll hope my public library has it.

Clashes between detectives and their superiors are a widely used motif in crime fiction, but I think the two authors I wrote about here went further than most to make the clashes a running theme, only slightly and subtly varying the form each time they used it.

I've sometimes found the English rendering of Catarella's speech jarring, but I don't know if a translator could come up with a better solution than Steven Sartarelli did. Rendering dialect, malapropisms and "low" speech must be one of a translator's most thankless tasks.

March 12, 2008  

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