The Speciality of the House: The Complete Mystery Tales (1979) by Stanley Ellin: Part 2

Last month I looked at the first 11 tales in this short story collection by Stanley Ellin, which you can read here. In this second instalment I am going to be looking at the next 13.

The Faith of Aaron Menefee (1957)

Mechanic, Aaron Menefee, gets more than he bargained for when he fixes Otis Jones’ carburettor, as one of “Healer Jones’” meetings later Aaron finds himself healed from his ulcer. Aaron decides to work for Jones after that, yet like the local doctor the reader has a very bad feeling about this… As I have come to expect from Ellin, he gives the reader an unexpected, though inconclusive ending.

You Can’t Be a Little Girl All Your Life (1958)

Late one night Julie Barton is attacked in her home. She survives, yet her greatest ordeal is to come, as those around her push her to identify the culprit. The police have the media on their backs because there have been a spate of similar cases and her husband too seems keen for her to do so. Is this to lessen his feelings of guilt? In terms of its psychological tone I was reminded of the work of Celia Fremlin. I could picture her writing something along these lines. However, I think the “twist” ending is rather easy to anticipate and it is not one which is hugely backed up psychologically. I think in Fremlin’s hand it would have been done more convincingly.

Robert (1958)

It is two weeks until the holidays and Miss Gildea has only two years to go until she gets her pension. It has been a difficult year as her mother was hit by a car whilst standing next to her. Yet it is all about to get much worse when she decides to keep a boy behind after class to see why he is not paying attention in lessons. This innocent enough aim monumentally backfires and snowballs into a travesty. Ellin plays around with the concept of blame in this story. It is a clever story, but I found it an unpleasant read.

Unreasonable Doubt (1958)

Mr Willoughby is having a holiday to relieve his workplace-stress induced headaches. He is in a club car when he overhears a lawyer talking about his most interesting case in which two brothers seemingly manage to commit the perfect murder. Ellin delivers another tantalising yet fitting ending, which reminded me of one of Sholem Aleichem’s* Railroad stories.

*Aleichem wrote the story upon which the musical Fiddler on the Roof is based.

The Day of the Bullet (1959)

The narrator is taken into his past when he sees a man in a newspaper, which he knew as a boy. The man has naturally met an unpleasant end and the narrator’s memories of him show us how a twist of fate pushes a person down a road of crime which will eventually catch up with them.

Beidenbauer’s Flea (1960)

This story was inspired by Ellin’s visits as a child to Hubert’s Flea Circus. The narrator in this story is faced with an unusual old man in Central Park, who has ‘the cadaverous figure of a man who bore himself with the grandeur of an ancient matinee idol.’ He is determined to tell the narrator his hard luck story. He used to be a famous and prosperous owner of a flea circus, yet when his leading flea loses his love to a newcomer, it seems there is one flea with murder on his mind… This is a very interesting premise for a tale, with the fleas highly anthropomorphised, however I think it would have been more successful if told from the fleas’ point of view. It just came across as weirder and perhaps a bit sillier having the old man tell the story.

The Seven Deadly Virtues (1960)

This story sees Charles face a most unusual job interview. In this interview Ellin stands things on their head, yet I felt the ending was a bit limp.

The Nine-to-Five Man (1961)

Mr Keesler seems like a normal husband who works 9-5, and he does keep to those times, yet what he does during those hours is far from conventional… This is an amusing light-hearted story about a criminal and there is a moment in it where you get the opportunity to figure out what he is really doing before the narrative tells you.

The Question (1962)

This time Ellin tells a story from the point of view of a state executioner, and I would be interested in knowing where Ellin stands on this issue. The narrative focuses on the man telling the readers about how his son does not want to follow family tradition, and the narrator is keen to bring up the hypocrisy of those who dislike the job he does, yet find the jury who convicts the criminal to death, and the death sentence itself, socially acceptable. He sees them as all part of the same chain. I don’t think Ellin is using the story as a simple justification of the death penalty, but that he is maybe opening up a dialogue on it.

The Crime of Ezechiele Coen (1963)

In this longer tale we see Policeman Noah Freeman going on holiday to Rome. Yet he is disillusioned by what he sees. Nevertheless, he is drawn to the hotel receptionist and he is soon investigating her father who was accused and killed for betraying the local resistance during WW2. Given Noah’s own personal experiences he can identify with the man who no one believes is innocent apart from his children. This is an interesting cold case mystery, which uses its historical context well. The ending is perhaps a little easy to predict though.

The Great Persuader (1964)

Mrs Meeker lives on an estate, but it is poorly maintained due to her lack of wealth; it having been spent by her now dead son who was a gambler. She lives with her granddaughter and for a while Mrs Meeker has been selling her possessions. She is determined to keep a hold of her home. Then one day this is threatened when a rich outsider is equally determined to buy her property, and it also seems like Mrs Meeker may lose her granddaughter into the bargain as she falls for the untrustworthy representative. However, Mrs Meeker has a plan… I could imagine this story being the basis for a novel.

The Day the Great Thaw Came to 127 (1965)

Ellin gives us a more chilling tale in this story and not just because the tenants of 127 are freezing because their cruel landlord won’t allow more fuel to be put into the furnace. They dream of the day when their radiators will be toasty warm. Yet when the landlord starts sending his son around to collect the rent and he falls for the daughter of one of the tenants, a sinister plan is formulated… I felt this story had a Roald Dahl flavour to its ending and in some ways is an inversion of the plot of parable of the bad tenants. This might be me but I think this short story would work well if it was developed for a one off TV drama, as the finale would definitely appeal these days.

Death of an Old-Fashioned Girl (1966)

The final story I am looking at in this post is set at Greenwich village and the second wife of the artist Paul Zachary has been stabbed. Most of the narrative is comprised of one of the party guest’s reflections, who remembers when he first met Paul and how events have been leading up to this fateful moment. I think this was one of Ellin’s more surprising denouements, as I certainly didn’t see it going the way it did. Again, this story would make a good basis for a longer work in my opinion.

Overall, for part 2 I think the quality in the stories is more variable – that or I am less keen on Ellin’s style at this point in his writing career. The last four stories are my favourites as they have good character development and Ellin’s fondness for the macabre is more pronounced. Part 3 of this review is most likely going to happen in September.

2 comments

  1. I like Ellin’s short stories very much, and in fact in one of our communal blogfests – was it The Verdict of Us All – I argued that I wished Ellin had only written short stories and no novels!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting. I’m two thirds of the way through the collection I have and I would say there are some good ones but others are somewhat average. Whereas I really enjoyed his novel The Key to Nicholas Street.

      Like

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