Kerrie’s Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog this week reaches the letter E. Those participating will post a review, author biog or a thematic item that matches the letter of the week either with the first letter of the title or the name or surname of the author.
This week I am using the occasion to celebrate the innovative work of Stanley Ellin, a postwar master of the short story who rose instantly in the ranks when his debut offering, ‘The Specialty of the House’, was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in May 1948. But he was also the author of several key mystery novels, stretching the limits of the genre and in some cases going well beyond them. Don’t believe? Let me try and persuade you otherwise …
“The crime fiction genre offers the writer infinite diversity of theme and treatment. I like to take advantage of that diversity.” – Stanley Ellin
Stanley Bernard Ellin was born in Brooklyn on 6 October 1916 and was thirty years old when he, after a stint in the army as well as a variety of jobs, became a full-time writer with the blessing and financial support of his wife Jeanne Michael. 1948 saw this finally pay off, and handsomely too, with both the publication of ‘The Specialty of the House’ and his first novel, Dreadful Summit, which was filmed shortly afterwards by Joseph Losey as The Big Night with a screenplay co-written by Ellin himself. While a few of his novels have been filmed over the years (and the short story ‘The Best of Everything’ was the basis in 1964 for Nothing But the Best), the TV adaptations of his shorter works for such anthologies as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected were probably much more widely seen.
“… one of the two or three finest short story writers of this century in the crime field.” – Jon L. Breen
Ellin is known first and foremost for his short stories, which from his 1948 debut he produced at a rate of roughly one a year. These are truly imaginative crime stories often with macabre twists that certainly bear comparison with those of such contemporaries as John Collier, Roald Dahl and Fredric Brown. His productivity, especially compared with these gentlemen, was comparatively low as he was known to employ a relentless approach to composition, endlessly revising each page until he was completely satisfied before he would then go on to the next. Not unsurprisingly perhaps, he entitled his contribution to the Mystery Writer’s Handbook, ‘The Ungentle Art of Revision’. The bulk of his classic short stories were collected originally in three volumes, the first of which, Mystery Stories (1956), Julian Symons famously hailed as:
“… the finest collection of stories in the crime form published in the past half century”.
It was followed by The Blessington Method (1964) and Kindly Dig Your Grave (1975); all three were then republished in 1979 with a few additions in a single omnibus volume, The Specialty of the House, named for his debut story, which remained his best known single work though he wrote a dozen equally as good as the tart and macabre tale of Sbirro’s Restaurant and its very special ‘special’. Perhaps appropriately, Dreadful Summit is a gritty coming of age story of a boy who sets out to avenge his father’s humiliation by committing murder. Its follow-up, The Key to Nicholas Street, is a superb tale told from five perspectives and takes the classic Christie scenario in which the most disliked person is found murdered to deliver a subtle and intelligent variation on the theme. The Eighth Circle also takes a classic premise – it is a private eye yarn with a protagonist very much in the style of Hammett’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, who solves his partner’s murder even though he was actually having an affair with his wife – and updates it to provide an ethical mystery that may be Ellin’s finest full-length work and which also won him the Edgar.
” … one of the top American writers of this century, regardless of genre. “ – William L. DeAndrea in Encyclopedia Mysteriosa
In the 1960s wrote a series of perhaps more conventional thrillers set around the world such as House of Cards (1963) and The Valentine Estate (1968) but once again delivered a more experimental short book, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (1972), a psycho-sexual masterpiece as brave as it was unexpected and which was listed in HRF Keating’s list of 100 best crime and mystery books (for the full list, click here). It is certainly one of my favourite Ellin novels, though one that is unusually vulnerable to spoilers and is best read without any previous knowledge about its story and main character. This was followed by Stronghold, an imaginatively developed hostage story that also examined the author’s own beliefs as a Quaker. Ellin continued to show that he was still able to shock and innovate when his usual publisher, Random House, rejected The Dark Fantastic (1983) for its uncompromising portrait of a psychopathic bigot. This was the second of two novels featuring private eye John Milano, the only recurring character in the author’s work. For the most part his stories were too distinctive to conform to a series pattern and each new book would often provide a radical departure from the one that preceded it.
“Even two decades after his death, Stanley Ellin’s work remains amongst the most original and accomplished in the field” – Mike Ashley in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Crime Fiction
- 1948 – Dreadful Summit (filmed in 1951 as The Big Night)
- 1952 – The Key to Nicholas Street (filmed in 1959 as À double tour / Leda)
- 1958 – The Eighth Circle
- 1960 – The Winter after This Summer
- 1962 – The Panama Portrait
- 1963 – House of Cards (filmed in 1969)
- 1968 – The Valentine Estate
- 1970 – The Bind (filmed in 1979 as Sunburn)
- 1972 – Mirror, Mirror on the Wall
- 1974 – Stronghold (filmed as A Prayer in the Dark in 1997)
- 1976 – The Other Side of the Wall
- 1977 – The Luxembourg Run
- 1979 – Star Light, Star Bright
- 1983 – The Dark Fantastic
- 1984 – Very Old Money
Ellin died on 31 July 1986 leaving a legacy of some fifteen novels and three-dozen short stories. He is gone, but not forgotten. I hope to post reviews of many of his books over the next few months.