Mr. Martin, the cautious, non-drinking and non-smoking, perpetually habitual head of the filing department, has decided to “rub out” Mrs. Barrows, a “special adviser” to the company president, Mr. Fitweiler. He contemplates the case he’s accumulated against her, as if the inner thoughts of his mind were a courtroom.

He must keep his mind on her crimes as a special advisor, not on her peccadilloes as a personality. This he found difficult to do, in spite of entering an objection and sustaining it. The faults of the woman as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness. She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him…It had been annoying, it had driven him near to distraction, but he was too solid a man to be moved to murder by anything so childish.

He is prosecuting the case against her. He charges her with “willful, blatant, and persistent attempts to destroy the efficiency and system” of the company. Mrs. Barrows met Fitweiler at a party, helped him out of a difficult social situation, then talked to him the rest of the night.

The aging gentleman had jumped to the conclusion there and then that his was a woman of singular attainments equipped to bring out the best in him and in the firm. A week later he had introduced her into F&S as his special adviser. On that day confusion got its foot in the door.

Barrows makes suggestions about various business practices which the department heads say are causing disruption, but Fitweiler is convinced the changes are good.

Mr. Martin reviewed in detail all the changes wrought by Mrs. Barrows. She had begun chipping at the cornices of the firm’s edifice and now she was swinging at the foundation stones with a pickax…Her pickax was on the upswing, poised for the first blow. It had not come yet; he had received no blue memo from the enchanted Mr. Fitweiler bearing nonsensical instructions deriving from the obscene woman. But there was not doubt in Mr. Martin’s mind that one would be forth coming…Gentlemen of the jury, he said to himself, I demand the death penalty for this horrible person.

The next day, Martin goes about his normal routine, but on his after-dinner walk [which he takes every evening, just as he does everything, the same every day] he begins to doubt one part of his plan, the smoking of a cigarette to throw anyone off his trail who might look into the planned murder. Maybe he’s pushing his luck with the smoking. It is a Camel, after all. Not at all her brand. He also debates the timing of his approach to her apartment. He wonders if he should wait a bit later, but decides there is no perfect time. He can’t predict other people’s actions.

There was a great risk at any hour. If he ran into anybody, he would simply have to place the rubbing-out of Ulgine Barrows in the inactive file forever. The same thing would hold true if there were someone in her apartment. In that case he would just say that he had been passing by, recognized her charming house, and thought to drop in.

When he gets there, she lets him in and takes his coat and is her usual annoying self. She notices Martin is jumpy. She offers him a drink—even though he doesn’t drink, he accepts. While she’s fixing the drink he looks for an object to kill Barrows with. Nothing seems to be the right thing. The letter opener is blunt. Then he changes his plan. He tells her he smokes and drinks and does heroine and he plans to make a bomb to blow up Fitweiler. She tells him he must go.

Mr. Martin took another swallow of his drink. He tapped his cigarette out in the ashtray and put the pack of Camels on the coffee table. Then he got up. She stood glaring at him…”Not a word about this,” he said, and laid an index finger against his lips…”I’m sitting in the catbird seat,” he said. He stuck his tongue out at her and left. Nobody saw him go.

Barrows comes in to work and tells Martin she’s reporting him. He doesn’t know what she’s talking about. There is yelling from Fitzwiler’s office. Barrows leaves and slams herself in her office. After a bit, Fitweiler calls Martin in. Fitweiler has called a psychiatrist and believes Mrs. Barrows’ breakdown is due to a persecution complex and she’s picked the least intimidating target. Barrows has refused Fitweiler’s request to undergo counseling and he has decided her services are no longer needed. She bursts into the office, yelling at Mr. Martin.

Mr. Martin got up and moved discreetly to a point beside Mr. Fitweiler’s chair. “You drank and smoked at my apartment,” she bawled at Mr. Martin, “and you know it! You called Mr. Fitweiler an old windbag and said you were going to blow him up when you got coked to the gills on your heroine!” She stopped yelling to catch her breath and a new glint came into her popping eyes.” If you weren’t such a drab, ordinary little man,” she said, “I’d think you’d planned it all…because you thought no one would believe me when I told it! My God, it’s really too perfect!”

She goes on until escorted out. Martin returns to his job just as before, “wearing a look of studious concentration” and having achieved his objective without resorting to murder.

Craft Discussion

The unexpected action. It is a classic–and in reality somewhat BASIC–tool for a storyteller to use to ratchet up the level of interest a reader has in the story.

Thurber builds an entire story around this most-unexpected action, and in doing so creates dramatic tension in an engaging way, even though we see almost immediately behind Mr. Martin’s curtain. The reader is let in on the secret early on: Martin is not what he appears to be; he is a different man when pushed. His inner trail and conviction of Barrows tell us right away that something is up. But the dramatic tension is built as the detail of Martin’s plan becomes clear.

There are two keys to the unexpected action that I would argue need to be kept in mind:

  1. The action taken must be unexpected, but believable. If the action seems random or without enough foundation for the reader to say, “Ah, I didn’t see that coming, but I totally buy it!” then it will draw attention to the author, instead of the work.
  2. The action must work to further the development of the character(s) and setting, not just add drama to the plot. This is actually true because of point #1 above: If an unexpected action suddenly appears out of no where and goes away without fanfare, then it will ring hollow. If there are subtle hints and lingering repercussions, if there are ripples throughout the story in the wake of the action, then it will be more believable.

In the end, this use of the unexpected action aids in building character and setting, in addition to doing work to make the story interesting and filled with tension.

The Catbird Seat originally appeared in the November 14, 1942 issue of The New Yorker and has been featured in many collections and anthologies. It is available as one of the stories in the collection entitled, The Thurber Carnival.

You can check out The Thurber Carnival and other books and collections mentioned on this blog at my Amazon-powered bookstore: All the features of Amazon, the security of a top internet retailer, in a smaller, more focused package!

The Catbird Seat, James Thurber
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