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August 2016 BOOKLIST
Find more Take the Funny and Run
Some readers love mysteries that deliver blood, guts, and darkness. Others prefer entertaining puzzles with a dash of humor. And then there are those books that make us laugh without intending to, through self-serious dialogue, plot twists that hardly curve, and set pieces that enter into the realm of cliché. Let’s face it, no matter how much we love crime fiction, it may be the most spoofable genre there is. Even the best authors employ so many familiar character types, plot devices, and stock situations that spoofing it is pretty much mandatory.
But spoofing is harder than it looks. There are a lot of alleged mystery spoofs whose perpetrators slay us with boredom, not laughter. Let’s ignore them and look instead at those that succeed on the page and on the screen.
The Big Over Easy. By Jasper Fforde. 2005. Penguin, paper, $15 (9780143037231).
In Fforde’s wickedly funny take on the police procedural, Detective Jack Spratt and his partner, Mary Mary, are trying to figure out who murdered prominent local citizen Humpty Dumpty. Like his mind-bendingly entertaining Thursday Next novels (beginning with The Eyre Affair, 2002), Fforde’s Nursery Crime books take popular literature—in this case children’s nursery stories—and look at them from weird new angles. Lots of fun wordplay and nudge-nudge, wink-wink silliness.
The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. By Robert Rankin. 2003. Gollancz, paper, $12.95 (9780575085435).
If Fforde is one of our most ffamous comic novelists, Rankin deserves to be equally well known—his Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse is a masterpiece of weirdness. A serial killer hunts the streets of Toy City. Jack, a boy newly arrived in town, teams up with Eddie Bear, the former sidekick to the disappeared private eye Bill Winkie, to catch the killer before he wipes out Toy City’s citizenry. Rankin’s writing style is difficult to describe, but call it deliberately offbeat, aggressively self-referential, and wildly hysterical, and you’re close.
The Shroud of the Thwacker. By Chris Elliott. 2005. Miramax, paper, $13.95 (9781401360115).
Elliott, the offbeat character actor who first made a name for himself on Late Night with David Letterman, penned this very funny spoof of historical thrillers. It’s 1882, and New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt is hunting a twisted serial killer known as Jack the Jolly Thwacker. Elliott himself soon joins the chase, thanks to a time machine (of course), and the book bounces around between the historical search for the Thwacker and Elliott’s contemporary efforts to prove, once and for all, the identity of the mysterious killer.
Trent’s Last Case. By E. C. Bently. 1913. o.p.
This is an early—and some say the very first—spoof of the whodunit genre. Philip Trent, a sort of Holmes wannabe, uses his brilliant powers of deduction to unmask a killer, only to have the actual killer patiently explain how he screwed up. It’s a genteel spoof, tame by comparison to today’s more brutal spoofings, but still entertaining and a must-read for fans of spoofs, given its historical significance.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. 1975.
Directed by and starring Gene Wilder, this film tells the story of Sigerson Holmes, Sherlock’s younger brother, who takes over one of Sherlock’s cases and winds up facing off against the villainous Professor Moriarty. Like Murder by Death, below, it’s an affectionate spoof of a much-loved icon.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. 1997.
Mike Myers’ three Austin Powers movies (Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, 1997; Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, 1999; Austin Powers in Goldmember, 2002) are broad, often crude comedies that take the most spoofable elements of the pre–Daniel Craig James Bond movies—enormous sets, larger-than-life villains, wisecracking dialogue—and push them to hilarious extremes. Myers plays multiple roles, including Powers, a 1960s spy transported to the modern day and then back in time again, and his nemesis, Dr. Evil.
High Anxiety. 1977.
Mel Brooks offers a dead-on spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, especially Vertigo. Silly, sure, and played for yuks, but all of Brooks’ best films are. It’s not quite as funny as Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein—but so much better than Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. 1988.
Keenan Ivory Wayans spoofs pretty much every blaxploitation movie ever made. Wayans stars as idealistic hero Jack Spade, navigating his way through the criminal underworld to find out who murdered his brother, Junebug, who allegedly died of an OG (“overgold”—too many gold chains). John Vernon—who else would you get?—plays the villain, Mr. Big, and Isaac Hayes and Jim Brown make appearances too. This film bears repeated viewings and gets funnier every time you watch it.
Johnny English. 2003.
Rowan Atkinson stars as Mr. English, a suavely inept British secret agent who faces off against John Malkovich’s Pascal Sauvage, who’s planning to steal control of England by forcing the queen to abdicate. Written by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the authors of a handful of Bond movies (including the latest, Skyfall), the movie is a surprisingly faithful—if decidedly goofy—re-creation of the Bond movies. There’s a sequel, Johnny English Reborn (2011), but since we’re talking about good spoofs, we probably shouldn’t have mentioned it.
Murder by Death. 1976.
Playwright Neil Simon’s take on the traditional Agatha Christie–style whodunit features characters based on popular detectives such as Poirot, Marple, Chan, and Spade. (Cleverly, the producers cast Peter Falk, TV’s Columbo, as Sam Diamond, the Spade simulacrum.) The movie’s big question isn’t who the killer is but whether anybody was actually killed. Not a laff riot like High Anxiety—more of a gentle comedy that tweaks familiar characters.
The Naked Gun. 1988.
If you watched television mysteries in the 1970s, you probably saw these words at the end of some of the shows: “A Quinn Martin Production.” Martin was the prolific producer responsible for The Fugitive, The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, and others. The Naked Gun (1988) and its two sequels (The Smell of Fear, 1991; The Final Insult, 1994) are spoofs of the Quinn Martin–style cop shows, featuring Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin, a guy who somehow manages to catch the bad guy despite being a hopeless incompetent. The humor isn’t exactly subtle—lots of physical shtick and jokey dialogue—but if you don’t laugh at these movies, check your pulse.
Get Smart. 1965–70.
Get Smart ran for five seasons (1965–70) on two networks (first NBC, then CBS), and if you haven’t heard of it, we’re not sure why you’re reading this. It’s a classic—no, it’s the classic—spy spoof, starring the hilarious Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, and Barbara Feldon as his partner, the beautiful Agent 99. Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, two of television’s funniest people, it took popular spy series like the Bond films and TV’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and gave them a good, hard twist, wringing out every comic possibility. Adams is brilliant as the clumsy but clever Smart, and even though its last episode aired more than four decades ago, the show feels just as fresh today as it did at the time.
Police Squad! 1982.
The Naked Gun movies were based on the limited-run, six-episode series Police Squad!, which ran on ABC in 1982. Produced by the guys who gave us Airplane!, the series introduced Nielsen’s Drebin character, and each half-hour episode packed in so many jokes—verbal, visual, even musical—that they were funnier than a lot of full-length movies. If you’ve never seen the show, go rent the DVD, for crying out loud.
Sledge Hammer! 1986–88.
Also an ABC series, this ran for two seasons. David Rasche starred as Inspector Sledge Hammer, and any resemblance to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan was entirely deliberate. Think of it as the funny, goofy, occasionally stupid side of the hit series Hunter (also inspired by Dirty Harry), and you have a pretty good idea of what to expect.
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