Humor is a vital component of Dorothy Gilman’s mystery fiction as well as her young-adult writing. For Gilman, humor is “a distortion or exaggeration of reality . . . that appeals to the sense of the ludicrous or the absurd.” She admits that there are some things that cannot be treated humorously, that simply are not amusing. Gilman uses humor to avoid violence. Sometimes described as too gentle for the genre, her novels never contain clinical, detailed descriptions of murder, though some violent episodes do occur. In essence, Gilman finds humor an “escape from pain, a stepping back from the event to observe it and defend the self by turning the pain into something else.” Despite its limitations, and the necessity of abandoning some efforts, Gilman’s final advice is that “if one has an eye for the absurd, one should put that talent to work.”
Gilman uses her considerable sense of humor to good effect in A Nun in the Closet, a novel noted as much for its humor as its plot. She places two cloistered nuns in the middle of a tangle of likable leftover people from the 1960’s: members of the Mafia, a crooked sheriff, migrant workers, and a mysterious stranger found wounded in the bedroom closet of a deteriorating estate. Add a guru, drugs, and thousands of dollars in a suitcase, and one has all of the ingredients for a puzzle that Sister John, another of Gilman’s strong, resourceful women, must resolve. The potential for humor in having two nuns leave a cloister after twenty years to enter a world they never knew, coping with experiences and language entirely alien to them, is limitless.
Gilman’s sense of humor is obvious in her writing, and it is a part of her work that she has discussed in a brief article entitled “Humor in the Mystery Novel,” published in The Writer in 1978. She states that writing humor is neither easy nor natural. Because she believes that novels are “constructed,” the use of humor complicates the construction process. “Humor is 95 percent craft, and at least 50 percent of that is timing,” Gilman says. It is an undertaking that is, at best, “laborious.” Because humor cannot carry a novel without a story line that sustains it, the author may virtually write the story twice. Gilman is aware of the differences in quality of humor; it may be subtle or broad, whimsical or black, satirical or witty. Her favorite devices are contrast, incongruity, distortion, or exaggeration, as when an elderly widow prevents a political assassination or nuns confront hired killers in the act of murder.
In all her work Gilman’s style is simple, direct, and often dramatic, perhaps a result of her long apprenticeship in children’s literature. The key to teaching children is often the use of clear, simple, and dramatic statement. Her books may be read quickly because her sentences follow one another in compact paragraphs that are built one on another.
Gilman began to develop her characters when she was very young, although she describes herself as lacking in insight and experience to bring them to completion. In a brief piece entitled “A Particular Bent,” Gilman revealed that she had conceived the pattern for Mrs. Pollifax at the age of eighteen, when she created a character she called Miss Crispin. Miss Crispin, in turn, had grown from her experience as a child with the interesting and elderly women she had known in her father’s church. She described them as “dowager types, feminists, matriarchs, soft little busybodies, and a few who were gently mad.” Many of them were eccentric and “strikingly uninhibited and liberated for their time.” They were, as Gilman says, her “babysitters,” who brought her “little treasures” and who bought her magazine and told her stories. Gilman’s characters spring from her own experience, informed and completed by long practice at the exacting craft of writing.
The Tightrope Walker
One of Gilman’s strengths is the tightly constructed plot, nowhere more satisfactorily achieved than in The Tightrope Walker (1979). In this book a young woman, Amelia Jones, who has experienced emotional problems and is searching for interior peace and self-knowledge, finds a clue to a...
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