The Death of the King's Canary

ph_0111207634-Thomas.jpg Dylan Thomas Published by Salem Press, Inc.

A witty, often farcical satire on the brilliant London literary set of the early 1940’s, The Death of the King’s Canary was planned by Dylan Thomas in 1938, composed in collaboration with John Davenport in 1940, but not published for a variety of reasons until 1977, twenty-four years after Thomas’ death and eleven years after Davenport’s. Chief among the reasons for this long delay is the biographical problem. Thomas and Davenport not only parody the verse of eleven then-contemporary poets—most of them quite distinguished, others less prominent in their time and nearly forgotten in ours; they also caricature mercilessly the personal foibles of a number of these poets, and add for good measure pointed satirical sketches of other literary figures, well-known patrons of the arts, and some lesser lights: drawing-room types who support the literary salons and culture cults of the establishment.

Very likely, Thomas’ editors were cautious about publishing a volume that might bring down upon their heads suits of character defamation; or they might have been influenced in behalf of some of the famous victims of the satire; or, from a practical viewpoint, they might have regarded the venture as unprofitable. Without question, the book would have appealed only to a limited audience of knowledgeable insiders who could identify the literary figures as real people. And the moment for publication was not at all propitious: English readers were too deeply involved in personal concerns of wartime survival to pay much attention to a literary burlesque. Now, however, these objections no longer carry weight. All of the significant writers who served as models for the satire are dead. And the parodies, some of which might have seemed savage when they were first written, can at present be judged on their artistic merit. So it is with gratitude that we receive this unexpected posthumous volume: an ebullient surrealistic satire composed in the least expected of forms—a murder mystery.

In a letter to Charles Fisher in 1938, Thomas first approached his Swansea friend to collaborate on a book then to be entitled Murder of the King’s Canary. The novel was to be, in Thomas’ words,. . . the detective story to end detective stories, introducing blatantly every character and situation—an inevitable Chinaman, secret passages, etc.—that no respectable writer would dare use now, drag hundreds of red herrings, false clues, withheld evidences into the story, falsify every issue, make many chapters deliberate parodies, full of clichés, of other detective writers.

Such a travesty presumably would have resembled Neil Simon’s comedy Murder by Death, an intricate spoof on certain hackneyed conventions of detective fiction. According to Constantine FitzGibbon, whose Introduction to the volume is alternately helpful and cunningly mystifying, Fisher set to work on the project several months later and, in fact, produced a rough draft of a first chapter that “bears no relation to Chapter One of the Thomas /Davenport text.” The original version, FitzGibbon notes, “assembles and describes characters, unknown to that text, as a committee to choose a new Poet Laureate: and that is all.” Thereafter the joint effort was abandoned. In 1940 Thomas revived the idea, this time urging John Davenport to collaborate on the book. Davenport, a literary critic and former script writer for Hollywood, accepted the challenge that was “intended to be a good joke, and to make money.” The authors set to work in a room that Davenport had fixed up, FitzGibbon writes, as “a model of an old-fashioned pub, complete with barrels of beer, while Caitlin [Thomas] danced in a distant summerhouse to the music of a portable gramophone.”

Outside, the world was at war—1940 was a terrible year of massive bombings for Londoners—but snug in their boozy quarters, the authors sealed themselves from the shocks of reality. In their novel, to be sure, a bomb ticks and explodes on the lawn of the Prime Minister’s house, but it “only killed a gardener”; and reports about a remote, somewhat comical war in Burma intrude intermittently upon the exuberant scene. But such interruptions merely emphasize the isolation of the action. The novel is closer in spirit to the frenetic 1920’s or early 1930’s than to the heroic decade of the 1940’s. Like the early social satires...

(The entire section is 1798 words.)


Atlantic. CCXXXIX, June, 1977, p. 94.

Choice. XIV, July, 1977, p. 867.

Christian Science Monitor. LXIX, June 1, 1977, p. 31.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, March 15, 1977, p. 308.

Library Journal. CII, April 15, 1977, p. 950.

New York Times Book Review. May 15, 1977, p. 12.

Publisher’s Weekly. CXI, March 14, 1977, p. 91.