Is this a “great short story”?
I would say no.
Does it engage the reader? Yes
Is it well written? Yes
Beautifully written? Yes, if “beautiful” means clearly, succinctly and fluently; if it means any more than this, then who knows. But let’s say it is beautifully written, in every possible meaning of the word “beautiful”.
But does it do anything to the reader over and above occupy them for twenty minutes, even if that’s an enjoyably spent twenty minutes? Even, if in that twenty minutes, the reader is marveling at how it can possibly end up, and then gets a real thump by the end: well, fancy that? Because it’s one of those stories – with an end, a reveal, a bang. You know it form the very first sentence – it’s so perfectly discernable in every twist and turn, just as it is in the way it starts to subtly twist and turn from the off.
And you do get quite a bang for your buck with this one, and the reverberations may well be there for quite some time after the story has come to an end. But over and above that slight shiver of fancy-that, there’s nothing else. No “take-away”.
This is a piece of literature that tells us nothing about ourselves, a piece of literature from which we learn nothing; there is no insight for the reader, no themes revealingly touched upon, turned over or turned inside out. we’ll not see the world one jot differently by the end of this story, no more than after reading the ingredients of a bag of crisps. We will be ourselves just the same, the world will be as it was, and we’ll be none the wiser about any aspect of anything.
So, as a piece of literature, I would say that this story, despite being brilliant in one way, fails. It fails in every important way.
Quite far into the set up of the story, one about a conman looking for antiques from unsuspecting country folk, the narrator breaks out of the protagonist’s point of view, to give us this:
“The oldest of the three was a stumpy man with a wide frog mouth and small shifty eyes, and although Mr Boggis didn’t know it his name was Rummins and he was the owner of the farm.
The tall youth beside him who appeared to have something wrong with one eye, was Bert; the son of Rummins.
The shortish flat-faced man with a narrow corrugated brow and immensely broad shoulders was Claud. Claud had dropped in on Rummins in the hope of getting a piece of pork or ham out of him from the pig that had been killed the day before. Claud knew about the killing – the noise of it had carried far across the fields – and he also knew that a man should have a government permit to do that sort of thing, and that Rummins didn’t have one.”
…so when we get this: “Again the silence, and Mr Boggis glanced quickly from Rummins to Bert, then to Claud then back again to Rummins, and he noticed that each of them had the same peculiar expression on his face, something between a jeer and a challenge, with a contemptuous curl to the mouth and a sneer around the nose.” the reader is already clued up, over and above the protagonist: why? Or why? We so want to read on. We have that faint feeling of dread in our stomachs: I know and I don’t know. This is suspense, artfully turned, deftly played and expertly refined: Dahl is a master of the story, of narrative, of suspense.
Sure – there’s a delicate balancing act being maintained, so when we’re told “’You know what I think?’ Rummins said, fixing him with his small wicked eyes. `I think you’re after buying the stuff yourself. Why else would you be going to all this trouble?’” we are tipped quite far, maybe even too far, one way rather than the other. But no – we are still held in suspense.
Then it happens, that is ‘something’: “He must have time to think, he told himself. More important still, he must have time to compose himself thoroughly before he said another word. Take it gently, Boggis. And whatever you do, keep calm.” And the reader will be thinking – oh here we are, just what I’ve been expecting. Or is it? oh the suspense!
So as the plot thickens – and there is only plot in this story (Oh how will things turn out?) – Dahl opts for the subtlest but surest signs and markers: “He looked around and saw the three men standing absolutely still, watching him suspiciously, three pairs of eyes, all different but equally mistrusting, small pig-eyes for Rummins, large slow eyes for Claud, and two odd eyes for Bert, one of them very queer and boiled and misty pale, with a little black dot In the centre, like a fish eye on a plate.”
Dahl never lets up: “Walk slowly, Boggis. Keep calm, Boggis. There’s no hurry now.”
The ending doesn’t disappoint. But it’s just that and only that: an ending. This story doesn’t reach beyond it.
Great literature doesn’t come to an end. This story does – the satisfaction is acute, but ultimately shallow. No sustenance.