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Creator / Damon Runyon

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"Now one time it comes on Christmas, and in fact it is the evening before Christmas, and I am in Good Time Charley Bernstein's little speakeasy in West Forty-seventh Street, wishing Charley a Merry Christmas and having a few hot Tom and Jerrys with him."
— from "Dancing Dan's Christmas"

Alfred Damon Runyon (October 4, 1880 – December 10, 1946) was an American journalist and author, best known for his short stories about the colorful gamblers, gangsters and hustlers of New York City in the early part of the twentieth century. His stories are always narrated in the first person by an anonymous narrator with a distinctive slang-laced style that avoids the use of contractions, or past and future tense.

Many of his stories are available at Project Gutenberg Australia.

Notable adaptations of Runyon stories include:

There was also the anthology series Damon Runyon Theater, which aired on radio in the 1940s, and was also a short-lived CBS television show in 1955–56.

Not to be confused with Damon Runyan.

Damon Runyon's stories provide examples of:

  • …And That Little Girl Was Me: In "Dream Street Rose", Rose tells the First-Person Peripheral Narrator a lengthy story about "a friend", which is all but stated outright to be her own life story.
  • Big Eater: Nicely-Nicely Jones in "A Piece of Pie".
    He is a horse player by trade, and eating is really just a hobby, but he is undoubtedly a wonderful eater even when he is not hungry.
  • The Butler Did It: Parodied in "What, No Butler?". The narrator tries to pin the blame for a murder on the butler because that's always how murder stories go. His associate tells him he's being ridiculous and it turns out the victim didn't even have a butler of any kind. However, the perpetrator does coincidentally turn out to be an unemployed high-class butler.
  • Card Sharp: The Lacework Kid ("Lacework" refers to his skill with cards).
  • Cop Killer: The protagonist of "Earthquake", kills a cop accidentally in the course of a barfight, then flees New York, ending up in Nicaragua.
  • Delusions of Eloquence: The theme of mooks talking over their heads is a mainstay.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Runyon's characters are criminals, but there are lines they will not cross. For example, in "Gentlemen, the King!" the protagonists are hired to assassinate the king of an unnamed Ruritania, but balk when they discover he's only a kid.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Big Jule in "The Hottest Guy in the World" goes back to New York — where the police are all after him for a long string of violent crimes — to visit his "maw."
  • Evil Uncle: In "Gentlemen, the King!", the plot on the king's life originates with his uncle, who is next in line to the throne.
  • First-Person Peripheral Narrator: Most of Runyon's short stories are told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who is given no physical description and self-describes as "a guy who is just around". His purpose is to follow around observing the antics of more interesting characters. He does occasionally assist in the events of the stories, but is never the focus, and never kicks off the action. He's just as likely to have the entire story told to him after the fact by someone else.
  • Friend to All Children:
    • Runyon's characters are a hard-bitten bunch, but they rally around fast when a child is in need in "Little Miss Marker".
    • In "Gentlemen, the King!", the characters refuse a lucrative murder contract when they find out that the target is a child.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Characters refer to their "straight monikers" — their real names, as opposed to nicknames like Harry the Horse.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Runyon's characters are often a brutal bunch, but they occasionally slip into virtue. For example, in "Johnny One-Eye," a mortally wounded gangster makes friends with a mortally wounded kitten, and decides to do some good at the end of his life, while the title character of "Earthquake" pulls off an Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The title character of "Earthquake" pulls off the terminal version of a classic Load-Bearing Hero scene.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Blind Benny and Little Yid in "For A Pal". Blind Benny is, naturally, blind, and Little Yid goes everywhere with him, guiding him and describing things for him. The narrator spends several paragraphs describing their relationship:
    I am telling you all this about Little Yid and Benny to show you that they are very close friends indeed. They live together and eat together and argue together, and nobody ever hears of a nicer friendship on Broadway, although naturally some citizens figure for a while that one or the other must have some angle in this friendship, as it is practically uncanny for a friendship to last all these years on Broadway.
  • High-Class Glass:
    • Invoked in "The Big Umbrella", where the deposed king of a Ruritanian country is trying to make a living in New York. His agent attempts to get him to wear a monocle for the sake of his public image, but he declines, saying he never got the hang of getting them to stay in place.
