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Sunday 8 August 2021

The Golden Age: Thorne Smith (1892-1934)

 by Carol Westron

Thorne Smith achieved fame and success as a writer of comic fantasy fiction, but like so many writers of the Golden Age, he had an urge to write at least one work of detective fiction. In Smith's case, it was the thought-provoking, psychological crime novel Did She Fall? (1930.)

James Thorne Smith was born in Maryland, USA, where his father, a naval officer, was stationed. When Smith was only four years old, his mother died. His father was away at sea for much of Smith's childhood and he was brought up by various aunts. Thorne Smith's only brother was eight years older than he was and Smith was a lonely, vulnerable child, who sought comfort by inventing various imaginary companions whom he called 'brownies.' It is interesting that the central characters of Did She Fall? are two brothers, Daniel and Barney. Daniel is considerably older than Barney and, because, even before their father's death,

Barney had nobody else to care for him, Daniel became Barney's protector and father-figure. It is easy to equate Thorne Smith with the lonely, vulnerable, creative Barney; unfortunately Smith's real-life older brother was far from protective, even telling his young sibling that he had the power to kill his brownies, and making the smaller child pay his pocket-money as 'protection money.'

During his childhood, Smith had the first bouts of pneumonia that would damage his health and contribute to the heart problems that caused his death at the early age of forty. Smith disliked both school and college, although he did enjoy studying English. He left college without completing his studies. In 1912, he took a job writing copy in a New York advertising agency.

In 1917, when the US entered the First World War, Smith enlisted in the US Navy. He spent the next two years working on The Broadside, a Naval Reservist Journal, and swiftly rose to be its editor. His short stories about a Naval recruit called Biltmore Oswald were later put into two anthologies and reprinted by Frederick Stokes & Company under the titles Biltmore Oswald: The Diary of a Hapless Recruit (1918) and Out O' Luck: Biltmore Oswald Very Much at Sea (1919.) These books were popular and sold more than 70,000 copies. However, at this time, Smith's real interest lay in poetry and serious fiction. In 1919 he published a book of poetry, Haunts &

By-Paths, dedicated to his father. The book did not sell well and had lukewarm reviews.

In 1919 Smith left the Navy and returned reluctantly to advertising. He moved to Greenwich Village  where he met and fell in love with Celia Sullivan. Celia's parents disapproved of the match and so the young couple eloped.

Smith was an early resident of Free Acres, a community developed by Bolton Hall in an attempt to influence property tax to achieve a more socially equal status.

Although Smith was good at writing copy, he did not enjoy his numerous jobs in advertising. He alleviated his boredom by poking sly fun at his banking clients.

In 1920 Smith's father died. For some undisclosed reason, Smith was the sole beneficiary under his father's will. Smith signed over the family home to his brother. In Did She Fall? It is the elder brother, Daniel, who receives the lion's share of his late father's property and immediately signs over half to Barney. The injustice of unequal division of property and parental affection seems to haunt Smith's more serious writing.

Smith and his wife swiftly spent his inheritance on extravagant holidays and luxuries and Smith had to return yet again to advertising to provide for himself and Celia and their two daughters, Marion (born 1922) and June (born 1924.) Smith was devoted to his two daughters and it should be noted that he called two of his favourite characters by their names: Marion is the gorgeous ghost in Topper, and June the faithful fiancée in Did She Fall?. Smith was bored with his employment and alleviated this by drinking heavily. At this time he was also writing Dream's End, a serious novel. However, he failed to find a publisher for this book until 1927, after he had achieved success with a very different style of book, and even then Dream's End sold very few copies.

In 1926 Smith's most successful book was published. Topper (also known as The Jovial Ghosts) is a comic fantasy book about a respectable banker called Cosmo Topper who, in a desperate act of rebellion against his depressingly staid wife, Mary, buys a car. Unfortunately for Topper, the car had formerly been the property of Marion and George Kerby, who had died when they crashed it. They return to haunt Topper and soon he is off on a series of comic misadventures with his spectral companions. Topper is a book filled with crazy action and absurd situations. There is a romantic attraction between Topper and Marion and, at one point, she tries to kill him so that they can be together forever. Topper and its sequel, Topper Takes a Trip, were the most popular and profitable of Smith's books. In 1937 Topper was made into a film, and beginning in 1953 it formed the basis of an American television series; the pilot episode and a few of the early episodes were written by Stephen Sondheim.

For the rest of his life, Smith wrote comedies, many of them fantasy comedies, based on absurd and mysterious events. All of his books contain lavish amounts of alcohol and sexual innuendo, although little specific sexual description; and many of them feature bankers (who had been Smith's advertising clients) or the advertising world that Smith was so glad to escape. In the world of his imagination Prohibition didn't prevent alcoholic excess. He provided wonderful escapist material for a country recovering from war and the subsequent influenza pandemic.

In The Stray Lamb (1929), a drunken banker finds himself transformed into a series of animals, which gives him a new perspective on humanity; especially when he is transformed into a goldfish and his adulterous wife attempts to murder him. In The Night Life of the Gods (1931) a quirky inventor creates a machine that will turn flesh into stone and vice-versa. Let loose with a gorgeous, living statue of Megaera, the inventor brings the Roman gods of the New York Metropolitan Museum to life with chaotic consequences.

In 1930, between these two fantasy comedies, Smith wrote the psychological crime novel Did She Fall? It is a witty book, with plenty of comic touches, especially in the interaction between the brothers Daniel and Barney, but at its core it is a probing exploration of how one beautiful but evil woman can destroy a family of decent,  loving people. Did She Fall? was a book that Dalshiell Hammett admired, although his praise could perhaps have been phrased a little more effusively. 'At times the book approaches something akin to literature.'

In 1931 Smith wrote his only children's book, Lazy Bear Lane, for his two daughters. Between 1931 and 1934 he published five more comedy novels. He died in 1934 of a heart attack while on vacation in Florida. Smith's final book, The Passionate Witch, was completed after his death by Norman H. Matson and published in 1941. The Passionate Witch was produced as the film I Married a Witch in 1942 and provided one of the inspirations for the long-running and very popular television series Bewitched.

Perhaps the tragedy of Thorne Smith is that he is the clown who wanted to play serious roles. He achieved great success with his comic fantasies but the public rejected his poetry and serious books. Only in Did She Fall? did he achieve a serious book that was in any way successful and ensured his place amongst the detective authors of the Golden Age of Mystery.

Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title.  

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