“Small Handful of the Superb”

This review was written by Granville Hicks and printed in the February 20, 1960 edition of The Saturday Review.

When Roald Dahl’s “Someone Like You” was published a few years ago, he was compared with Saki and O. Henry, and it is true that he goes in for plots and surprise endings. His great gift is for telling a macabre incident in svich a way that the reader shudders and smiles at the same time. In his new collection, “Kiss Kiss” (Knopf, $3.95), the first story, “The Landlady,” is a perfect example of what he can do. That a landlady should make a hobby of killing and stuffing her young boarders doesn’t seem offhand like a comic idea, but the reader, when he catches on to what is happening, is first struck by the grotesqueness of the situation and only on second thought realizes how horrible it is.

If Dahl’s climax isn’t a macabre revelation, it is likely to be the kind of reversal in which a smart person is outsmarted. “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat” is a good example of the type, with a second twist coming close after the first. Even better is “The Champion of the World,” in which an ingenious pair of poachers discover too late that there is a flaw in their grand scheme for catching pheasants.

The kind of story Dahl writes runs two risks. In the first place, the trickiness may degenerate into mere formula, and, though this has not happened with Dahl, there are one or two stories that seem slightly mechanical. The second danger is overelaboration, and it is in this way that Dahl is inclined to err. In “William and Mary,” for instance, there is so much preparation that the climax is a disappointment, and the same may be said of “William the Conqueror.” Even in these stories, however, there are many of the touches that make Dahl an uncommonly entertaining writer.