Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

Send in the Clowns: A Selection of Fictional Comedians

On Saturday’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I decided to have a bit of a laugh (or, in some cases, not so much of a laugh) and look at a selection of literary comedians. Now, I don’t mean comedians who have written books… this week’s show was devoted to fictional comedians and the books in which they appear. I had a look at some clowns, jesters and stand-ups from a selection of very different fictions.

If you missed the show, you can catch it again on the player at the bottom of this post. But, as promised on the show, here’s a list of the titles featured on this week’s episode…

The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah (2016)

So, I began with a stand-up comedian. The Narrow Bed (aka The Next to Die) is the tenth novel in Sophie Hannah’s Culver Valley crime series. The story focuses on the investigation into a serial killer dubbed ‘Billy Dead Mates’, who has been targetting pairs of best friends. The killer sends pairs of little white books as a calling card to both BFFs before dispatching them. However, there’s a problem… comedian Kim Tribbeck received one of the books at the end of a gig. But Kim doesn’t have a best friend (she barely has any friends at all). So have the police got ‘Billy Dead Mates’ wrong? Or is there more to Kim’s story than meets the eye?

Told through the alternating perspectives of a third-person account of the investigation and extracts from Kim’s book about the case, The Narrow Bed is a well-written and engaging murder mystery. For me, it’s the character of Kim that really stands out. Mildly misanthropic, troubled, and very much using humour as a defence mechanism, Kim Tribbeck could easily have veered into cliché, but Hannah’s writing brings her to life as a believable and sympathetic character. I’m not going to say I loved the big reveal at the end (no spoilers!), but I certainly enjoyed reading about this particular comedian.

The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell (2007)

A very different type of book next, and a very different type of comedian. Campbell’s book tells the story of film journalist Simon Lester, who is commissioned (with an offer that’s almost too good to be true) to write a book about forgotten silent film star Tubby Thackeray. Thackeray was once well-known as a comic performer (along the lines of Chaplin or Keaton), but his fall into obscurity was sudden and (almost) complete. Lester’s project begins as a simple re-evaluation and rediscovery of Thackeray’s lost work – but things soon take a turn towards something much darker.

I do enjoy the ‘lost film’ trope. Campbell has previously used this in Ancient Images (another book that I really enjoyed). But what I like about The Grin of the Dark is that it’s all about comedy, rather than horror. There’s something about the wild anarchy of Thackeray’s performances that is even more unsettling than the horror of the Karloff/Lugosi film in the earlier novel. The Grin of the Dark has some incredible set pieces (a visit to the circus, a description of Thackeray’s performance) and some characteristically Campbell word games. Ultimately, this is a book that will make you scared to ever laugh again.

I Funny by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein (2012)

James Patterson might not be the first name you think of when it comes to children’s fiction. But – along with his many other titles – Patterson has a raft of children’s books to his name. I Funny is co-written with Chris Grabenstein and illustrated by Laura Park. It introduces the reader to Middle School student Jamie Grimm. Jamie uses a wheelchair (the reasons behind this are revealed later in the book) and has to live with his rather miserable aunt (the reasons for which are also revealed later). His cousin is the school bully, an abusive and violent boy named Steve. One day, Jamie’s uncle – impressed by his nephew’s ability to make customers in his diner laugh – encourages him to enter a competition to find ‘The Planet’s Funniest Kid Comic’. Jamie’s journey to becoming a stand-up (or, as he puts it, a ‘sit-down comedian’) has begun.

I Funny is a book about self-esteem, disability and coming to terms with loss. Jamie’s humour might not always ring quite true (he’s a bit young to be recycling Steve Martin jokes), but the book’s heart is very much in the right place. I Funny was followed by a series of sequels, which continued Jamie’s story: I Even Funnier (2013), I Totally Funniest (2015), I Funny TV (2015), I Funny: School of Laughs (2017) and The Nerdiest, Wimpiest, Dorkiest I Funny Ever (2018).

Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie (1933)

And now the almost obligatory Agatha Christie! Admittedly, Lord Edgware Dies (aka Thirteen at Dinner) might not be the first book to pop into your head when you think about fictional comedians. It’s a Hercule Poirot mystery, which sees our little Belgian detective approached by actress Jane Wilkinson. Jane is married to the eponymous Lord and wants Poirot’s help to secure a divorce. The plot thickens when the detective discovers that Lord Edgware has already agreed to a divorce… but before he get to the bottom of the confusion, Lord Edgware dies!

However, it’s not Lord Edgware or Jane Wilkinson that have secured the book’s place on the list, but rather the character of Carlotta Adams. Carlotta is a music hall/theatre performer who specializes in impressions, and who becomes embroiled in the mystery of Lord Edgware’s death. Okay, maybe she’s not exactly a comedian, but there’s a reason why I’ve included her here. Christie based the character of Carlotta Adams – and also her character Aspasia Glen in the short story ‘The Dead Harlequin’ – on real-life performer Ruth Draper. Draper was an American monologist who used minimal props to conjure a series of characters on stage, and whose work inspired many comic performers, including Joyce Grenfell, Lily Tomlin, Emma Thompson and Maureen Lipman. While Draper wasn’t primarily known as a comic act, Christie’s Carlotta and Aspasia are both known in their respective stories for incorporating humour into their acts.

Clown Girl by Monica Drake (2007)

I didn’t think my list today would be complete without a clown. And Monica Drake’s 2007 novel certainly has one of those. The central character is Nita – aka Sniffles the Clown – who lives in Baloneytown and tries to get by making money from clowning gigs. While Nita dreams of creating high art performances, she’s ended up doing ‘corporate clown’ gigs and performing for clown fetishists. Nita is stuck in a bad relationship with boyfriend Rex Galore, and her life is in the process of taking a serious downward turn.

Drake’s novel is bizarre and weird, and it rattles along at a frenetic pace. But it’s also a story of sadness, pathos, grief and loss. The darkly quirky location of Baloneytown has clowning at the heart of its economic structure, and Clown Girl also offers comments on economic struggle and prejudice. This is a strange story, but an engaging one. If you’re looking for ‘tears of a clown’, this is the one for you.

Fool by Christopher Moore (2009)

And finally, from clowns to jesters. I toyed with the idea of including Shakespeare’s King Lear on today’s list, as it has a pretty memorable jester (or fool), who plays a significant (if not major) role in the story. But I decided instead to go for something even more fool-ish.

Moore’s Fool is a retelling of King Lear from the fool’s perspective. We view the story through Pocket (as he is called here)’s eyes, and it’s a rather vulgar, rowdy story at that. Fool is heavy on the bawdy (some might say frat-boy) humour, (anachronistic) swearing and slang. It offers a wry, though somewhat altered, version of Shakespeare’s story, with references to other plays scattered throughout. As a minor caveat, I will say that this is an American book, so some of the faux ‘Britishisms’ can feel a little clunky on this side of the Atlantic – and the humour is definitely of a type that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, Moore’s novel has been very popular, and the interpretation it offers of some of Shakespeare’s subtext is definitely interesting. If you enjoy Pocket’s escapades, there’s also a sequel: The Serpent of Venice was published in 2014.

To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to Saturday’s show here:

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