‘Dancing Dan’s Christmas’ by Damon Runyon

Are the hoods, gorillas, wrong gees and git-’em-up guys of Damon Runyon’s Broadway sentimentalists, as many allege? Sure, they tend to be soft on winsome young dolls and needy orphans. There are hearts of tarnished gold beneath the three-pieces. But there are also, as EC Bentley pointed out, stories like ‘Sense Of Humor’, which ends with a gangster being tricked into shooting dead his sweetheart Rosa while she’s tied up in a sack (is there, Bentley asked “anything ghastlier in modern fiction?”). And then there’s ‘Dancing Dan’s Christmas’: not ghastly, exactly, and in fact rather sweet, but nevertheless a festive tale of bootlegging, robbery, alcoholism and attempted murder.

From A Christmas Carol to ‘Fairytale of New York’, Christmassiness is better with a rough edge; here, Dancing Dan (a personable crook who “always seems to be getting a great belt out of life”) narrowly escapes being cut in half by sawn-off shotgun fire, like John Ridgely’s character at the end of The Big Sleep, because the hoods sent to kill him (“under orders not to miss”) mistake him for the “old rum-dum” Ooky. How is this Christmassy? Well, it’s Christmas Eve; Dancing Dan, speakeasy proprietor Good-time Charley Bernstein and Runyon’s ever-anonymous narrator are singing Christmas songs and knocking a few hot Tom and Jerrys behind closed doors (“This hot Tom and Jerry is an old-time drink that is once used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is once so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerrys, although of course this is by no means true”).

The caper kicks off when Dan, festively soused, appropriates Ooky’s Santa Claus outfit in order to deliver the booty from a jewel heist into the stocking of his sweetheart’s grandmother. Sentimental? Well, all right. But when you throw in mobster Heine Schmitz (who “will just as soon blow your brains out as look at you. In fact, I hear sooner”), the bootleg booze and those “nice little sawn-offs”, it’s clear that this isn’t kids’ stuff; this is Christmas with a kick.

First published in Collier’s Weekly in December 1932, and collected in Blue Plate Special, Stokes, 1934). Chosen by Richard Smyth