DREADFUL SUMMIT (1948) by Stanley Ellin

Ellin-Dreadful-Summit-penguinStanley Ellin burst on the literary scene in Spring 1948 with a one-two punch with the twin successes of his first short story, ‘The Specialty of the House’, the classic tale of the macabre for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and his debut novel Dreadful Summit, a ‘Inner Sanctum Suspense Special’ subsequently filmed by Joseph Losey as The Big Night.

The protagonist of Summit is George LaMain, a New York teen brought up on Kipling, Haggard and Dumas whose traumatic journey into the adult world begins when his father is savagely beaten. George picks up a gun and decides that revenge for this family humiliation will be his initiation into manhood. A lot will happen in the next twelve hours …

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge in my bespoke category, ‘Shakespearean titles’, the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her Pattinase blog – you should head to these great sites right away to check out some of the other selections offered this week.

“I think I liked Al Judge a lot before I knew I had to kill him”

On a cold and windy November 8th, the night of his 16th birthday, George is as always having his supper in ‘Handy Andy’s’, his father’s bar and grill. That night though his whole world changes when cane-wielding sports journalist Al Judge enters the joint. Up until then George has had a pretty simple and circumscribed existence – his mother died before he could know her so he really only has his father for guidance. And Andy is a pretty decent guy, if often brusque and taciturn. The boy is helped by Flanagan, a sensitive Irishman who helps run the bar and Frances, a nurse at the local hospital and his father’s girlfriend. That night though Judge arrives, backed up with a couple of heavies from his newspaper, and humiliates his father by making him strip to the waste and beating his back with his cane. Flanagan literally makes the gangly youth keep his head down until it is all over, smashing his spectacles in the process. From then on he won’t be seeing too clearly both literally and metaphorically, blinded by a rage to defend the family honour  unable to understand his father’s fatalistic acquiescence to the beating. But then there’s a lot that George doesn’t understand.

“I mean when you’re fifteen, sixteen you’re right in the middle of nowhere”

Ellin-Dreadful-Summit-hbGeorge takes the gun his father keeps hidden beneath the till and heads out to find Judge but keeps being interrupted – first there are the neighbours who need him to babysit for 15 minutes while the mother gets the shopping. George can’t say no because he needs to borrow a quarter to get to the fight at Madison Square Garden that was to be his birthday treat. Now he intends to go there because he knows Judge will be reporting on the fight. As he waits for the mother to come back there is a fascinating and disturbing scene in which George acts out how he plans to punish Judge, wearing his father’s hat and coat and carrying his gun, rehearsing into a mirror just what he will say, very much a ‘Are you talking to me?’ fantasy and one that darkens quickly as the lad is so psyched up that he pulls out the gun and points it at the screaming baby.

While we have a lot of sympathy for George, Ellin regularly punctuates the narrative with such moments to make the plan increasingly disturbing so that we see the idea of liberation through violence as the adolescent fantasy that it is. George doesn;t harm the baby though he does rip his trousers when he hurriedly pushed the gun back in s0 he will feel the cold metal against his skin for the rest of the novel, as a constant physical reminder of his murderous intent. He gets the money he needs and heads to the fight, but once again he is waylaid. The fight is a sellout but he still has his father’s ticket and a stranger gives him $10 dollars for it – as soon as George takes it a corrupt cop holds him as a scalper until he agrees to hand over the cash. At this point the first of the novel’s rather unlikely coincidences takes place when it turns out that the man he sold the ticket to, Dr Lloyd Cooper, used to know Judge and holds a bit of a grudge. he and George head off to a bar where Judge hangs out. Cooper and the boy get drunk and eventually George decides to follow Judge into the men’s room and have it out – but this is once again impeded by another big coincidence when he find the cop from the fight there again. The cop thinks the boy wants his money back and threatens him, so George coshes him on the head with the gun and pushes the stunned man out of the window. From a plot standpoint these coincidences do hurt it a little, but this is a book less about plot and more about the character of a naive and inexperienced youngster.

“Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” – from  Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley

Ellin-Big-Night-lionWe often think of treatment in fiction of the rebellious teen as belonging to the 1950s but Ellin got there a lot earlier, at least in the mystery genre. He was following hot on the heels of Willard Motley’s 1947 novel Knock on Any Door, the book that spawned that much quoted motto of that rebellious generation (and no, it really wasn’t James Dean who coined the phrase). LaMain is a callow youth confused by the world surrounding him and is precursor of the likes of Holden Caulfield, though of course this is also a character that fits well within the bildungsroman tradition, presenting events that the young protagonist cannot always understand but which will be clear to the reader, an effect found in books as different as Dickens’ Great Expectations and LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. Here we have George latch on to Cooper and his girlfriend and spend the night with them waiting to eventually catch up again with Judge who left the bar during the altercation with the cop. As the night progresses George will move from his first hangover to his introduction to jazz, which ends in disaster when he drunkenly praises the singer even though she is a “nigger”, a horrible, brilliantly calculated moment by Ellin that still chills the blood as George just can’t understand why this might have offended the singer. He later gets his first taste classical music (Sibelius), ultimately leading to his first sexual encounter. But he continues to search for Judge – the eventual confrontation will be violent and fraught with ironies that the boy is barely able to comprehend. The book concludes with a double killing and a strange, moving coda in which George perhaps finally does something noble and even brave though clearly also foolhardy.

This short novel manages to provide a number of reversals as it reaches its conclusion though the trajectory remains fairly straightforward – it’s the various ‘interruptions’ that provide the book with its real substance. Ellin’s plotting would become more refined in his later novels but this still provides much to admire in a story modeled on Hamlet (the title is from Act 1 Scene 4). The book was filmed with considerable fidelity in 1951 by Joseph Losey as The Big Night (leading to paperback reprints under that title) with Ellin (whose work I profiled here last year) collaborating with the director on the screenplay – a review of this adaptation will follow shortly.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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22 Responses to DREADFUL SUMMIT (1948) by Stanley Ellin

  1. Sergio – Trust you to present such an interesting look at adolescent experiences reflecting larger societal issues. And I can see how the thread of darkness is woven through this novel. I’m quite pleased you mentioned the Holden Caulfield;; I thought of him as soon as I started reading your excellent review. It’s very hard to write a teen character effectively, I think, but when it’s done well it can be powerful.

    • Thanks very much Margot, very genrous. This is a book that I think is well worth reading and Ellin is another author that seems to have been largely forgotten to an extent of course that is the curse of being an innovator in that time and tastes will catch up with your work, bt he was a superb stylist too. I may be wrong but the impression I get is that he he is not very much anymore except by readers with long memories – be lovely to be able to change that!

  2. Colin says:

    A fairly straightforward plotline punctuated by unexpected and frustrating (for the protagonist) side issues. This sounds like typical noir writing, but that’s not a particularly bad thing.
    I’ve never seen Losey’s movie, though I am aware of it. The reason for that is I’ve always had a hard time getting on with John Barrymore Jr in films – I found him pretty poor in While the City Sleeps for example.

    • Hiya Colin – the movie is well worth getting (especially the region 2 Losey box set which has tons of goodies). Barrymore was still a teen at the time and this certainly works in his favour for this particular role – I’ll be reviewing the movie in about a week so I’ll get back to you on this. Ellin was in every sense a superior author, adept and multiple iterations of the crime and mystery genre – I plan to review many more of his works, though he really does seem to ahve been largely forgotten, which is a bit of a shocker. In the 40s and 50s he was certainly a bit of a star. A lot of stories eventually got adapted for the Hitchcock and Tales of the Unexpected anthologies on TV.

      • Colin says:

        I’m most familiar with those AHP episodes to be honest. His work was also adapted as a 1968 movie – House of Cards – which I don’t believe I’ve ever seen. It sounds pretty good though.

        • A lot of Ellin’s short stories are familiar through adaptation without people necessarily realising that he wrote them! Those three George Peppard / John Guillermin films from the late 60s got progressively weirder and overblown but are all highly entertaining (The Blue Max, shot largely in ireland, is the best though). House of Cards, while enjoyabe, os probably the least of them as it’s the most straightforward.

