Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday's Forgotten Book: JAMES THURBER ON CRIME

THURBER ON CRIME by James Thurber, edited by Robert Lopresti, has a foreword by crime author Donald E. Westlake, the author of some comic crime literature himself.

Westlake says that James Thurber and Robert Benchley taught him about gentle humor in fiction and informed his own writing.  Indeed. you can see the Thurber influence in the opening of Westlake's The Fugitive Pigeon, which I reviewed at this link, a funny of parody Hemingway's "The Killers."

"Hell Only Breaks Loose Once," Thurber's own parody of James Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice is among the many pieces included in this volume, several of which gently critique the form of the popular crime novel, such as "The Man Who Knew Too Little," "The White Rabbit Caper," and "The Macbeth Murder Mystery."

In the last named story, an American who only reads detective novels--Hercule Poirot is her favorite--picks up a copy of Shakespeare's Macbeth by mistake, thinking that it was one of her beloved mysteries.  With the narrator playing straight man, she then commences the interpretation of the play as if it had been written as a mystery novel:

"In the first place, I don't think for a moment that Macbeth did it."

I looked at her blankly.  "Did what?" I asked.

"I don't think for a moment that he killed the King," she said.  "I don't think the Macbeth woman was mixed up in it, either.  You suspect them the most, of course, but those are the ones that are never guilty--or shouldn't be, anyway."

"I'm afraid," I began, "that I. . ."

"But don't you see," said the American lady, "It would spoil everything if you could figure out right away who did it.  Shakespeare was too smart for that.  I've read that people never have figured out Hamlet, so it isn't likely "Shakespeare would have made Macbeth as simple as it seems. . ."

Who do you suspect? I asked.

"Oh, Macduff did it, all right. . .Hercule Poirot would have got him easily."
The Wyrd Sisters

How did you figure that out? I demanded.

"Well," she said, I didn't right away.  At first I suspected Banquo.  And then, of course, he was the second person killed.  That was good right in there, that part.  The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim. . ."

Thurber's crime novel expert goes on for several pages in that way, pointing out the cliches of the murder mystery and, in the process, she touches upon some of the real mysteries of Macbeth, including Banquo's ghost and the identities of the Wyrd Sisters and the Third Murderer.

It is traditional to take in a performance of Macbeth in October, if only on DVD, a seasonal thing like the Nutcracker in December.  Last year I posted about Terry Pratchett's Wyrd Sisters at this link.

Thurber wrote that, at one of his favorite literary bars, "Dashiell Hammett, whose The Maltese Falcon had come out a couple of years before, suddenly startled us all by announcing that his writing had been influenced by Henry James' novel The Wings of the Dove.  Nothing surprises me any more, but I couldn't have been more surprised than if Humphrey Bogart, another frequenter of that old salon of wassail and debate, had proclaimed that his acting bore the deep impress of the histrionic art of Maude Adams."

Thurber said that in his later investigation he was unable "to find many feathers of 'The Dove' in the claws of 'The Falcon,' but he does find some resemblances which he then names.

James Thurber is largely forgotten, but his name lives on in the Thurber Award, given to the humorist of the year.  How many of those award winners can you name?  Not many, I suspect.  There is a list of them at this link.  David Rakoff, who won this last year, died of cancer in August.

Last year, at this link, I blogged about Little Red Riding Hood Halloween costumes and about the variations on the tale.  Thurber has his own interpretation in here, where the wolf cannot possibly pass himself off as Red's grandmother any more "than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge."  So the girl takes an automatic handgun out of her basket and shoots the wolf dead.

The moral of the story, Thurber says, is that women are not as naive as they used to be.

This is just one of many forgotten books revived in blogs this friday, and as usual you can read about the others at this link.

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