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."