Sunday, October 28, 2007

Thurber for Mystery Lovers

by Julia Buckley
Recently I've been reading to my sons from James Thurber's wonderful humor anthology called The Thurber Carnival; they're having such fun with it that they've been picking it up and reading it themselves in quiet moments. The other day we asked my son if he had readied his uniform for school, and he yelled, "No, sorry, Mom--I was reading Thurber!"

Hard to be upset about an excuse like that, especially when it comes from a nine-year-old boy (who is currently writing his own novel, called The Vengeance Story). :)

Anyway, all this talk of Thurber put me in mind of a book of his that all mystery lovers would enjoy, called Thurber on Crime. Donald Westlake writes the Foreword to this fun volume of Thurber's crime-related humor, and he is obviously a Thurber fan. Only Thurber fans really "get" the idea that the little bland man with a shy manner and a deeply repressed desire for revenge can be amusing. Thurber is, of course, the author of such famous stories as "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (once made into a movie with Danny Kaye that was nothing like the original and became something Thurber himself would have quietly parodied) and "The Night the Bed Fell," which are not mysteries at all. But in this book, Thurber's daughter Rosemary provides stories that can be linked by Thurber's bent toward the sly, the mysterious, even the subtly macabre.

Westlake writes, "Gentle comedy is the hardest to make work." This a good assessment of Thurber, whose jokes are not always obvious, but become funnier the more one thinks about them, the more his dialogues roll around in the back of one's mind. "Mr. Preble Gets Rid of His Wife," seems to be much more an indictment of marriage than of murder, and "The Catbird Seat" continues the theme of the henpecked man, although both men get their revenge in the end, despite their mild-mannered reputations. In "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" a misguided woman decides that the solution to Macbeth was all wrong, that Macbeth didn't do it, and that she, a rather dubious sleuth, has it all figured out.

Added to the wonderful stories are Thurber's famous cartoons. Westlake writes, in the foreword, that a critic once called Thurber, whose cartoons famously appeared in The New Yorker, a "Fifth Rate Artist." Harold Ross defended him, saying "You're wrong. Thurber is a third-rate artist." Thurber's art, though, has an undeniable charm, and is even more impressive when one considers that toward the end of his life Thurber was almost totally blind, and had to create his cartoons on huge sheets of paper that were later photographed and shrunk down to size. Thurber once joked about this, saying he intended to title his autobiography Long Time, No See.

The cartoons, the vignettes and the stories all capture Thurber's sense of irony (and his capable use of parody) as well as his appreciation of crime fiction. Donald Westlake summed it up the best: "Thurber on Crime. There's nothing in the world quite like it."

46 comments:

Peter said...

I read "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" in a crime-fiction anthology. The story seems more an affectionate tribute to crime fiction than a piece of crime fiction itself.

In any case, I had no idea Thurber had written enough about crime to fill a book. If Donald Westlake says he did, though, I have to believe it.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Lorraine Bartlett said...

I read a LOT of Thurber when I was in high school. This one is going on my Christmas List. Thanks, Julia!

Julia Buckley said...

You're right, Peter. In a way I suppose the book is an excuse to publish Thurber in a new genre, but I think this would appeal to mystery fans who also like Thurber.

Lorraine, I think you'll like it, although it might be out of print. Good ol' Amazon will help with that.

Peter said...

A good excuse, certainly. But I was (pleasantly) surprised to learn that Thurber had written enough stories related to crime to fill such a book.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My favorite Thurber cartoon--a mystery with circumstantial evidence--is one in which a lady is confronting I rhinoceros, if I remember correctly. A man's hat lies on the ground between them, and the caption is, "What have you done with Dr. Millmoss?" At least I think it was Thurber and not Helen Hokinson. I last saw it a long time ago. ;)

Julia Buckley said...

"Dr. Millmoss" sounds like a very Thurber kind of name. :)

Our favorite is the cartoon in which a prosecutor is sternly facing a defendant and saying "Does THIS refresh your memory?" and he's pointing at a kangaroo standing next to him. :)

Julia Buckley said...

And Peter, if you ever have spare reading time amidst all of those wonderful foreign crime reads, you would find this to be a pleasant surprise. :)

Peter said...

I had the same thought you did, that Dr. Millmoss is a very Thurberlike name. I also have no doubt that I would enjoy Thurber on crime, just as I enjoy S.J. Perelman and Woody Allen on crime.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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I don't think this anthology being for chilfren because it has subliminal contexts ,The Thurber Carnival is for adults, you have to read them other stories.m10m

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Do you see any influence of Edgar Allan Poe's writings on Thurbers work.
My LIfe and Hard Times is a classic still has meaning decades later. The stories sound like a conversation somebody just sitting next to you and telling you a story.
There is a new version coming out of Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller. Your thoughts or anyone else's. Should be interesting.