Saturday, October 18, 2008

An Irish crime writer revitalizes Runyon

Two years ago the Rap Sheet marked Damon Runyon's birthday with a post that suggested many readers knew his name and many knew his work, but few knew both.

I'm not sure how many know Runyon's writing these days (as opposed to movie adaptations, such as Guys and Dolls), but I agree that many know his name and that the name is encrusted with nostalgia.

Garbhan Downey's 2005 collection of linked stories, Off Broadway, chips away at the crust. Its title is an acknowledged nod to Runyon on Broadway, and Downey's characters have colorful nicknames, gather in bars, and speak in the present tense, as Runyon's did.

So what makes these stories fresh? The contemporary settings: Derry, Boston, New York. Paramilitaries and methods of violence I'd read about in other Northern Ireland crime writing. Thus I smiled at the diction of

"(T)he hundred K he'll get from the Massachusetts Public Insurance Board to make up for the two holes in the back of his knees, which incidentally will be developing about now"

even as I cringed at the violence. And how can one not love a phrase like "it will be a cold day in hell before Bad Breath Bradley shows his head in here again to violate my chips and Tikka sauce"?

And now, your questions: Thanks to Garbhan Downey, I may pick up Runyon again to look for darkness beneath the over-the-top color. What newer writers have caused you to take a similar look back at an earlier author or genre? (I have one such pair in mind, and if you're good, I may tell you who it is.) Which writers or styles could use similar rescue from the mist of nostalgia?

(Read about Damon Runyon and sample his work here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

Labels: , , ,

13 Comments:

Blogger Bill Crider said...

Barry Gardner, for whom the Barry Awards are named, was a big Runyon fan.

October 18, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment. That sounds like a nice bit of credibility right there.

I tried to read some Runyon a few years ago, but I couldn't get past the schtick and the verbal mannerisms. In addition to the project I outlined for myself in this post, I'd be interested in knowing where Runyon stands among today's crime-fiction readers.

October 18, 2008  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

After all this time, I don't suppose you are still "interested in knowing where Runyon stands among today's crime-fiction readers" but I've read about a dozen of his short stories over the last couple of weeks and I'm enjoying them very much. Especially the more hard-edged ones, like "Sense of Humor" (features a murder device also found in a couple of Montalbanos). Read it here. You liked the O. Henry-ish ending of Hammett's "The Scorched Face"--check out this one.

What got me started was the 1934 Warner Bros. film, "Midnight Alibi," based on Runyon's "The Old Doll's House" and starring that dear boy Richard Barthelmess as the gangster with the heart of gold.

You, who love humor in crime fiction, don't like Runyon?!

For more humorous DR crime stories try "Blonde Mink" (has fantasy + crime elements), the whodunit send-up, "What, No Butler?" and the heist caper "The Three Wise Guys."

I wouldn't recommend reading an entire anthology all at once; they weren't meant to be read that way anyway.

February 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think I tried Runyon before I started reading crime fiction, and it wasn't the humor that bothered me, but rather that the slangy mannerisms had become mannered -- a gimmick, as I saw them.

But I love this guy Downey's writing, and I have no one to blame but myself if his books contain typos, because I proofread two of them (not this one, though).

February 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I am thinking now, "Big Pete! Maybe you are not liking Damon Runyon because when you sre a young fellow wearing short pants you are trying to read him in a comprehensive collection of his literary efforts, what the swells in the colleges and the swanky joints are calling an anthology!"

February 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like that story! Only now I will be afraid to look in the book bags at this year's Bouchercon in -- St. Louis.

February 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

See! You've already got the hang of it, Big Pete! I actually enjoy that patter. In small doses.

Yep, beware of Size 8's poking out of your book bag...

One commenter in one of the 2 anthologies (Penguin + Modern Library) I have checked out from the library pointed out that to keep up that first-person narrative + capture different voices for each character over the course of a 20 page story is no mean feat.

Naturally, I enjoy his horse racing stories. Like Hammett, Runyon was an incurable gambler.

February 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The organizers of Bouchercon always try to make local connections part of the program at Bouchercons -- the Hammett tours in San Francisco, for example. I know the St. Louis organizers. I'll send them the story and see what they do with it.

February 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The Frederick Nebel detective, Jack Cardigan, was an op for the Cosmos Agency in St. Louis. Many real place names. A few of the stories are reprinted in The Adventures of Cardigan, published by the Mysterious Press.

I remember one story that really captured a hot and humid day in St. Louis.

Remember, your task is to find out any smidgen, tidbit, or a snippet of info regarding Chandler's stay in St. Louis in 1912. Big reward!

February 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Like Hammett, Runyon was an incurable gambler."

I came across a mention in my recent burst of Hammett reading that he once walked into a casino or a poker game with $5,000 he had earned, and lost it all. The money could have fed a family for two years, the person who wrote the passage says.

February 24, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

That kind of behavior was all of a piece with Hammett's "beams falling" fatalism.

He wasn't the greatest provider but his family never went hungry (at least according to his daughter Jo).

She recounts a day she went with Dad to Santa Anita -- very excited because her older sister didn't get to tag along and Dad introduced her to some of his movie star pals -- and then, in the limo on the way home from the track, while she burbled away about all the fun she'd had, Dad sat and gazed out the window, hardly speaking. She realized later that he must have lost a lot of money at the windows that day.

February 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisbeth, maybe Nebel could have a presence at Bouchercon -- a panel devoted to him, or maybe to Black Mask writers not named Hammett or Chandler.

February 25, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That sort of thing must make an impression on a kid once she figures it out -- meeting movie stars and riding home in a limo after going bust.

February 25, 2011  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home