There's something wintry about Stacy Aumonier. His Extremely Entertaining Short Stories feel as if they should be read aloud beside a roaring fire.
He was born near Regent's Park into a family of craftsmen and artists in 1877, and reached 51 before dying of tuberculosis. During this time he wrote many short stories which should rightly be regarded as classics – but aren't. Worse, his work has vanished completely, and even collections of tales get his dates wrong. Yet John Galsworthy and Alfred Hitchcock were admirers of his style, his way with suspense, his wit, humanity and lightness of touch. He was described as "never heavy, never boring, never really trivial".
The more I heard about Aumonier, the more I began to suspect that I was the subject of a hoax. Did he really come from an entire family of sculptors? What was his Tutankhamun connection? And can it be true that he married a concert pianist called Gertrude Peppercorn? He certainly wrote a novel about a wartime family, The Querrils, and a book called Odd Fish about the eccentric residents of a London street. He sat for rather a lot of paintings in the National Portrait Gallery, which usually show him dressed for dinner. Hitchcock filmed television versions of some of his stories. Beyond this, the trail disappears.
And yet his reputation doggedly persists. Publishers at Phaeton, who most recently revived his tales, say that "the more we probed into his background, the more we liked him". In the 1920s, he became unrivalled as a short story writer. In one of his most famous tales, "Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty", the shy, untravelled heroine winds up underneath a dead stranger's bed in a French hotel room. In "A Source of Irritation", an elderly farmer is kidnapped by an enemy pilot who crashes in his field. In "Where Was Wych Street?", an argument in a pub escalates into a full-blown siege.
Aumonier wrote about idiosyncratic people bucking their fate and, like O Henry and Saki, could condense a life into a few pages. When his illness was diagnosed as terminal, he wrote "The Thrill of Being Ill", in which he says: "You become subtly aware of the change in attitude in the manner of certain people ... you have become dramatically a centre of interest." Perfect with a hot toddy on a cold night.
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