  3. PS Apparently Sinister in Italy are putting out a DVD of House of Cards later this month (as Castello di Carte), which should be decent and with original audio, though at the moment Italian is listed as the only soundtrack. See here.
    HOUSE OF CARDS

  4. Stanley Ellin is better known as a short story writer than a novelist, but many of Ellin’s novels are worth reading. I’m a big fan of THE EIGHTH CIRCLE that won an Edgar Award.

    • I am going through my collection of Ellin’s books in chronological order at present so will be definitely posting a review of Eight Circle in the not too distant future … but I agree, it’s a classic book, right up there with Mirror, Mirror as his fnest novel possibly though i have not read some of the later books like Stronghold yet.

  5. John says:

    So many interesting details here really make me want to read everything by Ellin I can find. The rip in the pants that puts the gun up against George’s skin. Brilliant touch! And I am one of the few readers who never quibbles about coincidence. Real life is teeming with it. Why do people always harp on it in fiction? Was it you who turned me onto the movie verison of The House on Nicholas Street? It’s a French movie — Jean-Paul Belmondo played a swingin’ bachelor, directed by Chabrol, I think, but I can’t remember the title. Anyway, I watched it and really enjoyed it. I know of Ellin’s work mostly via the Hitchcock TV show adaptations of his work and movies. There were many AHP and AHH episodes as mentioned by you and Colin. One of my favorites was “The Orderly World of Mr. Applebee.” On the old Roald Dahl series Tales of the Unexpected one of his nasty ironic stories of revenge “Kindly Dig Your Own Grave” was especially good. Saw that on YouTube a few weeks ago coincidentally.

    • Thanks very much John for all the kind words – and yeah, I think we did have a chat about the Belmondo movie come to think of it (À double tour aka Leda aka Web of Passion) – some of those stories are seriously nasty, no question about it!

  6. TracyK says:

    Last year, when you did the Stanley Ellin post on the Crime Fiction Alphabet, I said I was going to seek out some books by Ellin, and partly for some of the paperback covers. Haven’t done that yet, and this motivates me to get moving. You have provided a picture of this book that makes me want to find it, especially.

    • Thanks very much TracyK and I really hope you find some of his books – Ellin wrote all kinds of books and I never met one I didn’t like! I plan to review several more by him in the coming months as he remains quite neglected, which seems a real shame to me.

  7. neer says:

    Thanks Sergio for this piece on another forgotten author. The book does seem very interesting. Will see if I can get a copy of it.

  8. Sergio, I have only heard of Stanley Ellin, so this is another first for me. Reading your fine review, I was thinking how this story appeared to be more “character” than “plot” driven and then I saw that you’d mentioned it. Given the plot outline I’m not surprised Ellin wrote it the way he did.

    • Thansk Prashant – Ellin had mainly worked on short stories and accumulated a lot of rejections so probably decided to try for a novel to get his foot in the door (so to speak) – certainly this is a fairly short character piece though I think quite prescient for 1948 in its emphasis on a teenage protagonist going out for revenge in the Big bad city. It is a version of Hamlet of course, so no great originality there, but he saw the burgeonig interest in the attraction of violence for the emerging postwar teenager a lot before anybody else. I hope you get to read some of his stories and novels, he was a remarkable and fine writer.

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    I love the imagery of George’s spectacles getting smashed and how that represents his unclear vision on many levels. Thanks for another fine review, Sergio. And I look forward to seeing your views on The Green Plain Pants in the coming weeks.

    • Thanks very much Bev – just finished the Scherf novel this mornign in fact! Ellin was a truly superior mystery and suspense author and I always get a lot from re-reading his work, not somethign I am often inclined to do (and not just because there never seems to be enough time).

  10. Pingback: The Big Night (1951) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

  11. Pingback: 2013 Vintage Mystery Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

  12. Pingback: 2013 Book to Movie Challenge – completed | Tipping My Fedora

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