To Die Laughing

In real life, crime is scarely ever funny, and it's safe to say that murder never is. So how come some of the best mystery writers can sometimes get readers who are apparently mentally balanced grinning, chortling or even guffawing out loud? It takes not just a larky outlook but great skill to wring laughter from stories of human suffering without leaving the reader angry and confused -- or even concerned about the author's mental well-being.

Successful funny mystery writers succeed in different ways. A sardonic tone combined with a nice sympathy for human weakness, an ear like Lester Young's, and a dead-on understanding of the darkest strains of the American dream are Elmore Leonard's way. The same goes for Robert B. Parker. Breeziness is riskier. I've read -- or tried to read -- murder mysteries so relentlessly chirpy they felt like some Orwellian form of psychological warfare. Many of these books involved cooking or pets.

A breezy tone can work, though, if the writer is unusually talented and in touch with reality. Donald E. Westlake is often incisive and lightly droll. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone PI novels are both believable and wonderfully frisky, as are Sandra Scoppettone's Lauren Laurano books. A trap that the best female PI writers have been careful to avoid is writing in the tone of "Lucy and Ethel get into mischief while staking a serial killer/rapist." Janet Evanovich has the occasional near-death experience with precisely that pitfall in her Stephanie Plum novels, but she's so inventive, and intelligent, and racy, and bold, that she gets away with a lot, and the books are absolutely winning.

In High Five (St. Martin's, $23.95), only the fifth installment in this popular series, bounty-hunter Plum is scouring Trenton for her missing uncle, Fred Shutz. He's a well-known local cheapskate and pain-in-the-neck whose wife, Mabel, finds solace, after Fred vanishes outside the Grand Union, by trading the old Pontiac in on a new Honda and looking into a cruise to Bermuda.

All the working-class families in Trenton's "the Burg" neighborhood are overflowing with "characters." These include Plum's brainy, opinionated Grandma, who inadvertently floors her son-in-law with a stun gun during a family dinner, and Winnie Black, Uncle Fred's current "honey," who has conducted at least one assignation while her cranky husband, Axel, was out having the tires rotated on the Chrysler. Sometimes the folks of the Burg are a little cuter than they need to be. But they're so full of quirky American life, like a Preston Sturges ensemble, that it's hard not to like them as much as Evanovich obviously does.

Plum herself is terrific fun. Once briefly married, she's now in her thirties and on the loose in her native Central New Jersey, struggling to make ends meet by tracking down bail jumpers, and torn between her lover of six weeks, vice cop Joe Morelli, who's sour on the whole idea of marriage, and a taciturn Latino fellow bounty hunter nicknamed Ranger, who busts up crack dens for the housing authority, runs guns for (as Plum and we are assured) good causes, and finds the same erotic charge in Plum's proximity that she finds in his.

Plum is not reckless about men, but she's always alert and interesting. And game as she is, Plum is less hapless in her romantic life than in her work, where she's nearly stabbed, shot and bombed to bits during the search through the mob-run venues of Trenton for cheap Uncle Fred. Can this be funny? In Evanovich's hands, yes. It has to do not just with the author's mastery of her own bright style but also with the pleasure she takes in the human race even when its members are screwed-up or in jeopardy.

Block Party

Another mystery writer who obviously enjoys human life and whose glee is infectious is Lawrence Block, in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Block can be solemn and profoundly sad in his Matt Scudder and other books -- he's written 50 -- but he always seems to be having the time of his life in this series about a nimble-witted New York City antiquarian book dealer and still once-in-a-while hotel burglar.

In The Burglar in the Rye (Dutton, $23.95), Block comes up with a delightful comic turn on the J.D. Salinger-Joyce Maynard saga. Gulliver Fairborn is the famously reclusive author of a book called "Nobody's Baby" that millions read when they were 16 and about which people keep saying, "It changed my life." Fairborn's ancient former literary agent plans to make a quick buck auctioning off his letters to her; and Alice Cottrell, the ex-teen prodigy who spent three of her formative years with Fairborn adoring him in the Arizona desert, talks Rhodenbarr into filching the letters -- to protect Fairborn's privacy, she claims.

There are a couple of murders here, but Block whizzes by all that and maintains perfect comic pitch by keeping the victims sketchy and the grisly killings offstage. Set mainly in a shabby-genteel old downtown Manhattan hotel called the Paddington -- where even "the mice are hunchbacked" -- Block's plot quickly turns into a goofy farce involving scholars, literary groupies, con artists and -- could it be? -- the Great Man himself.

This is all lighter than helium, and it's irresistible. Among the droll downtown types who show up here is Rhodenbarr's butch drinking buddy, Carol Kaiser, who inexplicably has fallen for a "lipstick lesbian." He tells her, "So-long, L.L. Bean, hello, Victoria's Secret." But the affair is even more complicated than that, and it gets mixed up with the Fairborn letters mystery and its lengthy-but-fast inspired finale. ("I suppose you're wondering why I summoned you all here.") One of the characters tells Rhodenbarr near the end, "You're a burglar so you have a dark side, but your dark side has a light side of its own," and that's putting it mildly.

