Parody of the Crime Film

Lee Horsley, Lancaster University

A genre so open to self-parody as the classic detective story has also over the years, not surprisingly, attracted a wide range of other parodic responses, as have the formulaic elements in hard-boiled fiction. Literary parodies abound: Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Inspector Hound, for example, parodies the enclosed world of the English country house murder; the narrator of James Thurber’s ‘The Macbeth Murder Mystery’ muses on an American woman encountered at a Lake District hotel:

‘I’ve read that people never have figured out Hamlet, so it isn’t likely Shakespeare would have made Macbeth as simple as it seems.’
I thought this over while I filled my pipe. ‘Who do you suspect?’ I asked, suddenly.
‘Macduff,’ she said, promptly.
‘Good God!’ I whispered, softly. (Thurber, The Thurber Carnival [1942] 1965: 33)

The lady “murder specialist” has made the “stupid mistake” of reading Macbeth under the misapprehension that it is a detective story. “The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim,” she tells him. Bringing to bear the scholarly apparatus of a devoted student of Shakespeare (“the Third Murderer has puzzled ‘Macbeth’ scholars for three hundred years”), the narrator questions her closely about the quite different set of critical assumptions that she deploys in her own reading of Macbeth: “‘Is that so?’ I murmured. ‘Oh, yes,’ said my informant. ‘They have to keep surprising you.’” Thurber’s parody raises in its brief compass several of the questions that arise in any consideration of the history and the nature of crime fiction: What divides ‘serious literature’ from genre fiction? How close is the relationship between the two? What are the conventions that define the various subgenres of crime fiction? What expectations do we bring to our reading of popular fiction and what demands does it make on our critical faculties?

Parody, as Dwight Macdonald suggests, is to be enjoyed as “an intuitive kind of literary criticism, shorthand for what ‘serious’ critics must write out at length” (Macdonald, Parody 1960: xiii), and crime fiction has been a rich source of comic and parodic reworkings which have functioned both to assist in the process of generic transformation and to crystallise the conventions of its main subgenres. In novels that work to modify the paradigms, the impulse to parody has often been quietly in play in the details that have shifted our understanding of one well-established narrative form or another – Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hammett’s The Tenth Clew and Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel can all, for example, be seen as transformative texts that deliberately exaggerate an aspect of the established form in order to challenge our habits of reading and change our generic expectations. Alison Light observes that the whodunit has, from the outset, been “a self-conscious form given to self-parody” – so much so that by the end of a decade Ronald Knox “was able to draw up a list of its mock rules” (Light, Forever England 1991: 74). Patricia Merivale, in her contribution to this Companion, notes that parody and its near-relation pastiche have been important ingredients as well in more “serious” postmodern adaptations of crime fiction.

Working with bolder strokes on a broader canvas, contemporary cinema has fixed in the minds of popular audiences the key elements in a range of subgeneric variants. Classic detection is parodied, for example, in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (Gene Wilder, 1978); Zero Effect (Jake Kasdan, 1997), with Daryl Zero as the Holmes figure whose work “relies fundamentally on two basic principles: objectivity and observation, or ‘the two obs’”; Clue (Jonathan Lynn, 1985), with its accumulating bodies and three different endings; and the long-running series of Clouseau films, from the early Peter Sellers Pink Panther (Blake Edwards, 1963) to the recent (2006 and 2009) Steve Martin remakes. The gangsters of the great sagas are reduced to children in Theodore Huff’s short film Little Geezer (1932) and, more famously, in Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (1976), which opens with “Someone once said if it was raining brains, Roxy Robinson wouldn’t even get wet.” Hard-boiled private eye films are sent up in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner, 1982) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988); police procedurals in the ‘Naked Gun’ series; Hitchcock films in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety (1977) and Danny DeVito’s Throw Mama from the Train (1987).

Parody and pastiche of crime film conventions have become increasingly pervasive during the last two decades. Generic knowingness and liberal borrowing (ranging from ‘homage’ to parody) have characterised the work of many of the best contemporary film-makers, and dozens of films have played with established character types, plots and images. Amongst the period’s distinctive reworkings of the formulas and materials of earlier crime narratives we find, for example, the Coen brothers ’The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001); Serial Mom (John Waters, 1994); Get Shorty (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1995); One Night at McCool’s (Harald Zwart, 2001); Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black 2005); and David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004), in which existential detectives keep everyday life under surveillance and a femme fatale played by Isabelle Huppert tells the protagonist, “It is a losing game mankind has played for more than a century. Sadness is what you are, do not deny it. The universe is a lonely place, a painful place. This is what we can share between us, period.”

As Hupert’s eloquent existential gloom suggests, to parody a form isn’t just to make its formal qualities highly visible; it is, generally speaking, to juxtapose conventional elements of style, structure and characterisation with the way in which the text creates meaning. Part of the effect often resides in the implication that there is a gap between serious intent and generic fixity – and this is, of course, a difficulty with which writers of genre fiction frequently contend, an acute awareness of this possible disjunction often leading them to modify the form.

Parts of the above discussion are incorporated in the Conclusion to the Blackwell Companion to Crime Fiction, ed. Charles Rzepka and Lee Horsley (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).   Click here to visit the Wiley-Blackwell site.

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