Tough Guys and Dangerous Dolls; Damon Runyon’s Tales of Crime and Criminals

Tough Guys and Dangerous Dolls; Damon Runyon’s Tales of Crime and Criminals

The men in the car are on an errand of mercy, or at least a journey made for altruistic reasons. Nonetheless, at least three man have died at the hands of one of them, and another may yet die. But there may be a miracle; this is Christmas Eve after all.

The widow has three amorous suitors, each one very persistent. But what are the widow’s true motives? And who is the real prey?

Violence, crime, tragedy, romance, sentimentality and skillful storytelling are all on display in the stories of Damon Runyon, an author not thought of immediately as a writer of mystery (like Rex Stout or Lawrence Block) but criminals, especially gangsters, were his regular subject matter.

The short-stories of Damon Runyon will always be associated with “Guys and Dolls,” the 1950 musical which put a musical comedy veneer onto Runyon’s tales of the softer side of killers and thieves. Runyon’s lovable New York mugs occupy the time of the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression,
with it’s poverty, desperation and plenty of bootleg alcohol. While Runyon’s stories were fictional, he modeled many of the characters after Broadway denizens he had known, like racketeer Arnold Rothstein and reporter Walter Winchell.

Runyon is maybe best-remembered for his prose style, dubbed “Runyoneese,” He avoids contractions and spins his tales in the present tense. “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” begins: “Of all the high players this country ever sees, there is no doubt but that the guy they call the Sky is the highest. In fact the reason he is called the Sky is because he goes so high when it comes to betting on any proposition whatever. He will bet all he has, and nobody can bet any more than this.” 

There are plenty of laughs in a Runyon story as well as a sweet sadness that is often overlooked. Despite this, Runyon’s stories were very popular during his lifetime and remain in print in several readily available editions, including a fine collection from Penguin.

And right now, some high school is probably readying a production of “Guys and Dolls.”


A delivery driver for almost thirty years, Jeff Baker’s stories have appeared in “Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine” and the recent anthology “The Necronomicon of Solar Pons” from Belanger Books. He recently quit his job to write full time and to read. He lives in Wichita with his husband Darryl, and
dedicates this column to the folks in the 1973 Wichita South High School production of “Guys and Dolls” which introduced him to Damon Runyon.

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