Stanley 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”
George 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
We 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.