Saturday, 17 April 2010

A Light-Hearted Look At Murder

Everyone has a few books the love. They are absolute favourites that should never be subjected to objective criticism, deserving only praise annd delight and some sort of book-cake. I've read hundreds of books, so I have a dozen or more (answer: more) of these cake-deservers.
I love to insist that my friends read them, but then I refuse to lend them my precious copy. My friends then get angry, and all sorts of problems arise.
Other than finding less irritable friends, there is only one possible solution: to set up a publishing company, buy the rights to my favourtie books, and reprint them by the thousand with swish new uniform covers. Some kind of 'best of' imprint.
I'd lose a lot of money, but that's not the point.

The point is, I can do a sort of small version of this, without the reprints, swish covers, or... the rest. But I can create a virtual imprint--Carroll Classics--and award my dearest books with the prestige and literary credibility that comes with being included under that discerning banner.

So, with only a little further ado, let my introduce to you the first book to be inducted into the Carroll Classics (I have not bought the rights to it, or bought it any cake):

Mark Watson's A Light-Hearted Look At Murder.

Andreas Honig used to be a Hitler lookalike, hosting commercial events, and even appearing on television. His lover was the fifth tallest woman in Britain. And Mark Watson is a comedian, when not writing. So why isn't this a comedy?
It's a funny book, but only incidentally. There's clever and original observations all over the place, a long hard look at the absurdities of lookalike entertainment, and--in more than one case--rather special interplay between characters. But despite the central premise of the story (I repeat: Hitler lookalike and fifth tallest woman) the focus of this novel is definitely not comic.

I read once that the essential difference between a comedy and a tragedy is that one has a happy ending. You can make any story a tragedy by giving it an unhappy ending: the same story with a happy ending would be, fundamentally, a comedy.
I don't know if I agree with that, but I mention it here because the point--endings matter--is responsible in part for the bittersweet feel that Murder has (a nicely uncomfortable abbreviation, I think.)

There are two stories here. The story at the centre of this book--the ten years ago story--has... well, I won't spoil the ending, but it's a tragedy. The peripheral story--the now story--has a happy ending. It is peripheral only because it is the story we look through, to the other. Neither one quite dominates the other.
That's because the peripheral story is only peripheral in terms of narrative geography, not importance. It is equally important, so the Happy Ending and the Sad Ending are of equal weight. Whatever you think about the comedy/tragedy distinction, the two opposing endings will inevitably colour the book with some kind of emotional ambiguity.

But my point is that, regardless of endings, this book is not a comedy. It comes down to one thing: it is much too convincing. Here's an arbitrary list of points:

1. The events at the heart of this book are not light-hearted, and are not dealt with as such. They are happening to very real people, who don't get up very easily after a slapstick prat-fall.
2. The absurdities built inherent in the central characters are not punchlines: they are convincingly real, with messy explanations and complex implications.
3.The world of light entertainment is not so light-hearted, either: it is gritty, questionable and bound to leave you inexplicably queasy.

It is something I love, and something that I am very wary to try: when funniness comes from a serious place. Comedy and tragedy can be ever closer than just a different eding: they need not be mutually exclusive at all. In Murder, they are interweaved so cleverly that they forge something independent of them both.
That's more ambitious than I want, yet. But here's a thought: if the book is convingingly real, you can get away with anything. You can make a Hitler lookalike fall for the fifth tallest woman in Britain. And you won't sound kooky or stupid or consciously surreal.

PS I'm trying to make my posts shorter. I'm not doing very well, yet. This little post-script isn't helping things, either. I'll shut up now.


  1. Good use of the PS.

    The book sure sounds interesting I will have to give it a go. Interesting to note that as a comedian that Mr Watson hasn't set out to write a funny book but rather a more thoughtful one. Which I think is him, funny but with a lot of thought.

  2. Right now I'm adding this book to my list of "avoid speaking to the person sitting next to me at the airport" books. I'm also wondering the exact measurement of the fifth tallest woman and assuming that I could at least match her for height.