Parodies of Mystery and Crime Fiction Analysis

Types of Parody

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Generic parodies, those spoofing genres defined by sets of conventions and expectations, tend to separate into three categories. The most common category includes straightforward spoofs, or satires, of the sort represented by the film Blazing Saddles. Their humor is broad, obvious, and often bawdy; the audience’s pleasure comes from having its expectations of the genre tweaked, thwarted, contradicted, or grossly exaggerated. This type is by far the most common sort of generic parody.

A second category of parody might be called “parody-plus.” Works of this nature taunt audiences with the expected conventions of the genre, while offering humor that is at once more intellectual and more playful than profane. Moreover, in addition to serving as parodies, the works function much as standard examples of their genres. A good example of this sort of parody can be found in the three Scream films released during the 1990’s. These films play with the conventions of horror films throughout, and the characters frequently make jokes about the expectations audiences bring to the theaters. At the same time, however, the films are also genuinely frightening enough to satisfy fans of the genre.

A third and final sort of generic parody can be called the metafictional parody. Humor in this sort of parody is slight and cerebral. Although generic conventions are often used in playful ways, the works play with the broader conventions and uses of narrative and storytelling in general as much as with those of a specific category or type. An example of this sort of self-conscious, parodistic writing is Stephen King’s best-selling series of seven novels known collectively as The Dark Tower. Those books toy with the conventions of both the Western and horror genres, not to spoof them, but to analyze them and to reflect on how stories are told, what needs narrative fulfills, and how relationships among authors, characters, and readers are structured. Examples of all three types of parodies can be found in the many parodies of mystery and crime fiction.

Sherlock Holmes Parodies

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although Edgar Allan Poe is traditionally credited with inventing the modern mystery story with “The Case of Marie Rogêt” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it was Arthur Conan Doyle’s later stories about Sherlock Holmes that popularized the new genre and gave the world a paradigmatic figure of the detective. Holmes skillfully solved crimes through thorough attention to the smallest of details, careful ratiocination, and total objectivity. Beginning with his novel A Study in Scarlet (1887), Doyle adhered in almost all his Holmes stories to a successful formula: In a late Victorian setting realistically depicted by the standards of Doyle’s time, Holmes faces with what seems to be an insoluble crime or inexplicable occurrence. Throughout his ensuing investigation, his sidekick, Dr. Watson, and the police remain baffled because they lack Holmes’s eye for detail or because they succumb to emotions and begin fretting or blustering. Holmes has no such shortcomings and soon solves the mystery to the delight and admiration of all. The formulaic nature of the Holmes mysteries allowed them to be imitated widely—and also parodied, almost from the time Holmes first appeared.

The first parody of Holmes was a series of spoofs written by R. C. Lehmann that began appearing in various magazines and journals in 1893 and were collected into book form in 1901. Lehmann’s titles spoofed Doyle’s original titles by imitating them while sounding dull and uninviting. In 1894, Robert Barr published a story titled “The Great Pegram Mystery,” which has a Holmes-like detective named Sherlaw Kombs stop a Watson-like friend from revealing the details of the Pegram conundrum, explaining that the man should save his breath, as the great detective has just sensed the distant approach of a man who will soon knock on his door and explain...

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Twentieth Century Parodies

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote again about his famous creation after World War I began. He turned to other genres and, most especially, to a study of spiritualism and parapsychology. Meanwhile, mysteries and crime stories continued to fascinate readers, and other authors were beginning to write mysteries that drew especially on one of the best of the Holmes stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Their books tended to deal especially with the dark secrets of old families in stately manor houses and of the villagers and servants surrounding them. Agatha Christie soon emerged as the best—and the best selling—of this new generation of mystery writers. As the twentieth century progressed, other writers, especially in the United States, began crafting a new type of mystery story that was more urban and more distinctly American. The works of writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler came to be called the “hard-boiled” subgenre of mystery and detective fiction. They were so named because of the toughness of their protagonists, the leanness of their prose style, and the bleakness of their worldview. Perhaps predictably, the works of Christie and other English writers similar to her in style and subject as well as those of the new, very different American writers soon became fodder for parodies. Through the remainder of the century and into the twenty-first century, literary parodies of mystery and crime fiction of all three sorts—simple spoofs, “parody-plus,” and metafictional parodies—appeared frequently in a variety of formats: short stories, novels, plays, and even musicals.

One of the earliest and best straightforward spoofs of Agatha Christie’s pastoral detective fiction is the engaging novel, Trent’s Last Case (1913) by the English novelist E. C. Bentley. The book is funny and gentle in both language and tone, but it is also one of the most damning satires of detective fiction ever written. Its protagonist, Philip Trent, is not a moronic bungler botching a case out of ineptitude. He is intelligent and competent and employs all the techniques of observation and ratiocination that Holmes and Christie’s detectives routinely use, but...

