The Speciality of the House: The Complete Mystery Takes (1979) by Stanley Ellin: Part 1

Today’s read is a short story collection, one which has been sitting on my TBR pile since last year; it’s the oldest book in the pile and to be honest it has been residing at the bottom for the purely superficial reason that it always looks terribly long! This collection contains 35 stories and is 584 pages long and it is not something I could easily or enjoyably read in one sitting or two. However, this book has been making puppy dog eyes at me long enough, so I decided that I would read and review the collection in chunks. After all a review of 35 stories would be a bit unwieldy? And of course you’re all still recovering from my 5th anniversary blog post, which was over 5000 words long. This one already runs to 142 words, so I best get cracking!

The stories in collection were originally published over 30 years between 1948 and 1978 and it all kicks off with an amusing introduction by Stanley Ellin, who writes that:

‘All the stories in this collection except one deal with that streak of wickedness in human nature which makes human nature so deplorably fascinating.’

In retrospect I find Ellin’s approach to exploring human wickedness quite unusual, as he often comes at it from less conventional narrative angles. The remainder of the introduction discusses how Ellin grew to love short stories and magazine fiction, as well as how he got into writing.

The Speciality of the House (1948)

This is one of Ellin’s most famous stories and it all starts with an innocent invitation to dinner from Laffler to his employee Costain. The restaurant he is invited to, Sbirro, is unusual in the way it attracts and deters business. As the pair’s enthusiasm for the place grows, so does the reader’s curiosity as they begin to wonder what is really going on there. The truth is far from cosy… This story won the Best First Story Award in the 1948 contest held by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. I know it is a story loved by many, but as for me? Short answer – Meh! I guess I prefer a bit more action to my plots. I kept reading waiting for something to happen, especially once I twigged what the secret about the restaurant was. But then nothing does! As to the ending all I can safely say is that it takes inference to its extreme. (Please don’t all throw things at once – I bruise easily!)

The Cat’s-Paw (1949)

Mr Crabtree living in a boarding house answers a help wanted ad and manages to get a job writing and posting reports to an unseen employer, based on the mentions various companies get in certain financial journals. Everything goes swimmingly until his boss finally makes an appearance and reveals what he really wants Mr Crabtree to do… This story provides an interesting variation on the theme introduced by Doyle’s ‘The Red-Headed League’ (1891) and displays the circuitous route Ellin’s fiction sometimes takes to reach a point of psychological crisis for a character. I enjoyed the set up and the progression of the story but found myself somewhat frustrated and disappointed by the ending, which again only intimates what has occurred in the most indirect of ways.

Death on Christmas Eve (1950)

A family lawyer goes to Boerum house where he meets Celia. She definitely does not like him, but through their terse conversation we realise that her sister in law has died, and that she was cleared of involvement in her death at the inquest. Nevertheless, tension is still felt and her brother, Charlie, is convinced she had something to do with his wife’s death. Emotions run high, threats are given, but what will the outcome be? Out of all the options I had, none of my predictions proved correct, as Ellin delivers a sharp twist to the end – again revealing much about what he wanted to focus on in his work.

The Orderly World of Mr Appleby (1950)

The opening to this story put me in mind of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought:

‘Mr Appleby was a small, prim man who wore rimless spectacles, parted his graying hair in the middle, and took sober pleasure in pointing out that there was no room in the properly organised life for the operations of Chance. Consequently, when he decided that the time had come to investigate the most efficient methods for disposing of his wife he knew where to look.’

From there it is not long before we realise that we have a brides-in-the-bath-esque killer, though his method is somewhat different. This fact is revealed very early in the story and instead Ellin gives attention to what happens next… The fate he has for his protagonist is brilliant and the ending to this one is very satisfying. This was one of my favourite stories from the first part of the collection.

Fool’s Mate (1951)

George Huneker brings home a set of chessmen to his wife. He received them from a work colleague who was retiring. George has fond hopes that his wife will play chess with him; an idea she quickly squashes, along with all of the other plans he had for them to do stuff together – reading, music, having friends – all vetoed. So instead George plays chess by himself and soon he becomes obsessed, so obsessed that he yearns for an opponent to play against. But the trouble all begins when that wish is answered… The reality of the situation dawns on the reader gradually, incorporating a theme frequently included in Fin de Siècle fiction.

The Best of Everything (1952)

Arthur works at Horton & Son and very much wants to marry the boss’ daughter. Yet because he did not go to the right school and does not have the right social background he is overlooked. So when Charlie Prince enters his life, he soon sees a way of changing that – but what will his initially innocent plans lead to? The fabulous ending overturns everything and I like how Ellin gives his characters their comeuppance in humorously dark ways. Elements of Greek tragedy begin to emerge in several of the stories I have read in this first section and one key component that Ellin returns to a lot, in a variety of ways, is hamartia. Ellin’s protagonists invariably engineer their own downfalls whilst trying to obtain a different goal.

