I’ve been working lately on a sort of parody mystery novel, the thriller being a form that I know next to nothing about. However, it can’t be helped — the story can’t exist except as a classic whodunit. I already have the people, the motives, the setting, and even a McGuffin or two, all in a nice straight line. However I don’t know anything yet about the actual plot — what happens and when, and who knows about it, and how much the reader is allowed to know. That’s where the suspense comes in, and suspense is much more important than all that other stuff; characters, setting and so on. Without suspense you can have a mystery, but you can’t have a mystery novel.
So I started thinking about it, and it occurred to me that, though the suspense in a mystery novel must be reliably delivered by the author, it also depends on the expectations of the reader. In that way (and in many other ways, which I will try to address in a future post), thrillers are like comedies — a certain effect is expected by the reader, and the author tries to supply it as best he can, whether the effect is chills or laughs.
James Thurber wrote about it in a short story called ‘The Macbeth Murder Mystery’ from My World — and Welcome to It. The narrator meets a lady who wants to buy a mystery to read on vacation, but accidentally picks up a copy of Macbeth. She’s quite disappointed at her mistake, and the next morning they talk about it over breakfast in their hotel.
“Did you read Macbeth?” “I had to read it,” she said. “There wasn’t a scrap of anything else to read in the whole room.” “Did you like it?” I asked. “No, I did not,” she said decisively. “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.”
The arguments of the American lady are funny because they are completely persuasive— if you want to suspect the motives of all the characters, you can read Macbeth or practically anything else as a mystery. In fact she convinces the narrator in the end, who began the story thinking she was batty. That night he rereads the play, and comes to her again the next day with fresh evidence.
“Here,” I said, “you will see where Lady Macbeth says, ‘I laid their daggers ready. He could not miss ‘em. Had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done it.’ Do you see?” “No,” said the American woman, bluntly, “I don’t.” “But it’s simple!” I exclaimed. “I wonder I didn’t see it years ago. The reason Duncan resembled Lady Macbeth’s father as he slept is that it actually was her father!” “Good God!” breathed my companion, softly. “Lady Macbeth’s father killed the King,” I said, “and, hearing someone coming, thrust the body under the bed and crawled into the bed himself.”
My first exposure to James Thurber came when I was eight, from a short-lived TV show called, not-so-coincidentally, My World . . . and Welcome to It. It aired in the late 60’s and starred William Windom as a thinly-disguised, Thurber-like character called John Monroe. For years all that I knew about it was my own memories, because nobody I knew had ever seen it and it had never been re-run or released on home media. The animation and sophisticated writing made me seek out the books, and for a long time I was a passionate fan, and read everything (I think) Thurber had written.
That’s surprising to me now, as I can’t see at all what I liked so much back then. What would a young kid in San Jose, California, in 1969, find so fascinating in Thurber’s 30’s world of hen-pecked husbands, jaded socialites, New York literati and poignant dogs? With the advent of the internet I’ve discovered that lots of other people became fans at about the same age, so there must have been something there for youngsters. Thurber had a perfect command of American English and wrote his stories and essays with great precision, but I wouldn’t have consciously been impressed with that as an eight-year-old, I don’t think. The drawings are both beautiful and funny, but I read all the words too — I remember reading “Soapland”, his five-part examination of 1948 programming for daytime radio, and I read it from beginning to end. What could it have meant to me? I suppose that he was such a captivating writer that I would read anything he wrote, even when I didn’t know what he was talking about. It was the style, not the content, that must have impressed me; exactly the opposite situation to that of the American lady in “The Macbeth Murder Mystery”.
I had the idea that parodies of murder mysteries and suspense thriller clichés pop up quite a bit in Thurber’s writing and drawing; in his writing heyday ofthe 30’s and 40’s, thrillers were pretty much the most prevalent pulp fiction in America — science fiction hadn’t yet come into its own and high fantasy was decades away. So I started going through my Thurber books; all older Penguin editions from the 50’s and 60’s. (And that’s another mystery — what was it about Thurber, the quintessential American writer, that made him so popular inEngland? I see lots and lots of British editions of his books, but very little from Dorothy Parker, or Robert Benchley, or S J Perelman, or E B White. But as my collection proves, he was at one time extremely well-known to British readers. I wonder what they thought of “Soapland”!)
Anyway, as I went through the books, I discovered a few drawings and stories that drew upon mystery/thriller themes. There’s “The Topaz Cufflinks Mystery”, in which a cop discovers a man and a woman in an absurd situation, trying to determine how a cat’s eyes shine in the light of oncoming auto headlights. And there’s “The White Rabbit Caper”, a hard-boiled children’s book:
“When did she hop the hutch?” asked Fred Fox.
“Yesterday,” said old Mrs Rabbit. “She is only eighteen months old, and I am afraid that some superstitious creature has killed her for one of her feet.”
Fred Fox turned the snapshot over and put it in his pocket. “Has this bunny got a throb?” he asked.
“Yes,” said old Mrs Rabbit. “Franz Frog, repulsive owner of the notorious Lily Pad Night Club.”
Fred Fox leaped to his feet. “Come on, Grandma,” he said, “and don’t step on your ears. We got to move fast.”
As well as his note-perfect parody of Henry James, “The Beast in the Dingle”,which makes a few references to The Turn of the Screw:
Their names, well, he had forgotten, but our two conspirators for the pleasant continuance of their so frivolous game, hit, all gaily, upon Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. “Oh, oh,” this accomplished, Miss Lighter began, “I quite see it all — the figure in the tower, the figure across the pond.” He caught her, as who should say, in mid air. “My poor dear lady,” he reproached her, “our play is set, I beg you to remember, in New” he dwelt upon it, “York. In West — ” he added for special emphasis, “chester.”
I’m afraid that I didn’t get any direct inspiration for my comedy mystery novel from James Thurber — by which I mean nothing I might slyly steal — but by revisiting the work of my old first favorite I think I found the answer to the problem of suspense in the pages of “The Macbeth Murder Mystery”. Suspense is an important part of a thriller, but it isn’t an external ingredient to add to the stew, along with the setting and the characters and so forth. It arises from them, from telling the story, and telling it well. The reader will always be carried along by a perfect sentence, if she wants to or not — and that’s suspense. As James Thurber might have put it himself, in a “Fable for Our Time”:
MORAL: Take care of the nouns, and suspense will take care of itself.