> Zed Book Club / Murder, She Laughed: 11 Seriously Hilarious Murder Mysteries

Meryl Streep as Loretta in season 3 of 'Only Murders in the Building'. Photo: Patrick Harbron/Hulu

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Murder, She Laughed: 11 Seriously Hilarious Murder Mysteries

What to read If you loved watching 'Deadloch,' 'The Afterparty' and 'Only Murders in the Building' / BY Nathalie Atkinson / August 31st, 2023


When it debuted in 2021, Only Murders in the Building became the most-watched comedy premiere in Hulu history. That’s thanks in part to the chemistry between the cross-generational amateur sleuthing trio of Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel ( Selena Gomez), and the trend for savvy senior citizen sleuths. But the show’s popularity also comes down to its comic dexterity with true-crime tropes and smart, self-referential drollery. The combo seems a welcome respite for an audience steeped in murder TV, yet also suits the current mood, where daily news grows ever more dire. “Like wit and the comic, humour has in it a liberating element,” Freud wrote in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis in 1928. Deadly serious cases wrapped in the levity of a wisecrack — the quips and the catharsis — go together like salted caramel. Only Murders third season is now airing (on Disney+ in Canada), with guest stars Paul Rudd and Meryl Streep adding to the alternately goofy and deadpan proceedings.

The sleuthing neighbours at New York’s fictional Arconia apartment building (filmed at the storied real-life Belnord) have kindred spirits with the characters in the playful second season of The Afterparty (now on AppleTV+), where each of the episodes is a retelling of the events leading up to murder from a different character’s perspective. This time, the group of friends is at a wedding and each episode takes on the trappings of a different visual style — a Jane Austen-Regency romp, say, or a ’90s sexual thriller or indie romance film noir. It’s frothy while being genuinely suspenseful.

 

Mureder COmedies
Clockwise, from left: Elizabeth Perkins, Zach Woods, Poppy Liu, Vivian Wu, Ken Jeong, Zoë Chao and Sam Richardson in ‘The Afterparty. ‘Photo: Courtesy of Apple TV+

Likewise, the mismatched detective duo of the stealth hit Deadloch (on Prime Video),  an Australian murder comedy best described as what if Hot Fuzz and Letterkenny were written by women and set in Tasmania. The series’ working title was “Funny Broadchurch,” and Deadloch manages to thread that needle. With affection, it balances spoofing Nordic noir tropes, small town frictions and queer artistic communities, while delivering a seriously addictive thriller (with a side of canny social commentary on misogyny and male fragility, and dialogue that’s both laugh-out-loud hilarious and fiendishly clever).

 

Murder Comedies
Left to right: Madeleine Sami, Kate Box and Nina Oyama in ‘Deadbox.’ Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Prime

 

There are plenty of new crime and mystery novels that riff on the phenomenon of true crime podcasts (looking at you, Lisa Jewell’s None of This Is True), but fewer that pair homicide with this sort of outlandish hilarity. 

Television shows aren’t the murder mystery enthusiast’s only respite from relentlessly grim and gloomy atmospherics. British TV presenter Richard Osman, for example, has done much to elevate the profile of funny murder mysteries with the sardonic tone and comedic set pieces of his globally bestselling Thursday Murder Club cosies (The Last Devil to Die, fourth in the series, comes out Sept. 19). There are others, however, now working in the beloved tradition of comedic suspense writers, like Charles Portis, Chester Himes and Janet Evanovich. Here are some notable recent books that combine a sense of humour and a sense of peril.

Obsessive Book Buyers: Zoomer editors have carefully curated our book coverage to ensure you find the perfect read. We may earn a commission on books you buy by clicking on the cover image. 

1Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Q. Sutanto

When a bored San Francisco widow wakes up one morning to find a dead body in her Chinatown tea shop, her solitary life is changed. It’s the latest from the bestselling author of Dial A for Aunties, who grew up living between Singapore and Jakarta. Vera, confident that her powers of deduction are superior to those of the police, begins her own investigation by befriending each of the viable suspects. Sound fun? Mindy Kaling is already adapting it as a TV series.


2Swamp Story by Dave Barry

The Pulitzer Prize-winning humourist and syndicated columnist, who lives in Miami, aims his hilarious slings and arrows close to home in this ridiculous Sunshine State caper about a woman marooned in the Everglades with her ex and infant daughter, a treasure, amateur monster hunters and a preening presidential hopeful who gives full meaning to the term Florida Man. Insane premise, crazy characters and enthusiastically blurbed by Steve Martin (several times!).