The Betrayers (1953)

This next story provides a powerful example of this use of Greek tragedy. Robert gets to learn about the woman next door, Amy, by listening to her and her husband. The pair argue a lot and during one such heated conversation the husband admits to gaining money by nefarious means. Amy appears to want nothing to do with it all. Shouts and cries are heard before a deafening silence. Robert is sure Amy has been killed by her husband, but rather than go to the police straight away, convinced they would not believe him, he decides to go through Amy’s past to find out more about her husband and hopefully find evidence of his wrongdoing. Ellin’s narrative is very persuasive, making you fall in line with Robert’s ideas, which made the ending all the more poignant, when they are blown sky high.

The House Party (1954)

Miles Owen has fallen over and is recovering consciousness on his sofa. Yet his return to reality only depresses him as he desperately wants to leave the routine he feels stuck in. He is sick of his wife and sick of his successful acting job. The story sees his attempts to extricate himself from them all, but of course you’re waiting for Ellin to strike his character down in some way. In this sense Ellin as writer becomes like a kind of Greek god, with the type of fitting ending that he delivers.

The Moment of Decision (1955)

Hugh Lozier is completely sure of himself and his opinions. Nothing can faze him, until a magician moves in next door…  He quickly becomes the stone in his shoe and the speck in his eye. Hugh’s wife tries to conjure a peace conference at a dinner party, but of course it all goes horribly wrong… A drastic bet is issued, and Hugh is made to face the perfect dilemma. With a few more Ellin stories under my belt, I found the open-ended nature of the conclusion very effective. Anything more conclusive would have spoilt it. This is the type of story which would work really well as a one off TV adaptation.

Broker’s Special (1956)

A wall street broker, Cornelius, takes an earlier train than usual to go home and get ready for a midweek dinner party. It is this change of plan which means he finds out the truth that his wife is cheating on him. Of course, his mind leaps to the thought of murder, the perfect murder in fact. Yet we all know what happens to those kinds of plans… This is quite a short story by Ellin, but once more it shows his ability to find a suitable fate for his creations.

The Blessington Method (1956)

Mr Treadwell is faced with an odd visitor at work, a man named Bunce who works for the Society for Gerontology. Bunce says he can help him with his problem. Treadwell is initially baffled by his opening gambit, yet Bunce soon breaks down his defences. Ellin’s story is an interesting exploration into the world of geronticide, as well as looking at the way a seemingly innocent ordinary person can be guided into making a decision, they would normally have said they would never make. I wonder if it is stretching the point, to suggest that this story could be seen as part of the growing cultural interest, (see Milligram’s experiment from the 1960s), into what makes humans commit, or agree to, immoral actions. Ellin’s story has an unusual sting in its tail, though perhaps it lacked a little oomph.

So this was my first plunge into Ellin’s short stories. Despite perhaps a rocky start, I think Ellin’s writing style and manner of plotting grew on me. Having made a sizeable dent into the collection I feel more motivated to make a return visit. So watch this space!

9 comments

  1. When seeing the title of your post, I was wondering how you would handle this huge book in a review. (I missed the Part 1 at the end.) This is a very good way to attack this book and I will have to follow suit someday. I have had the book for a few years and have only read the title story. I also have several of his books, unread.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You seem to like the things about these stories that I like, and to be a bit suspicious of the things that I wasn’t so keen on. I’m delighted you enjoyed ‘The House party’ so much, and ‘The Blessington Mehotd’ failed to land for me — plus, you’ve reminded me of ‘The Betrayers’ which I loved and had somehow allowed to slip from memory.

    The second half…well, I predict that ‘The Seven Deadly Virtues’ won’t work for you, and ‘The Twelfth Statue’ you’ll find overlong and probably not worth the effort…but I hope the remaining stories continue to work out. Seeing people discovering how great Ellin is almost matches seeing people’s delight when Carr finally makes sense to them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have been wondering whether my first impressions would be a minority or majority opinion, so I’m off to a good start!
      Thanks for your predictions for the second part of the collection. I’ll have to remember to come back to this comment once I’ve read them and see whetehr your predictions were true or not.

      Like

  3. This highlights an eternal rift in mystery readers, between those who care most about plot and those who care most about writing. Ellin appeals especially to those latter (and better!) folks. Specialty is wonderful writing: “ Because a decade ago I underwent your embarrassment. Add to that your air of revulsion and it’s easy to see how affronted you are by the knowledge that man has not yet forgotten how to slaver over his meat.’“
    Creepy, ain’t it? Waxing creepiness is the essence of that story, and it’s in the writing — slaver — more than the events.

    Appleby is one of my favorite stories, and again one where the prose style is adapted to the tale, with its careful precision. You haven’t hit my very favorite story yet. No clues!

    Liked by 1 person

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