(Warning: Minor spoilers ahead)
I picked up Carl Hiaasen’s Basket Case for two reasons. First, I like reading his humorous crime novels filled with characters who are thrown into outrageous yet believable predicaments. The second reason I read Basket Case is because it—as most of Hiaasen’s other novels have done—has gone on since its release to become a bestseller. Funny and best-selling interests me.
The reason I chose to go a step further and write about it is that Hiaasen pulls off something within it that I find fascinating: He manages to take a nasty situation in which a person has been murdered and make it funny. Okay, the death itself isn’t the source of the humor, but the resulting situations are undoubtedly hilarious, as are the characters who struggle through them.
Few things can kill a joke more quickly than trying to dissect it, but I still thought that taking a look at a few of Hiassen’s techniques might give me some insight into using humor in my own work.
Of course, Carl Hiassen isn’t the first person to strike a balance between murder and humor in a novel. Dark humor is nothing new. Writers have been making readers laugh with it for millennia. But the question of exactly how it works has taken on a new significance for me lately. A major concern I have struggled with in my own work is how to balance the pathos of its more weighty subject matter—oppressive religious people, betrayal, cold-blooded murder—with its humorous aspects. Nearly everything I write has some level of humor in it, but how do I make a story funny where someone has been murdered? Death, as a rule, is almost never funny in the real world, so where does the humor lie?
The recently deceased person in Basket Case is the nearly washed up rock star Jimmy Stoma. The novel’s protagonist, Jack Tagger, is only connected to the murdered man by an appreciation for his music. There is no emotional attachment between the two men, and the primary reason Tagger wants to solve the murder is in order to help his own career. Nothing about Stoma’s death is funny: He passed out while scuba diving in the Bahamas. But this doesn’t seem to matter because ultimately, Basket Case is not about the man who was murdered. Jimmy Stoma is merely a device Hiaasen uses to allow the reader to observe the protagonist at work.
If the humor doesn’t reside in the victim, then, where does it lie? As mentioned before, there is the protagonist, a forty-something, washed up newspaper reporter who’s been relegated to working the obits. While it’s true that Jack Tagger fits many of the stereotypes of a hard-boiled reporter readers might expect (possessed of an abiding cynicism, living from paycheck to paycheck, at constant odds with his boss), Hiaasen throws in some nice tidbits that make the character somewhat unique. For one, as a result of his stint as obit writer, Jack has become obsessed with the deaths of celebrities, particularly the ages at which writers and rock stars died. Hiaasen gets a lot of mileage out of this piece of Tagger’s personality, as it informs our understanding of him and reveals his hilarious, burning desire to find out at what age his father died.
Two other sources of humor in Basket Case are antagonists. First, there’s the killer. It’s not funny that the woman killed her husband, of course, but nearly everything else about her is funny. She is a singer who believes she is destined to be the next best pop star, but the reader knows better. She is self-absorbed, mean, and not particularly perceptive when it comes to seeing her own weaknesses.
The other self-absorbed antagonist is Tagger’s boss, a spoiled rich kid who knows nothing about the newspaper business but believes he knows a little of everything. He serves as a constant source of misery for our hero, and the boss’s misplaced self-assuredness gives Tagger ample opportunity to shine. The other thing this antagonist shares with the murderer in the story is that he believes he can outsmart our protagonist, and this, of course, proves to be his undoing. There’s no big surprise there.
For me, one of the most interesting things about humor has always been its tendency to appear everywhere in life, in particular in the places and times it is least expected. It can be found in funeral parlors, hospital wards, and war zones. Yes, it’s often used as a defense mechanism to deflect the issues that threaten to force us to take life seriously, but isn’t that very tendency to ward off the universe in itself somewhat funny?
All things considered, it seems too easy to pronounce that Hiaasen pokes fun at people who take themselves too seriously. That may be a part of the recipe, but there’s clearly more to it than that. The characters who are most irredeemable in the novel—the murderess, her henchmen, and Tagger’s obnoxious boss—are clearly the butts of the most scathing humor, but we don’t care about them or what they find other than justice, so we only laugh at them for a little while. The jokes that stick with the reader, though, the ones that matter the most, are those that focus on the most likeable characters, the ones we care about.