3Finlay Donovan Jumps the Gun by Elle Cosimano

One of the pleasures of TV procedurals is following the character development over time. Likewise, in this third entertaining book, the Virginia-based writer’s self-deprecating heroine and single parent (whose assistant is her babysitter) owes the Russian mob. It mixes black comedy, thriller and women’s fiction elements with plenty of snark.


4A Most Agreeable Murder by Julia Seales

TriStar Pictures has bought the rights to this “novel of manners and murder — Knives Out meets The Favourite.” First-time L.A. novelist Seales has worked as a writer’s assistant to Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, which hints at her sense of humour — and sensibility. Her Regency-era whodunit is for those who enjoy Jane Austen’s brand of dry wit. A wealthy suitor drops dead at a ball and Beatrice, a young lady more inclined to true crime tabloids than the usual genteel feminine pursuits, takes on the “unseemly” role of amateur detective. Expect riffs on etiquette and tongue firmly in cheek as a storm traps the gala guests under one roof.


5Death and Croissants by Ian Moore

Until gourmet gumshoes Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll give us a new season of Murder in Provence on BritBox, there’s this droll murder mystery about a not-quite-divorced, middle-aged Englishman who runs a B&B in a fictional town in the Loire Valley (where the British stand-up comedian-turned-novelist runs a guesthouse). So far, so Peter Mayle — although perhaps it’s more like if Midsommer Murders had way better food, wine and scenery (and were funny on purpose).


6The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff

Poverty, intimate partner violence and the caste system in rural India are all in the crosshairs of this darkly comic satire about Geeta, a “self-made widow,” and the group of middle-aged housewives in her remote village who band together to rid themselves of their husbands. Pulling partial inspiration from notorious criminal-turned-politician Phoolan Devi, the feminist revenge caper mixes fiercely loyal female friendship and camaraderie with hardboiled humour, and was a Good Morning America buzz pick and longlisted for The Women’s Prize.


7Scandal at the Savoy by Prudence Emery and Ron Base

As I said when this breezy series debuted last year: it’s At Bertram’s Hotel, if Miss Marple lived in Swinging Sixties London and wore Mary Quant minis. The second instalment follows the ongoing misadventures of Priscilla Tempest, a young Canadian in charge of press and public relations at London’s famous Savoy Hotel. This time she’s investigating the murder of a showgirl while juggling difficult and demanding guest relations. It’s written by Victoria-based former film publicist Emery, 86, who worked at the Savoy from 1968 to 1973, so clearly she would know.


8Murder Your Employerby Rupert Holmes

The bestselling English novelist, screenwriter and comedian behind the Tom Thorne crime novels inaugurates his first new series in 20 years, built around a maverick British detective. Gruff but charming Blackpool detective Declan Miller’s wife, Alex (also a police officer), was recently murdered on the job, so while he and new Detective Sergeant Sara Xiu investigate a double murder, he’s also on the trail of Alex’s killer. The subtitle, The McMasters Guide to Homicide, is a nod to their shared love of ballroom dancing (their pet rats are called Fred and Ginger). Miller’s flippant sarcasm may be a cover for grief, but it’s also a delight.


9Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen

It’s charity ball season in Palm Beach, where high society is a gerontocracy. The Queen Bee — who was one of the “Potussies” who serviced the American president — vanishes. He lives in the state for half the year, which offers ample opportunity to lampoon the vulgar then president and Florida’s political foibles. This 2020 novel (with a new epilogue, written in hindsight) tides us over until the beloved author’s next one arrives — or the premiere of the Apple Original series of his Bad Monkey from the Ted Lasso co-creator, whichever comes first.


10Bloody Martini by William Kotzwinkle

The wildly bestselling author of the Walter the Farting Dog children’s series (who lives between Arizona and coastal Maine) follows up his 2021 Felonious Monk with more over-the-top exploits. Brother Thomas is a Benedictine monk with an anger-management problem who’s called away from his monastery in the Mexican desert  to his northeastern hometown. There, he’s known as Tommy Martini; a former high-school football hero and son of a local crime family. His oldest friend’s dying request, left on voicemail, is that Thomas protect his wife. Violent and wryly funny in equal measure, you’ll be chuckling as several of the Brother’s vows — chastity and pacifism, for example — get tested.


11Grave Expectations by Alice Bell

Claire, a burnt out millennial medium, was meant to be the entertainment at an English mansion birthday party with several generations of one family. The granny matriarch dies on the party’s eve but, from the other side, leads Claire to a cold case that needs solving. In this supernatural whodunit, the twist is that her sleuthing sidekick is the mysterious ghost of a teen who died in the 1990s. Various ghosts from different historical periods of the stately manor also pitch in (imagine Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit meets the sitcom Ghosts), adding one-liners and fun charm to the proceedings. (Sept. 5)


THE SCROLL

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