by ZJ Czupor
Don’t Gobblefunk Around With Words
Children who grew up on this author’s books continue to visit his grave in England and in a show of respect leave toys and flowers. When he died, he was mourned the world over. He was a British novelist, short-story writer, poet, screenwriter, medical inventor, and ace fighter pilot. His writing blended fantasy, humor, horror, heroism, and folklore into books that enchanted his readers.
He was a master of inventing new words, which sounded like gibberish but made perfect sense. In the children’s novel, BFG (1982), short for “big friendly giant,” he wrote, “Don’t gobblefunk around with words.”
Perhaps his most popular invented word is “Scrumdiddlyumptious,” which is still delicious to hear.
A personal tragedy in 1960 prompted him to invent a catheter which treats hydrocephalus in young children. The idea came to him after his 4-month-old son was struck by a taxicab in New York City. The accident left his son brain damaged. But the invention, named the Wade-Dahl-Till valve, helped save the sight of 3,000 children around the world.
I think this a good time to ask, why am I reading about a children’s author when this space is for mystery writers? Fair question. Because Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was also a British spy which set in motion his career as a writer, and furthermore, his mysteries earned him three awards from Mystery Writers of America.
In 1954, he was given the Edgar Allan Poe award for his collection of short stories, Someone Like You (Alfred A. Knopf, 1953). Ten of those stories first appeared in The New Yorker. Author and critic Anthony Boucher praised “the collection’s subtly devastating murder stories.”
At the 1960 Edgar Awards, he won Best Short Story Mystery for “The Landlady,” which first appeared in The New Yorker about a teenage boy who checks into a bed and breakfast and soon, or too late, discovers he’s the only guest the eccentric landlady has had in two years.
Dahl completed his trifecta in 1980 with Tales of the Unexpected, a collection of sixteen short stories (Michael Joseph, 1979), which were published in The New Yorker, Collier’s, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, and Playboy.
His short stories are famous for their unexpected endings and wicked twists. His writing style has been called offhanded with a serious brand of humor carried by a sophisticated voice.
One short story, “The Man From the South,” for example, opens with a wager where an older man bets a younger man he can’t spark his cigarette lighter ten times in a row. If he succeeds, he wins a Cadillac. If he fails, he agrees to have his left pinkie finger removed.
In 1939, as the winds of WWII were brewing, he joined the Royal Air Force. On his first solo flight he crashed in the Libyan desert. He’d been given the wrong coordinates and lost both fuel and daylight in the middle of nowhere. He fractured his skull, his nose was bashed in, and he was blinded for several days.
Two years later, he was flying again but in Greece where he qualified as an “ace,” after shooting down two enemy planes in two days, and then five more. But when he began to get blinding headaches and black outs from his earlier crash, he was sent home.
However, he remained in the service as an “assistant air attaché” (code for spy for MI6, the British Secret Service). He was assigned to get close to the rich and famous in Washington, D.C. He boxed with Ernest Hemingway, dated American author and U.S. Ambassador Clair Boothe Luce, and was lothario to many women, where he gleaned the latest gossip and rumors.
He also created propaganda to keep America interested in the war and sympathetic to Britain’s efforts while supplying intelligence back home to Winston Churchill. Dahl said, “my job was to try to help Winston to get on with FDR and tell Winston what was in the old boy’s mind.”
Dahl worked alongside Ian Fleming (creator and author of the James Bond 007 series). They had similar reputations for hard-drinking, gambling, and womanizing, and once held an affair with the same woman. They were part of a spy group that included Noël Coward (1899-1973), who became a famous playwright, and David Ogilvy (1911-1999), who founded the famous New York ad agency Ogilvy and Mather. The group was nicknamed “The Irregulars” after Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street Irregulars.
After the war, Fleming retired to his island “Goldeneye” in Jamaica to write, as he said, “the spy novel to end all spy novels.” Meanwhile, Dahl nestled into his custom-built garden hut* in England where he wrote adult stories. Fleming considered his own writing despicable but said Dahl’s writing was literature.
In the early 50s, Dahl met actress Patricia Neal. They married and had five children. He attributed his success as a writer of children’s books to them.
In the late 60s, Albert Broccoli, who co-produced the Bond films knew of Dahl’s friendship with Fleming. He asked Dahl to write the screenplay for “You Only Live Twice” (The 1967 James Bond film) based on Fleming’s 1964 novel. Dahl had no experience as a screenwriter and said it was difficult because it was “Ian’s worst book.” Dahl said other than the plot taking place in Japan, the evil antagonist, and Bond’s girlfriends, he said “I had nothing (to work with) except a wonderful Ian Fleming title.”
Dahl invented a new plot and wrote the script in eight weeks. This was the first Bond film that discarded most of Fleming’s novel. While the film made a profit at the box office, reviews were mixed. The Chicago Tribune called his script “larded with sex-slanted jokes that are either pathetically feeble or sophomorically coarse.” BBC films said Dahl’s script displayed “a whole new world of villainy and technology.”
Broccoli liked Dahl’s writing so much that he hired Dahl again to write another Fleming adaptation—Fleming’s children book, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car. (Jonathan Cape, 1964). It was Fleming’s last book. But he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 53 before it was published.
Dahl wrote the screenplay but hated all the script changes thrust upon him. He said, “But they pay a lot, so you take the money and run.”
One of Dahl’s most popular books is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), which he adapted into the screenplay for “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” (1971). But the screenplay was re-written by David Seltzer. Again, Dahl hated it, saying Seltzer put the emphasis on Willy Wonka and not on Charlie.
Roald Dahl’s award-winning works rank among the world’s best-selling fiction authors with more than 250 million copies sold worldwide with translations into sixty-three languages.
He died in 1990, at 74, from blood cancer. His family gave him sort of a Viking funeral. They buried him with snooker cues, good burgundy, chocolates, pencils, and a power saw. He’s buried in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, England.
While Dahl was a much-loved storyteller, he could be brash and controversial. He was criticized for anti-Semitic comments he made in an interview, and yet, he had many Jewish friends. His family published an apology on the official Roald Dahl website. His writings were also criticized for sadism, sexism, and misogyny. And when his wife, Patricia Neal, suffered a series of strokes, he put her through an intense rehabilitation therapy that many felt was cruel. Now that approach is considered standard practice, which is to stimulate a stroke victim early on to restore health.
Despite his contradictions, Dahl inspired a generation of writers and infused his writing with optimistic notions that dreams and imagination have power, and that we shouldn’t judge others by their appearance—”just being yourself will always be good enough.”
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
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*Dahl’s writing hut was inspired by a visit to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), who was one of his favorite authors. Thomas worked in a writing shed where he lived in South Wales. The walls of Dahl’s hut were covered by family photos, postcards, and letters, including a Christmas card from a postman in Blue Hill, Nebraska named Willy Wonka. When Dahl dreamt up the name he had no idea such a real person existed. He wrote him back, “I was astonished and excited to get your letter.”
**”HB” is a graphite grading scale used by pencil manufacturers outside of the U.S. “HB” means “hard black” or “medium hard,” the degree of a pencil’s hardness. It’s the equivalent of a #2 pencil in the U.S. Dahl was superstitious and thought uneven numbers were unlucky. He always worked with six Dixon Ticonderoga pencils, five kept in a jug on his desk, and one to write with.