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Parody and More

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Other parodies written since World War I have striven to do more than simply poke fun—good-natured or otherwise—at the mystery/crime genre and its loyal fans. Other writers have experimented with the tropes and figures of typical crime fiction while providing audiences with solid and involving narratives. One of the best in the parody-plus category is Lawrence Block’s The Burglar in the Library. This novel features a typical Agatha Christie-type plot: Guests staying in an English country manor house try to solve the mystery of who has murdered their aristocratic host. The twist on convention—and the playful reference to the mystery genre itself—lies in who the protagonist and amateur sleuth is and why he is present: Bernie Rhodenbarr is a thief who has insinuated himself into the household in order to steal a first edition of a classic of the hard-boiled detective genre, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939). Rhodenbarr must solve the murder of his host in order to steal the valuable mystery novel.

The longest-running Off-Broadway play in American history is also a good example of parody-plus. Shear Madness, an English-adaptation of a Swiss play by Paul Portner, began its record-breaking run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in August of 1987. Set in a unisex hair salon, it is a comic mystery play that pokes fun at all the twists and turns of plot and motive and character that genre fans expect. At the same time, it invites reflection on the nature of the genre and its appeal by involving audiences in the solving of its mystery. A similar exercise in audience-exploration and involvement in generic conventions was tried, with less success, in the 1985 production of Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.


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Satire on Screen

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Despite the many short stories, plays, and novels that parody mystery, crime, and detective fiction, the most striking examples of such satires since the early twentieth century have been film spoofs. One of the earliest and best was famed silent screen comedian Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924). In that film Keaton plays a meek movie-house projectionist who is saddened by the prospect of his girlfriend’s being stolen by a sophisticated rival; he literally projects himself onto the theater screen. There, he finds himself playing the role of Sherlock Holmes, Jr., who must solve his girlfriend’s kidnapping at the hands of an amorous sheik. More sixty years later, Woody Allen used a similar gimmick in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) in which poverty-stricken small-town Americans during the Great Depression find themselves mixing with characters who come to life from a film similar to an Agatha Christie story set amid the ancient ruins of Egypt.

Allen’s film was one of a spate of mystery/crime story parodies produced during the 1970’s and 1980’s. All of them owe a debt to Buster Keaton, Mel Brooks, or both. Shortly after the dual successes of Brooks’s spoofs of the Western and horror-film genres, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (1974), Gene Wilder, Brooks’s protégé and star of those two films, wrote and directed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), a Brooksian treatment of the Holmes material. Wilder’s story about Sherlock’s younger, bumbling, jealous brother, Sigerson (not the Mycroft Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle), Wilder’s film featured not only Brooks’s trademark physical comedy and punning wordplay but also a number of actors who had appeared in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. The following year, Robert Moore directed a similar, but more thorough and sophisticated take on mystery and crime fiction, Murder by Death (1976), from a script by the popular Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Neil Simon. Moore and Simon satirize not one but several types of mystery stories, as Dashiell Hammett’s sleuthing socialites Nick and Nora Charles become Dick and Dora Charleston, Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple become Milo Perrier and Jessica Marbles, and Hammett’s Sam Spade becomes Sam Diamond.

Although Murder by Death received lukewarm praise from critics at the time of its release, it contains a brilliant satire of one of the genre’s oldest traditions: the denouement in which all suspects and investigators assemble and all possible scenarios explaining the crime are explained out and the culprit is pinpointed. Although this traditional scene is a legitimate form of foreshortening—a technique for advancing a story faster than it would transpire in reality to avoid tedium—mystery writers and film directors have often overused or overextended this technique to tie up all plotlines and provide closure. Simon’s final scene in Murder by Death is a witty take-off on such excesses. It drags on and on, with almost every imaginable secret revealed about all the characters, whether they are suspects or not. In 1977, Mel Brooks took on the crime genre himself with a spoof of director Alfred...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Ashley, Mike. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Modern Crime Fiction. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Contains a preface and an introduction that are insightful and a long section on films and television.

Breen, Jon L. Hair of the Sleuthound: Parodies of Mystery Fiction. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1982. Invaluable collection of analyses of mystery parodies.

Britton, Wesley A. Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. Comprehensive examination of fictional spies in literature, film, radio, and even comic books, with attention to parodies in these genres.

Carper, Steve, ed. The Defective Detective: Mystery Parodies by the Great Humorists. New York: Citadel, 1992. Entertaining collection of crime spoofs written by authors noted for their humorous writings.

Harries, Dan. Film Parody. London: British Film Institute, 2000. The first full book on this subject, this volume is a scholarly but accessible elaboration of the techniques of film parody.

Kaye, Marvin, ed. The Game Is Afoot. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Collection of early detective stories that contains Bangs’s, Barrie’s, and Munkittrick’s spoofs of Sherlock Holmes.

Knight, Stephen. Crime Fiction, 1800-2000. New York: Palgrave, 2004. General survey of mystery fiction that includes a useful chapter on ironic antiheroes.

Priestman, Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Useful collection of essays on a wide variety of topics, including historical periods and subgenres.

Rose, Margaret Anne. Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern. London: Cambridge, 1993. Broad overview of parody throughout the history of Western literature.

Watt, Peter Ridgway, and Joseph Green. The Alternative Sherlock Holmes. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. Contains lengthy index of Holmes parodies.