I read years ago a claim that Runyon was one of the greatest short story writers of all time. When I began to read this, I wasn't prepared for just how good he was. The twenty tales, apparently narrated by the same character, draw largely on the same group of lowlifes, hoodlums, dolls and eccentrics that hang around Broadway. Almost all of them are known by nicknames: Harry The Horse, Dave the Dude, Good Time Charlie, to name but a few, although Death House Donegan takes some beating.
The stories come over as a cross between 'Goodfellas', 'Only Fools And Horses' and 'Tales Of The Unexpected'. Most of them are hilarious. Halfway through 'Madame La Gimp' I had to pause, I was crying so much with laughter at the thought of these characters impersonating high-ranking officials in order to impress a visiting European. Runyon's methods of description ('a doll who was four feet high and five feet wide') are merciless and vivid. His narrator also has a habit of making a simple point comically long-winded. The stories are often a little absurd, yet realistic. There's the retired safecracker, for instance, who is cajoled into doing one more job while worrying what his wife will say if he leaves the baby unattended, and resolves his dilemma in an unthinkable way.
What is also striking about these stories is their finality. Most short stories are character snapshots at a moment of change without a conclusive ending, but all of Runyon's have emphatic endings which make them more satisfying. The slang is occasionally awkward, but a little thought usually suffices; a gun is usually termed an 'equalizer'; a nose is a 'beezer'; and my favourite, used only once, is the electric chair, described as 'the old warm squativoo'.
I have read volumes of short stories by several acclaimed users of the form, including Raymond Carver and William Trevor, but I've never enjoyed any as much as this one.