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Damon Runyon story of the week #1: A Breach of Promise

August 28, 2012

ON Broadway, the 1950 anthology which collected Runyon’s three ‘present tense’ books, More Than Somewhat (1937), Furthermore (1938) and Take It Easy (1938), was the collection which took him to a wider public, particularly in Britain.

Edited by the English journalist and humourist E.C. Bentley, it brought the vibrant demi-monde of the ‘bandits of Broadway’ to an audience, in a way, says Bentley, that makes up, “one of the richest contributions to comic literature in our time.” Bentley’s selection of Runyon stories was made with the intention of, “showing as many aspects of his narrative genius, ranging as they do from the most uproarious farce to such sadness as goes to the the depths of the heart.”

“A Breach of Promise”, introduces the Runyon staple of the interplay of high society figures with bandits. The story, befitting Bentley’s premise, plays it for great farce but with a touching portrait of a kind, ageing, innocent woman who knows little of the multiple betrayals befalling her.

It picks up with Runyon’s omnipresent narrator approached by the bogusly named Judge Goldfobber to find certain parties in Brooklyn to do a burglary for socialite businessman Mr Jabez Tuesday, who would like some old love letters stolen. He needs them stolen as he hopes to marry society blonde Miss Valerie Scarwater.

Of course, the narrator, prior to finding this detailed information of the blag, suggests Harry the Horse and Spanish John and Little Isadore, parties from the Brooklyn underworld who are suffering more than somewhat from the economic downturn, because, as he says, “if nobody is working and making any money, there is nobody for them to rob.”

So, Harry the Horse becomes our secondary narrator, telling Runyon’s character of the finer details of the story: about how they go to burgle Miss Amelia Bodkin, Mr Jabez Tuesday’s former ever loving girlfriend, primarily to get the socialite’s embarrassing love letters back, but also to roust some of her valuable silverware, including her Paul Revere tea pot. Mr Jabez Tuesday promises that they can steal these valuables along with the love letters.

Of course, all does not go well, because in Runyon stories, such circumstances rarely do. So, with Educated Edmund in tow, the three hard knocks head to Tarrytown to rob Miss Amelia Bodkin of her memories and her silverware. But, Harry the Horse smashes his car, takes a big knock to his noggin and is taken in by Miss Bodkin who cares for the gangster.

Now, as in all Runyon stories, a secondary counter narrative emerges and the love story of Mr Jabez Tuesday and Miss Amelia Bodkin is told to Harry the Horse from the perspective of the latter (and her butler) and a deeper level of sculduggery emerges.

And so, the scene is set for a wonderful Runyon dénoument where the story turns in three separate directions. As ever, the final paragraph is the clincher, where the punchline is delivered and you are left wondering how such a brilliant tale has been delivered in less than 12 pages.

There is a March 6, 1949, dramatisation of “A Breach of Promise” on the Old Time Radio website here. It’s a dramatisation rather than a reading of the story, so it’s not entirely present tense and some names have been changed, but it’s still brilliant.

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