If you're familiar with the excellent children's books James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox or Matilda, you already know that Mr. Dahl is a great storyteller with a phantasmagorical mind. What you may not know is how sly, twisted, subtle and surprising he can be writing for adults. No Oompa-Loompas or flying peaches; rather ordinary looking folks doing ordinary things in ordinary settings, but with extraordinary results.
The compendium spans 1945 to 1986 and includes 25 stories ranging from seven to seventy two pages in length. The chronological layout makes it easy to see how the language, tone and feel of Dahl's stories evolve over time, moving from the crisp descriptions and dialogue of the post-war period to the more sinuous interactions and banter of his modern efforts. Throughout, the settings, characters, and plots are commonplace, but in each story there are hints of unreality or a far-fetched premise - something to make the reader a bit suspicious, but subtle like the very soft, suspenseful music that heightens the tension without drawing attention to itself in movies. Sometimes but not always the story concludes with a steep but controlled descent into the fantastic.
One of my favorites, The Landlady, gradually builds to its inevitable end, but it is done with such understatement that the final twists will undoubtedly cause readers to smile as they finish the story - not just at the result, but at how delicately it was woven together. Dahl assumes readers have have some intellect and can connect the dots, something all too rare today.
In fact, in many of Dahl's stories, the pleasure isn't in the twists themselves - though they are delightful - it is in the tight and natural prose, the evocative settings, and the human foibles of all of the characters. Short stories pose constraints not encountered by novelists, who can be forgiven the occasional diversion, sloppy passage, or loose end, and Dahl is more than up to the challenge. He should be enjoying he same literary recognition as Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, and Jorge Luis Borges, but sadly he's usually remembered just for his children's works. Start with The Landlady or Man From The South, and you will surely go on to read the other fine stories in The Best of Roald Dahl.