There are basically two kinds of crime fiction nowadays; the « Commercial » one that sells and the « Prestige » one that earns critical applause and wins awards. They used to be one and the same but as so often happens with art forms they drifted apart and now rarely overlap. They still have something in common, however: they take themselves very, very seriously. As different as James Patterson and Attica Locke can be otherwise, both do agree that crime is no laughing matter and as a result jokes and comic relief are extremely rare in their books.
Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp has an excellent article dealing among other things with Julian Symons’ lukewarm treatment of Rex Stout. That Symons was no fan of the creator of Archie Goodwin isn’t much of a surprise as Stout was the incarnation of everything he loathed about traditional mysteries, from reliance on a formula and a series character to lack of realism. What must have irked him most however was Stout’s self admitted lack of literary ambition and « seriousness ». Symons, as everyone who’s read Bloody Murder will know, was very big on « seriousness » as a requirement for both a writer and their work. What he perceived as the light-heartedness of Golden Age mysteries was in his view one of their most damning flaws, perhaps the most damning one. Symons like Chandler held deeply moralistic views on the genre and writing overall, and he strongly objected to violent death being an object of mirth and excitement.
While Symons’ star has considerably (and unfairly) waned over time and some of his opinions have been challenged and sometimes overturned, his opposition to jolly good murder has stood and become the mainstream view. Contemporary crime fiction is nearly uniformly grim and humourless, except for the so-called « cosies » which are critical anathema for this very reason. There is for instance no apparent successor to the late Donald E. Westlake (whom Symons predictably didn’t like) who by the way is now and tellingly more famous and appreciated for his « noir » work than the humorous capers that made him a major name in his lifetime.
Not everyone is happy with this current state of affairs: Christopher Fowler for instance passionately argued in his preface to his short story collection London’s Glory in favour of a crime fiction that would take itself less seriously (he himself practices what he preaches, which may account for why every award season bypasses him) but he is very much a lonely voice. « Murder can be fun » as Fredric Brown put it, but it hardly is nowadays, and no improvement appears to be in sight as crime writers are increasingly expected to take stands on a whole array of social issues if they are to be taken… seriously. There seems to be no way escaping this word.