Did you know Roald Dahl wrote non-kids stuff? I did not! I feel like I’ve been missing out. There are apparently several books of his short stories out in the world.
I feel like this review is going to turn out sounding like I was disappointed, so I want to start off with this tremendously great line from the second story in the book: “Apart from the fact that he was at this moment disguised in the uniform of a clergyman, there was nothing very sinister about Mr. Cyril Boggis.” Delicious.
The stories are all set around the same location (somewhere in rural England) with the same batch of characters – mostly blue-collar folks who stretch the rules as much as possible to earn an extra few pounds. I don’t know if it’s the rural setting or Mr. Dahl’s powerful sense of atmosphere, but I was often reminded of Flannery O’Connor. The sense of building and imminent dread hangs over most of the goings-on. Usually the badness is deserved, such as the case of the duplicitous Mr. Cyril Boggis. But sometimes it’s just bad luck. There are rat-catchers, dog-racers, and cow-breeders. My favorite story involved pheasant poaching, with two poachers trying to come up with the best trick to incapacitate as many pheasants at once as possible. These characters are always trying to find a trick to make them rich, or at least make their lives easier.
The problem I had was that reading all the stories in a row, the inconsistencies stood out pretty starkly. In one story, Mr. Rummins is a dairy farmer who helps the main character; in another he’s a harmless witness as the rat-catcher does his thing. And yet in the next story, it comes to light that Mr. Rummins has murdered an old drunk who lives in the village, and hidden his body in the hayrick (whatever that is). I was startled to see that side of Rummins.
If inconsistency was one problem, consistency was another. The stories are all very similar. One or two characters hatch a scheme, scheme is launched, scheme ends badly.
Those hiccups aside, the writing is fun and breezy and you really get a feel for this little square of countryside, and the folks that inhabit it. There are some dark notes (murder in the hayrick) and some hilarious ones (drugged pheasants raining out of trees). I suppose it should be no surprise that the man who came up with Mrs. Trunchbull and The Twits should be a master of comeuppance. I’m glad I found this little collection, but I’m not sure I’ll rush out to find more.