The Key to Nicholas Street (1953) by Stanley Ellin

Five narrators tell the story of the murder of Katherine Ballou; all of whom live next door to her and one of whom is her killer. The narrative begins with a more outside perspective, that of the domestic help June. She works for the Ayres family and from her not only do we discover the body, but we also get one angle on the blossoming romance between Bettina Ayres and Matthew Chaves. Chaves blew into the lives of Ayres family when he came to visit Katherine, a work colleague, soon to be ex-one when he ups and leaves his well-paying job to work as a deck hand on a ferry. Understandably Bettina’s mother fears Matthew is a fortune hunter and a wastrel; a point of view which is elaborated on when Bettina’s mother, Lucille, takes over the narrative. We also discover that Lucille’s husband, Harry was having an affair with Katherine. Following on from Lucille’s story, we then hear from Harry, Bettina and Richard. Each narrator pushes the story along a step further, with the local police investigation taking place over a day, whilst also providing a different slant on the events mentioned by previous narrators. Suffice to say life will never be the same for this family by the time the killer is revealed…

Overall Thoughts

I really enjoyed this book as my rating below shows. Multiple narrators are not the rarest of things to come across, but Ellin’s adept handling of this element is. Ellin effectively uses his cast of storytellers to slowly, piece by piece, reveal the family, their past and what has happened recently with the death of Ballou. More importantly though the author is very good at using these different narrators to shape your views on characters, in particular the readers’ views on Matthew. In addition, whilst narrators do refer back to events previously mentioned they manage to do so in a new and refreshing way. There isn’t a sense of information being overly repeated, as each narrator is quite selective in how they talk about matters. In some ways I would this book is like a kaleidoscope whose central image, page by page, slots into place. Incidentally, this might just be me, but I was strongly reminded of J. B. Priestley’s Inspector Calls (1945), in the way the text moves from character to character, revealing inner imperfections; especially those related to gender and class ideals. From a plot and character point of view this is a gripping story which you feel compelled to read at a rapid rate of knots, yet I think it is also an interesting book to examine in light of the perspectives it raises on social class and middle class notions of respectability, as well as on the theme of women and how tyrannical the homemaker role can be made. I would equally say masculinity takes a bit of a pounding in the book, particularly when it comes to Harry who is depicted as rather weak willed and self-interested. Perhaps it is a sign of the changing times that in this story the issue of the extra-marital affair is given a far more in depth and central coverage than it might have done in earlier mystery novels, with both Lucille and Harry’s viewpoints being shown.

I’ve not checked yet what else Ellin has wrote, but if it is as good as this novel, then I can’t wait to try it. Recommendations, as always, are gratefully received.

Rating: 5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Book Made into TV/Film/Play (A Double Tour (1959), directed by Claude Chabrol)

Calendar of Crime: April (6) Original Publication Month

24 comments

  1. This reminds me of the British mystery film The Woman in Question. Have you seen it? I think it’s still on YouTube and is well worth the viewing! I love Ellin’s short stories. “The Specialty of the House” is a classic of its kind. I didn’t even know he wrote novels!! This looks like fun!

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  2. I don’t think Stanley Ellin ever wrote a dull word — certainly not that I’ve come across — so really anything of his you choose to read next is going to be a goody. There’s also a whopping Complete Short Stories around on the secondhand market; it’s often pretty expensive but sometimes you can be lucky — I got mine for $5, although it ain’t in the best of condition.

    Hm. That reminds me: it’s about time I sat down and read the damn’ book rather than just dipping in!

    For a taster of his stories there’s a slender collection called The Specialty of the House that’s highly recommended. Penguin did an edition of it, and indeed may still have it in print.

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  3. I have been a (very) vocal Stanley Ellin fan for three decades now and I’m glad to see you on your way to become one too. I haven’t read this book yet but your review perfectly summarizes what makes him a favourite of mine.

    I’m somewhat a heretic though as unlike most Ellinians I rate his novels even higher than his short stories, brilliant as they are. Ellin displays the same refusal of conventions and being pigeonholed in both forms but his novels tend to be more experimental and radical, which as you know is always a plus for me. My favourites so far are the Edgar-winning The Eighth Circle which may be one of the best and certainly most idiosyncratic private eye novels ever written, the four-to-the-floor thriller The Valentine Estate and Star Shine Star Bright the first entry in a short-lived series about shamus Joe Milano. The good thing about these books is that they have nothing in common; Ellin never rested on his laurels or set on a formula, which is rare enough in our genre to be celebrated. This also makes him a product of another, arguably better era as I don’t think he’d be granted so much liberty by modern publishers and editors.

    Liked by 1 person

    • haha thanks for the heretical view! I’ll have to take a look at the titles you mention and see which I fancy. I can’t remember now why I decided to buy this book. It might have been a random find or was it one of your recommendations?

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  4. I’ve read a few of his novels, some good, some not so good. ‘The Eighth Circle’ which came directly after ‘The Key to Nicholas Street’ was impressive as I recall – it won an Edgar in 1959 – but the one I really liked is ‘House of Cards’. I guess it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea because of its strong romantic element, though it’s basically a suspense-novel-cum-thriller. I was first attracted by its cool Tarot based back cover, though as it turns out the Tarot doesn’t have much to do with it. I believe it was made into a bad movie, but I wouldn’t go by that.

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    • Having hunted bookstores for Ellin since about 1980, I can say he is usually hard to find. If you see one, buy it. Fortunately Mysteriouspress has reprinted him in recent years, at least in ebook. My library has this,so I just downloaded it, and it is next in line.

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      • Well, I liked it. Not as much as you did but pretty well.
        I cannot say it’s like any other Ellin novel I have read; as Xavier says they are all very different. But it is certainly representative of his style: things are revealed, but not stated, and what I call the “oblivious narrator” is a technique he uses a lot, the narrator who is blind to something we can plainly see (often about their own character for example). Also characteristic is his vivid evocation of over-wrought, obsessive, or twisted minds.
        Xavier is quite wrong about the stories though. They are his best stuff, and some great delights await you!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. There is a Tamil film similar to The Woman In Question: Andha Naal (1954). Here a radio engineer is murdered and there are 5 suspects. Their accounts give 5 different angles on the murder.

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  6. There is a French film adaptation of the novel: À double Tour (1959). It was released under the title “Leda” in English speaking countries. (Leda is the name of the murdered woman in the film).
    In the film , the murderer is revealed 20 minutes before the end followed by a long flasback showing what actually happened.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I wrote about Stanley Ellin for one of our Verdict of Us All memes (TL:DR – I love the short stories, hate the full-lengths), Made me think that we should do another Verdict some time, they were really good fun.

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