Saki Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis
Saki came to the short story as a satirist and never averted his eye from the darker side of human nature, a place where not only social ineptness, pomposity, and foolishness are rooted but criminality as well. Saki’s first works of fiction, collected in Reginald (1904), are short sketches featuring a rakish but keen observer of the follies of his upper-middle-class London society. As a prototype of later narrator-protagonists, Reginald is something like a witty and caustic Socrates of the salon, whose passion to expose the foibles of his dim-witted and obnoxiously stupid contemporaries is reflected in much of Saki’s fiction.
Reginald in Russia
Saki’s criminous short stories—the first collection of which, Reginald in Russia (1910), plays off the fame of the early protagonist—follow suit. In their aim to ridicule, and often to punish, self-imposing and occasionally tyrannical victims, Saki’s stories exploit plots crafted by a masterful imagination; they often read like gigantic, fiendishly designed practical jokes, with varying degrees of realism.
“Sredni Vashtar” (in The Chronicles of Clovis, 1911) features one such cruel and fantastic scheme. The boy Conradin is afflicted with a forbidding aunt who gets perverse pleasure from closing off all avenues of play from her ward. His only undisturbed space is a small shed in which he keeps a hen and a caged “polecatferret” named Sredni Vashtar, for an Asian deity. The boy has devised a cult around Sredni Vashtar. After his aunt breaks into the shed and removes the hen, Conradin prays to his other playmate: “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.” The wish is never made explicit, but after the aunt breaks in a second time, Conradin chants to his deity until the ferret emerges, “a long, low, yellow-and-brown beast, with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat.” When the aunt is discovered dead, the boy calmly prepares some toast for himself in obvious satisfaction.
As in this tale, in which the divine ferret acts out the boy’s fantasy of revenge, Saki gives animals uncanny power, and they act to expose the worst in their human counterparts. In “Tobermory,” also in The Chronicles of Clovis, a dignified tomcat is taught human language and, to the horror of a house party, freely divulges compromising personal information that he had overheard. The humans’ response is instant and malicious: Tobermory is to be poisoned. Their decision is described as if the guests were plotting the murder of a human. By a typical quirk of fate, Saki saves Tobermory from poison by having him die in dignified battle with another tomcat; his owners demand recompense from his adversary’s masters.
Because his fiction always succeeds in bringing forth the worst in people, be it greed, tyranny, or selfishness, Saki has himself been accused of inhumanity. A more intent look at the reasons for his deep sarcasm cannot fail to establish that the cruelty of his stories is the cruelty of the well-to-do society around him, the greed and vice of which stir his disgust and in turn impel him to put much of what he sees and feels on paper in ironic form, adding a dash of the exotic and supernatural to his often-murderous fiction. As to Saki’s motives for presenting his society with his work, one might echo Clovis Sangrail on his ideas for “The Feast of Nemesis” (in Beasts and Super-Beasts, 1914): “There is no outlet for demonstrating your feelings towards people whom you simply loathe. That is really the crying need of our modern civilization.”
In a society where a faux pas could literally annihilate a person’s social position, leaving him a choice only of internal or external exile, a man such as Saki (excolonial, homosexual) must have felt some of the shady morality, hypocrisy, and bigotry behind the façades of respectability. Yet Saki never outwardly shocks or lectures his audience. His wit is so fine and...
(The entire section is 2,080 words.)