Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thorne Smith

There are just too many mysteries written by someone named Smith. More accurately, I should say “someones named Smith,” because there seem to be a gazillion mystery writers named Smith. Not that Smith is a bad name; it is actually quite a nice name. But you would think that some of these writers would be clever enough to come up with another name, if only to differentiate themselves from all the other Smith-es out there.

I mean, if you’re going to have a “me too” name as a mystery writer, why not adopt something like Christie or Doyle or Grafton or something? That way, at least you might get some new readers…if only by mistake.

Yes, I do tend to have profound thoughts while shelving books.

And that was my general line of thinking yesterday as I was trying to jam yet another mystery onto the Smith shelf in our Whodunits section. And it was then that I came across a happy little accident: one of the Smiths didn’t belong there. It wasn’t a mystery at all and it had been mistakenly placed among the mysteries and it belonged somewhere else.

Two good things about that: (1) by pulling off the wrong book I suddenly had room for the new Smith, and (2) I came across a Thorne Smith that I didn’t know we had!

James Thorne Smith (1892-1934) was one of those urban sophisticate authors who seemed to litter the streets of New York City in the 20s and 30s. He was of a kind with James Thurber, Alexander Woolcott and Dorothy Parker. He is just not quite as well remembered as those others.

And it is hard to find a neat category for him. I may have to start an “Urban Sophisticate” section in here.

He wrote humor, but it came from a dark and sardonic place. His books were almost science fiction/fantasy,but they contained no space ships or time travel. Rather, the characters were always transformed into something they were not. There was usually plenty of drinking involved. And lots of sex. Some of it sly; some of it fumbling. And all of it more-or-less licit. But it was actually pretty racy stuff for its day (although it is pretty tame by the standards of some of the contemporary literature that comes in here).

“Like life itself,” he wrote of his work, “my stories have no point and get absolutely nowhere. And like life they are a little mad and purposeless…They are like the man who dashes madly through traffic only to linger aimlessly on the opposite corner watching a fountain pen being demonstrated in a shop window. Quite casually I wander into my plot, poke around with my characters for a while, then amble off, leaving no moral proved and no reader improved.”

Truth be told, this is my idea of a good read. A bit of mental floss at the end of the day.

His most famous work, perhaps the only one most folks remember today, is Topper. It involves the adventures of a banker (the title character) and two ghosts (who happen to be married to one another; one of whom continually engages in some spirited* flirting with Topper). In 1937, Hal Roach made it into a movie starring Cary Grant. Later, Leo G. Carroll became Topper in the 50s TV series. His other claim to fame was The Passionate Witch, published posthumously in 1941, that was the basis for the play/movie Bell, Book and Candle and, ultimately, the Bewitched television series.

The one I happened upon yesterday was Skin and Bones (1933) wherein photographer Quintus Bland undergoes a bizarre accident in his darkroom that sends him (and his dog) bouncing back-and-forth between flesh- and-bone to X-ray (i.e., skeleton) projections of themselves. It includes the usual drinking and morally-questionable behavior and rather spicy drawings. It wasn’t at a risqué level to get it banned, but prim country club matrons probably wouldn’t quite approve. Pretty good stuff overall.

So…welcome, Mr. Smith. Into which section shall I place you? Literature? Science Fiction? Morally-questionable? Vintage fiction?

Maybe I shall take you home, and thus provide yet another opportunity for my poor, long-suffering bride (PLSB © 2009) to cock an eyebrow and shake her head. She probably won’t quite approve.

I, on the other hand, shall approve heartily.

*Get it? Spirited...ghost. Well, OK. So I'm not Thorne Smith.

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