Friday 8 July 2011

A Shot in the Dark: Short Stories by Saki (Hesperus Press, 2006)

Well, after that short, intermittent run of posts on my holiday adventures – which, you'll recall, largely consisted of me dragging Rachel into secondhand bookshops all over the south of England – it's back to the books. I've got a clutch of reviews I'm intending to write over the next few weeks of novels I read whilst I was away, including one I bought during the vacation, as well as at least one (related) series of posts planned, on a newly-discovered (from my perspective) espionage novelist. But first I thought we could take a look at a book that I also acquired during my fortnight's holiday – except, rather than purchasing it, it was given to me:

A Shot in the Dark was published in paperback by Hesperus Press in 2006, with a cover designed by Fraser Muggeridge studio, featuring an image by Lee Saper. A collection of short stories by Hector Hugh Munro – alias Saki – it was compiled by one Adam Newell, a longtime editor at pop culture publisher Titan Books. Now, those of you who've been paying attention at the back might dimly recall that I too once worked at Titan, so it shouldn't be a huge leap to make the connection between Adam and myself. Indeed, it was in large part for Adam's wedding – to the lovely Sharon Gosling, herself a talented editor-cum-writer – that Rachel and I travelled to Devon for our holiday the other week, and it was the day after that wedding that Adam gave me a copy of A Shot in the Dark.

I must confess to a certain level of ignorance about Saki; what little I do know about him comes from Adam, who's something of an expert. But the Cliff's Notes gen on him is he's widely regarded as a master of the short story form. In an all-too-brief career – he was born in 1870 and killed in 1916 during World War I – he produced around 150 or so pithy, mischievous, sly short stories (as well as two novels and three plays) which elegantly skewer the staid, stultifying Edwardian society of which he was a part. Some of the tales boast supernatural, eerie or unnervingly otherworldly – yet strangely commonplace in the way they're portrayed – elements, alongside, as Adam puts it in his introduction to A Shot in the Dark, "the ever-present threat of an unfettered, pagan wider world in which terrible things can, and usually do, happen".

I've yet to read all the stories in this collection; of the ones I have read, "Tobermory" stands out for me – a typically barbed tale of a talking cat whose cutting opinions of the guests at a house party introduce an amusing disquiet into proceedings (it's also one of Saki's best-loved tales). But the story behind the anthology is as fascinating as the thing itself. As Adam notes in his intro, the 140-odd Saki shorts that had been published prior to A Shot in the Dark were, for Saki fans, "all too soon devoured". Desperate for more Munro, Adam embarked on a hunt for uncollected stories, finding them in Munro's sister, Ethel's, long-out-of-print biography of her brother and enlisting the aid of Saki aficionado A. J. Langguth, who had combed through countless newspapers and magazines researching his biography of the writer, Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, in the process turning up a further six uncollected tales.

Armed with his bounty, Adam contacted Hesperus Press, whose modus operandi is bringing back into print little-seen public domain works by literary authors. Unsurprisingly they leapt at the chance to publish the scarcely-seen material Adam had ferreted out, the end result being A Shot in the Dark. And Adam even wound up on telly for his troubles, proving instrumental in the production of a 2007 BBC Four docu-drama, The Double Life of Saki, and appearing onscreen as an interviewee. All of which goes to show what a little dedication and persistence can achieve.

A heart-warming tale of fannish enthusiasm there (something I can certainly relate to). Next: Quiller.


  1. I have a special fondness for "The Open Window." The girl is precursor to a less deadly Rhoda Penmark but still rather cruel. I also like his more sinister tales "Sredni Vastar," "The She-Wolf" and "The Lumber-Room." Munro really understood children and their love of the fanciful. His stories featuring them as main characters as some of his best.

  2. 'The Lumber Room' is one of my favourite short stories. I read it first at school quite a few years ago, and have read it many times since.

  3. Thanks for the comments, both! I'll certainly be exploring more Saki in the future...