Roald Dahl’s DANNY, THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD as a bed-time story. Lily, recently turned seven years old, was thrilled by the story, and particularly impressed with Danny’s dad William, upon whom she bestowed what appears to be the ultimate accolade in fatherhood by describing him as ‘a very daddish dad’.
All of which was marvellous, because I vividly remember reading DANNY as a child myself, and it’s a book that has stuck in my memory for the best part of 40 years. That may well be, as I realised on re-reading it, that DANNY is essentially a ‘heist’ story, as Danny and his dad set about sabotaging local landowner Mr Victor Hazell’s shooting party by poaching his entire stock of pheasants, and with the tacit approval of the entire village – doctor, vicar and policeman included – to boot.
Like many crime writers, and certainly on this side of the pond, I read Enid Blyton voraciously during my childhood – the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Five Finder-Outers, the Adventure stories featuring Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann and Jack (and parrot Kiki), the Barney Mysteries, but also the Twins of St Clare’s and the Malory Towers books – but if memory serves, DANNY is the first book I read that was a mystery / crime story told from the perspective of the criminals. It’s also true that Danny and his dad aren’t poachers from need, driven to steal by hunger and want, but for the sheer thrill of it – the excitement of the deed itself, and the exhilaration of having pulled off the big one. And it’s not as if William is a Robin Hood character – William intends to share the proceeds of his heist with his friends, certainly, but given that said friends are a doctor, vicar and policeman, it’s not exactly a case of robbing the rich to give to the poor.
When I suggested to Lily that perhaps we shouldn’t be ‘up’ for Danny and his dad, because they were stealing from Mr Victor Hazell, she was having none of it. Mr Victor Hazell is a nasty piece of work, a snob and a bully, and he fully deserves his comeuppance, even if that involves Danny and his dad breaking the law.
It’s a similar kind of story to FANTASTIC MR FOX, of course, which we also enjoyed a couple of months ago, although in that case – from a moral perspective – Mr Fox steals in order to feed his family, and then reacts in spectacular fashion to the subsequent persecution. DANNY, THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD is another matter entirely, a genteel story of sticking it to The Man for no other reason than The Man owns pheasants that taste good when they’re roasted.
No wonder Lily loved it so much. Next week we’ll probably move it up a notch to Richard Stark’s THE HUNTER.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.