    • In "Gentlemen, the King!", the characters encounter several Ruritanian noblemen with monocles, leading Kitty Quick to wonder if there is anybody in Ruritania who has two working eyes.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Near the beginning of "Dream Street Rose", the narrator remarks that in his opinion anyone who bets on horse races has something wrong with their head. Near the end of the story, he buys a newspaper so he can check the racing results and see if his latest bet has paid off.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Dave the Dude in "Romance in the Roaring Forties" may be the sort of guy who will get sored up at a man for taking a second peek at his doll Miss Billy Perry, but when she says she loves Waldo Winchester, he plans them an elaborate surprise wedding. However, it turns out that Waldo Winchester is already married, and his wife crashes the party, so Dave the Dude gets Miss Billy Perry in the end, but it is the thought that counts, after all.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: In "Dancing Dan's Christmas", Dancing Dan decides on a whim to borrow a drunken Mall Santa's outfit and deliver Christmas cheer to some poverty-stricken persons of his acquaintance. This whim saves his life.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: In "Dream Street Rose", the protagonist is described doing this for the man who ruined her, though at least one of the listeners in the frame story doubts that the confrontation went down quite that way.
  • Load-Bearing Hero: The title character in "Earthquake" pulls off the Heroic Sacrifice version. Even he seems uncertain why he doesn't drop the building on the cop who was chasing him when everyone else is clear...
  • Lost Him in a Card Game: The premise of "Little Miss Marker".
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The frequently appearing newspaper reporter "Waldo Winchester" is an obvious stand-in for Runyon's fellow newsman Walter Winchell. The two men were friends and Winchell took it in stride, even writing a foreword for one of Runyon's short story collections where he noted that there was something familiar about this character.
  • No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: In "Dream Street Rose," the protagonist is ruined by her good-for-nothing husband as a young girl. She waits a couple of decades, when he's remarried and is on top of the world, and confronts him as her wrecked old gin-soaked self:
    'Well, Frank,' she says, 'do you know me?'
    'Yes,' he says, after a while, 'I know you. At first I think maybe you are a ghost, as I once hear something about your being dead. But,' he says, 'I see now the report is a canard. You are too fat to be a ghost.'
  • No Honor Among Thieves: Lou Adolia, in "Cemetery Bait," is supposed to arrange to return the stolen jewelry, collect a payment from the insurance company, then split the loot with the other conspirators. He gets as far as collecting the payment.
  • Pistol-Whipping: Happens to the king's guard in "Gentlemen, the King!":
    Izzy Cheesecake taps him on the noggin with the butt of a forty-five, and knocks him cock-eyed.
  • Pity the Kidnapper: The kidnappers in "The Snatching of Bookie Bob" successfully get a $25,000 ransom for him. Unfortunately for them, they spent their time waiting for the payment gambling with Bob, and end up owing him $50,000.
  • Present Tense Narrative: Not only are the "Broadway" stories all in present tense, but every line (whether of narrative or of dialogue, and whether of past or present events) is in the present tense.
    "Yes," she says. "It is about him. He is a pig," she says. "I shoot him, and I am glad of it. He is not satisfied with what he does to me two years ago, but he tries his deviltry on my baby sister."
  • Priceless Ming Vase: In "Gentlemen, the King!", one of the casualties of the incursion into the king's bedroom is "a big jar over in one corner of the room, which Miss Peabody afterwards tells me is worth fifteen G's if it is worth a dime".
  • Princess for a Day: Apple Annie in "Madame La Gimp". She has been telling her daughter in Spain that she is a New York socialite. When the daughter arrives with her fiancé, the son of a Spanish count, a mobster who considers her apples good luck helps Annie maintain the charade to avoid humiliating her daughter and ruining the engagement.
  • Professional Gambler: Many of these appear, including Sky Masterson, Big Nig the crap shooter, and Regret the horse player.
  • Professional Killer: Asleep in "Situation Wanted". Don Pep in "Too Much Pep". Ropes McGonnigle in "Sense of Humor".
  • Reckless Gun Usage: In "Gentlemen, the King!", a gangster who has been charmed by a small boy lets the kid hold his handgun without making sure the safety is on, and while the kid is waving it around shouting "boom-boom" it goes off, destroying a vase and damaging a hat but fortunately not injuring any of the people in the room.
  • Ruritania:
    • In "The Big Umbrella", the king of a nameless Ruritania gets deposed by a military coup, and winds up in New York with no money. (A character remarks that this is happening so often nowadays that ex-kings are becoming something of a nuisance.) This particular ex-king gets a job as a prize-fighter, which gives him some useful skills and acquaintances when he goes to get his throne back.
    • In "Gentlemen, the King!" a group of Philadelphia gangsters are hired to go to a Ruritania and assassinate the king.
  • Signature Style: Anonymous First Person Peripheral Narrators with Present Tense Narrative and a mixture of period slang and Delusions of Eloquence.
  • Take Me Out at the Ball Game: The climax of "Undertaker Song." A character at the big Harvard-Yale game is mistaken for a Harvard supporter in a red scarf, but in fact his throat's been cut.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: In "The Lacework Kid," the Kid outwits a PoW camp commandant who is addicted to Gin Rummy, and the scheming of the commandant's disloyal subordinates leads to all the prisoners going free.
  • Verbal Tic: No one uses contractions. Ever.
  • Walking Armory: The general public is led to believe that Tobias "Twelve-Gun" Tweeney is one of these in "Tobias the Terrible" - although the guns weren't his, and he can't even take a single step without falling over.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: Runyon's characters are criminals, but this is a line they do not ever cross. In "Gentlemen, the King!" three hoods hired to knock off a European king abort the mission instantly upon finding that the King in question is a child, and end up assassinating the man who hired them, instead.