Funny business

Canadian writer Terry Griggs offers a humourous take on noir conventions.

Canadian writer Terry Griggs offers a clever spoof of noir conventions

Author Terry Griggs plays with the familiar constructs of the genre in her new mystery novel Thought You Were Dead. ((Biblioasis Press))

Hard-boiled detective fiction is often gritty, anxious, sexy, dark, dangerous. But funny? It sounds unlikely, yet humour and noir commingle effortlessly in Terry Griggs’s Thought You Were Dead, a new mystery novel in which the author sets up familiar genre conventions only to detonate them with abandon and glee.

Thought You Were Dead takes place in and around Farclas, a dreary southern Ontario town that’s home to Killexed lawns, a big-box mall bookstore where the clerks think Tolstoy is Canadian and, most importantly, Chellis Beith, a literary researcher with a case of arrested development. When Chellis’ boss, acclaimed mystery writer Athena Havlock, sends him on a search for an elusive grave site, it’s the MacGuffin that sets Griggs’s intricate plot in motion. When Havlock goes missing, Chellis suspects foul play and finds himself in the midst of a real-life mystery he has no idea how to solve. What ensues is more madcap than macabre — Thought You Were Dead is filled with enough red herrings, pop-culture references and puns to make your head spin.

Griggs is every bit as playful in conversation as she is on the page. During a recent phone interview, the Stratford, Ont.-based novelist always had a joke at the ready or a clever explanation for her literary flourishes. When asked why she dedicated Thought You Were Dead to herself, she says, "I thought it would be unlucky to dedicate it to a family member or a pal. I thought, sure enough, they’ll pop their clogs!"

Griggs admits she wasn’t well versed in the noir genre prior to writing Thought You Were Dead, and considered starting a novel about genealogy before that seed morphed into a mystery. That was followed by reading, research and Hitchcockmovies, though in the end, Griggs chose to put her own spin on the mystery genre.

(Biblioasis Press)

"I do adhere to the conventions, but in a somewhat subversive way, I guess. A lot of them are there, but in a more playful way, a bit creative. You know, the mystery [novel] is a very receptive form — it can withstand all sorts of invention," she says.

Thought You Were Dead might be detective fiction, but it’s also a sly comment on the genre itself. Chellis’ familiarity with Athena Havlock’s books allows him to make wry observations about well-worn plot devices — like when he muses "a second body always turns up." Griggs’s inclusion of several strong female characters, like Chellis’ spunky inventor sidekick, Elaine, is a clever update to a genre that’s not always been kind to women. Likewise, the novel will deny the expectations of readers expecting violence and a high body count. As Griggs explains: "In so much American fiction, there’s guns, guns, guns everywhere. I thought, well, guns in a Canadian book seem so weird, really. When Chellis gets one in his hand, he doesn’t know what to do with it."

One trope Griggs did opt to keep was the idea of the doppelganger. "There’s a lot of double-ness, which is a part of noir film and literature," Griggs says. "There’s the fictional characters that I’ve written, and then within the book, there’s the fictional characters that Athena Havlock has written, and there’s just supposed to be these little sorts of echoes and connections between [them]. There’s the two mothers, and what I see as the femme fatale and the femme ‘fatal,’ Elaine, because she’s always coming up with these inventions that she tries out on Chellis — and they’re going to do him in!"

Griggs offers up two very different takes on the traditional gumshoe character. First, there’s Marcel Lazar, the dreamy, perfectly coiffed hero of Athena Havelock’s pulpy mysteries, who adheres to the loners and "slightly disreputable truth seekers" model Chellis claims is at the heart of most mysteries. Then there’s Chellis himself, a soft-boiled orphan and slacker, who can barely leave his couch, let alone play the hero. A chronic underachiever, he’s content to pad around in his apartment in his pajamas and leather jacket, drinking beer, surrounded by "fossilized pizza crusts."

"Instead of an everyman, he’s an everyguy," Griggs says. "He keeps saying, ‘C’mon, I’m not a detective.’ And he keeps saying it throughout most of the book, and then obviously he gets drawn into it. And one of the rules in detective fiction is that this offbeat sort of detective is very savvy and rational in sorting out the clues, and you know, Chellis will get a clue and he’ll either overlook it or just set it aside or misinterpret it. But he does eventually get there."

One of the most interesting aspects of Thought You Were Dead is how frequently it digresses from its mystery plot to focus on Chellis’s emotional growth. "Your experience of women has been nothing but abandonment and betrayal," Athena Havlock informs him at one point. The assessment is borne out in Chellis’ fraught dealings with his ex-girlfriend, Elaine, which consist almost entirely of puns and barbed, insulting banter.

When asked about her snappy dialogue, Griggs acknowledges it is an integral part of noir fiction, before adding that her repartee owes much more to screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby than books by Hammett and Chandler.

The influence of director Howard Hawks can be felt in Griggs’s breakneck pacing and absurdist plot developments, which include the appearance of a very unconventional weapon near the book’s close. Griggs’s finest joke lies in her decision to set her novel in the publishing industry, which allows her to riff on tacky book covers and take aim at everyone from aspiring writers to copy editors to a lowly book reviewer who meets an untimely demise.

All this despite Athena Havlock’s dictum that "writers should not write about writers and writing."

"I told myself I’m not going to have characters who are writers, because there seem to be so many books about books," Griggs says. "You should step outside yourself and be writing about other things, not about what you’re doing in your little office, and the people you know within the writing community and all that. But on the other hand, you make rules and think, Well, what the heck? You break them."

Thought You Were Dead is in stores now.

Lee Ferguson writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.