A Tangled Vine

One of the most exquisitely sardonic stylists writing crime fiction today is Britain's Bill James, who's back with the superb Lovely Mover (Foul Play, $23), another in his Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur series. James does for Welsh thuggery what Richard Condon did in his Prizzi family novels for the American Mafia: strips these people of literary sentimental folderol and shows them all-too-believably to be both brutal in their casual, moody, narcissistic way, and at the same time weirdly funny.

Keith Vine is the arriviste cocaine dealer with principles, who wishes only to satisfy all the "carriage trade" customers at the dockside floating restaurant called the Eton Boating Song and to provide a legacy for his little daughter. He feels it's too bad that he has to "thump" one of his retailers, sexagenarian Eleri ap Vaughan, whom he's spotted chatting up an agent from a rival London gang. The old girl had "those clever teeth" -- dentures acquired after Vine knocked her real ones out of her face -- and he misses seeing Eleri at her customary table at the restaurant. He's truly sorry that "a wonderful era was gone, like the end of steam trains."

Harpur is undercover in this one, posing as a cop on the pad, hoping to reel in not just Vine but the entire local coke wholesale and retail operation. This is dangerous, for him and his daughters, little Jill and sarcastic, pubescent Hazel, and for Denise, the widower Harpur's languid, ambivalent university-student girlfriend. His chief headache, though, is still Desmond Iles, a treacherous superior officer. Iles is more impediment than help in accumulating the goods on Vine and an assortment of violence-prone competitors and "business associates."

When Vine himself is eventually removed from the action, we miss his voice and his unique commentary on the passing scene, as at Eleri's funeral. Of the officiating clergyman, Vine muses: "It was hard to guess if he ever met her. Perhaps he went to the Eton for snorts. A lot of these vicars had private money and only took the church for spiritual reasons and to get a house, plus parish women with loneliness troubles."

Gallows Humor

The humor in Dennis Lehane's Prayers for Rain (Morrow, $25) is of the M*A*S*H*-style "we crack jokes to stay sane in-a bloody and insane world" variety. This sort of works for Lehane, and it sort of doesn't. When it doesn't, it's because this is a stomach-churningly gory suspense novel, and while the breeziness is not insistent, sometimes it feels slightly demented.

For the fifth Patrick Kenzie novel, the Boston PI is rejoined by sometime partner and lover Angela Gennaro to figure out what could have happened to Karen Nichols. She's a one-time client of Kenzie's who threw herself off the Customs House tower. Karen, they learn, was driven to suicide by a psychopathic killer whose M.O. is to make his victims' lives so wretched that they can't stand staying alive. Awful. And as Kenzie starts to close in on the nut, he retaliates by going after people close to Kenzie. A former girlfriend of Kenzie's is mugged, her car is vandalized, and her dog is poisoned. And that's for starters.

A regular Kenzie-series character of Lehane's who is meant to be more or less amusing is his part-time bodyguard and cohort, Bubba Rogowski. Bubba "has the face of a deranged two-year-old . . . and it sits atop a body that reminds me of a steel box car with limbs." When he isn't pounding bad guys into hamburger for Kenzie, Rogowski occasionally freelances for the North End Mafia, and it isn't clear if Lehane means for readers to chuckle over this or what. For a lot of readers, Prayers for Rain is going to have tonality problems, but it's unlikely that anybody's attention will drift away.

Last Rites

Off the topic of humor in mysteries but essential to mention this month is Peter Dickenson's enthralling Some Deaths Before Dying (Mysterious Press, $23). It's about a 90-year-old Englishwoman who is dying of a neurological disease but is set on keeping her famously supple mind up and running in order to clear up a mystery involving her late husband that has haunted her for decades. Dickinson was editor of Punch for 17 years, but there are no jokes about doddering English oldsters here, just rich, fluent prose and total respect for a strong mind struggling to maintain its acuity and to understand a crucial event in a number of lives.

During World War II, the leadership and bravery of Rachel Matson's husband, Joycelyn, helped a contingent of men survive a horrific Japanese POW camp. Back in England, the men formed an association and stayed close friends. Then one of them embezzled the group's funds and vanished. Years later, as Rachel lies dying, the disappearance of an antique duelling pistol from her home leads her to believe she might finally be able to uncover what happened back then that led to a death, shattered friendships, and perhaps her husband's crippling stroke.

A nurse, a sympathetic distant relative, and Rachel's daughter Flora help her with the detective work, which is accomplished through letters, interviews and the examination of old photos that Rachel took with her discerning eye. Regarding one event, Flora remarks, "Doesn't it all seem ages ago?" "Not to me," Rachel replies.

Richard Lipez writes mysteries under the name of Richard Stevenson. "Strachey's Folly" is his latest.