Good Bad Detectives and the Art of Being Silly


Two books from wildly different worlds that I suggest you stop everything and start reading immediately: Douglas Adams’s The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and Stephan Pastis’s Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. Both stories follow detectives (Adams’s Dirk Gently and Pastis’s Timmy Failure) who use . . . well, let’s just call them “unorthodox techniques.” To a casual observer (or reader, I guess), Dirk Gently and Timmy Failure couldn’t be any worse at solving crimes. However, even when they are seemingly sidetracked by dirty refrigerators or missing pet polar bears, Dirk and Timmy somehow always manage to end up in the right place and arrive at the right answer (and often in the nick of time).

Watching these two detectives at work is absolutely hilarious. And besides the fact that both of these books’ protagonists are private eyes, it’s this that ties Adams’s “adult” novel and Pastis’s “kids” one together – their silliness, that is. And I mean silliness in the most positive way. The word has taken on some negative connotations over the centuries, but once upon a time it meant “happy,” “cheerful,” “lighthearted,” “gay.” I use “silliness” to refer to that offbeat, whimsical, sometimes-absurd sort of humor that, when encountered, manages to both baffle and delight. This kind of artful silliness provides laughs that get you thinking (even if all you’re thinking is, That could never happen, but it’s be awesome if it did).

Silly books as good as Adams’s and Pastis’s aren’t very easy to find these days, which is one of the many reasons why I often read things like Timmy Failure, a large-fonted, short-chaptered, thoroughly illustrated book marketed toward kids ages 8-12. In my experience, there’s a lot more high-quality silliness to be found in the Young Adult and Kids sections than there is elsewhere. And I know – there’s a lot of stuff out there that probably shouldn’t be treated with silliness. There’s a time and place and plenty of good reasons for serious-toned books of all sorts. But the point of this post is to say that, in the hands of storytellers like Adams and Pastis, silliness can be a great way to approach the most serious of the serious subjects.

In The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, Adams uses his own brand of artful silliness in order to satirize television commercials, police investigations, and the music industry, but also to discuss human’s use and misuse of theology, the terrors and delights of growing old, hubris, greed, envy, and the meaning of coincidence (or fate, if you’d like). When tackled straight-on (i.e., seriously), these topics often prove too overwhelming and/or depressing to consider for long. But when cut with some laughs, it’s easier – not to mention more enjoyable and, arguably, more productive – to, say, ponder the meaning of life or confront one’s own mortality. In this way, silliness works like those sunglasses with the special filters that your teachers always made you wear during solar eclipses. They let you get a good long look at something that it would otherwise hurt too much to stare at.

Similarly to Adams, Pastis uses silliness not just to get laughs, but to help his readers (both kids and adults) think about loneliness, boredom, and guilt. He also uses humor to put his readers in uncomfortable and perhaps foreign situations, forcing them to experience the difference between a good and a bad teacher, to feel how excruciating it can be not to know what to do or say in a social situation, and to see what it’s like to be the child of a single parent who is actively dating. I’ve read plenty of more serious-toned novels (and one’s from all over the library or bookstore, one’s labeled Children’s or Young Adult, as a Bestseller or a work of Literary Fiction) that take on these issues and questions, and Pastis’s book, silly as it can be, definitely measures up. And when it comes to kids, it’s especially important to give them a metaphorical pair of those special solar-eclipse sunglasses in order to get them thinking hard about themselves and others. (An added bonus – the humor in Timmy Failure is sure to keep young, reluctant readers turning the pages.)

If you want to read a detective novel that will make you think about a whole lot more than whodunit, check out these books. Whether you’re six, sixteen, or sixty, Adams will expand your mind (and probably your vocabulary), and Pastis will either keep alive or reawaken the kid in you. I’m willing to bet both authors get a few laughs out of you, too.

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