Blending Humor and Tension in a Traditional Mystery / Author Nancy J. Cohen

There’s nothing funny about murder. Or is there? Mystery, romance, and how-to author Nancy J. Cohen navigates the delicate balance between bloodshed and laughter in her guest blog, “Blending Humor and Tension in a Traditional Mystery.” Here’s a great way to laugh your way into the perfect crime. And for even more great tips from Nancy, check out her book “Writing the Cozy Mystery.”

Happy Reading! (And Happy Writing – using Nancy’s excellent advice).

Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford,
Founder of Killer Nashville

Nancy J Cohen (Photo by Lasky)
Nancy J Cohen (Photo by Lasky)

How do you maintain tension in a humorous mystery? First, look at the source of humor. If it’s the sleuth’s wry attitude toward life, humor is inherent to how she’ll view things. It’s in her nature, and no matter the circumstances, her attitude will prevail. Or perhaps the humor is situational. This can be momentary, or it can relate to a subplot that lasts throughout the story. Regardless of the source of your story’s humor, it doesn’t negate the fact that a murder has taken place. Someone’s family is grieving. As the sleuth gets closer to the truth, the killer will increase his attempts to stop her. So tension builds toward a confrontation we know is coming. Foreshadowing can aid in this suspense as can other writing techniques. It’s a delicate balance between the two elements. If your readers expect a humorous story, you can’t kill off a favorite character or go serious with a child in jeopardy or a rape scene. You have to conform to reader expectations of the genre, especially in a cozy mystery. Your story can still be suspenseful. The sleuth has to uncover the clues before someone else gets hurt or killed. In my writing guide, Writing the Cozy Mystery, I detail some of the techniques a writer can use to raise tension. The trick is to blend these elements with the humor inherent in your story. For example, in Shear Murder, Marla—my hairdresser sleuth—discovers a dead body under the cake table at her friend’s wedding. She summons her fiancé, Detective Dalton Vail. Imagining the look on his face will elicit a smile from fans of my Bad Hair Day series. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Catching Dalton’s eye, she signaled frantically. He’d know what to do. When he reached her side, she sagged against him. “Don’t look now, but there’s a dead body under the table,” she murmured under her breath. “What?” “You heard me.” She smiled tremulously at a couple who strolled past. Could they tell she was sweating? That her face had lost its color? That she was about to lose her dinner? Dalton half bent, his dark hair falling forward, but then he straightened with a grin. “Good one, Marla. You almost got me.” She shuffled her feet. “I’m not kidding.” Any minute they’d call for the cake, or Jill would broaden the hunt for her sister. Chewing on her bottom lip, she lifted a portion of the drape so Dalton could see for himself. Her stomach heaved as she almost stepped on a trickle of congealing blood. “Holy Mother, you aren’t joking.” He gave her an incredulous glance that she read as, Not again.

But even funnier is the subsequent scene where Marla tries to keep the bride from discovering the murder until after the cake cutting ceremony. She has to prevent the bride and groom from coming over. So Marla decides to bring the cake to them. It was fun to write this scene where Marla and Dalton carry the heavy cake toward the newlyweds. They’re interrupted en route, and Marla sweats as the cake on its piece of cardboard gets heavier and heavier. This incident is a perfect example of humor blended with tension.

"Hanging By A Hair" by Nancy J. Cohen
“Hanging By A Hair” by Nancy J. Cohen

Another example comes in Hanging By A Hair, #11 in the Bad Hair Day series. Dalton and Marla have wed and moved into a new neighborhood. At their first homeowners’ meeting, Dalton gets into an altercation with the president who happens to be their next-door neighbor. Cherry, the community’s treasurer, warns Marla and Dalton about the fellow.

“That man has secrets to hide. Better not push him. You don’t know what he’ll do.” Marla got an inkling of what Cherry meant when a plastic bag of dog poop showed up on their circular driveway the next day. She’d just stepped outside at seven o’clock on Friday morning with Lucky and Spooks—their golden retriever and cream-colored poodle— when she noticed the item lying on the asphalt. Hauling on the dogs’ leashes, she veered over to verify her observation. Then she rushed back inside to inform her husband. “I’ll bet it’s him,” Dalton said, rising from the breakfast table where he sat drinking coffee and watching the news. “Let me get my fingerprint kit. I can prove it.”

The absurdity of Dalton checking the plastic bag for fingerprints elicits a chuckle from readers who’ve already come to know these characters. And where did this scene spring from? Personal experience. We found the same thing on our driveway one day, a gift from a nasty neighbor. Lots of personal incidences make their way into my stories, but that’s fodder for another blog. As you can see, humor stems from your characters or the situation. Raising a chuckle while the tension rises works well in a traditional mystery. Let it evolve naturally, and readers will come back for more.

Nancy J. Cohen writes the Bad Hair Day mystery series featuring hairdresser Marla Shore, who solves crimes with wit and style under the sultry Florida sun. Several of these titles have made the IMBA bestseller list. Nancy is also the author of Writing the Cozy Mystery, a valuable instructional guide for mystery writers. Her imaginative romances have also proven popular with fans. Her titles in this genre have won the HOLT Medallion and Best Book in Romantic SciFi/Fantasy at The Romance Reviews. Active in the writing community and a featured speaker at libraries and conferences, Nancy is listed in Contemporary Authors, Poets & Writers, and Who’s Who in U.S. Writers, Editors, & Poets. Currently, she is serving as President of Florida Chapter, Mystery Writers of America. When not busy writing, she enjoys reading, fine dining, cruising, and outlet shopping. Visit her website at

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