The Speciality of the House: The Complete Mystery Tales (1979) by Stanley Ellin: Part 3

Earlier this year I began looking at the short stories of Stanley Ellin. In part 1 and part 2 I looked the first 24 titles in the collection. Today, after a little hiatus, I am going to review the remaining 11 stories. From 1967-1970 Ellin seems to have had a fondness for using a Continental setting, though after that his stories are rooted within America itself. By reading a number of stories by Ellin in one go it is interesting to see how well he traverses the generations in his work. In the main I would say there is a preference for having older or middle-aged characters as the protagonist, with their own form of “crisis” being the focus.

The Twelfth Statue (1967)

One evening, near Rome, Alexander File, an American film produce, leaves his office and disappears completely. It is determined that he has to be within the grounds of the filming lot somewhere. Four employees had remained behind in the office, and we follow one of these employees, Mel Gordon, through the tale. Whilst to the police Gordon is restrained in his information, in his own thoughts we are able to see all the tensions in the group and the reasons why File was such an unpopular employer. I enjoyed this story a lot and I felt Ellin was very playful in his use of false solutions.

The Last Bottle in the World (1968)

The narrator has an awkward encounter with a woman in a café. The story then goes back in time to relate how the two had met in the past. We see her difficult marriage to a rich man who is determined to buy a one of a kind vintage wine from the narrator and we also see the woman’s growing interest in another man. A crisis point is reached, and you think you know how the story will end, but again like the previous story, Ellin is deftly able to fool and surprise the reader from a psychological point of view.

Coin of the Realm (1969)

Walt and Millie are in Paris on holiday and before they head out to a flea market, an argument about Walt’s business partner erupts. Millie is far from happy that they have to spend their holiday looking for coins for Walt’s partner’s collection. However, little does Millie realise that this errand is only a cover for something far more sinister… In comparison to the last two stories I would say this narrative is less surprising.

Kindly Dig Your Grave (1970)

The focus of this tale is an unscrupulous seller of bad artwork in France, named Madame Lagrue, who treats she artists she buys paintings from very poorly. One such painter is O’Toole and it seems like Madame Lagrue will always best him. That is until a young woman falls for O’Toole, who is determined to turn the tables on his employer. Ellin delivers a story with a nice sting in its tail.

The Payoff (1971)

I would say this is my least favourite story from this section, which concerns two young men getting involved in a murder on behalf of two older men, whom they’ve never met before. The story is rather short and consequently there is not enough time to create deeper characterisation, so the motivations behind the characters’ actions are somewhat puzzling.

The Other Side of the Wall (1972)

Dr Schwimmer, a psychotherapist, is in conversation with someone named Albert. The story is them talking through Albert’s difficulty, namely his receptionist who he has unrequited love for. As their conversation progresses you wonder what Albert might have done and you wonder what the end point will be. This is one of several stories in this section which could end in a multiple of ways and you have the fun of trying to decide which way Ellin will take the plot.

The Corruption of Officer Avakadian (1973)

A police officer, who likes to do everything by the book, recalls a time when he and his less dedicated colleague, were called to the home of Doctor and Mrs Cahoon. It seems like Dr Cahoon had been kidnapped, yet he does not want to make a big deal out of it, unlike his wife. This tale is one of Ellin’s more comically played works and the solution is rather amusing.

A Corner of Paradise (1975)

The story begins by introducing us to the elderly and retired Mr Hotchkiss, who everyone considers mad for living in an apartment on the upper East side of Manhattan. A veritable crime spot in their opinion. Yet his apartment is rent controlled, and his neighbours are well-off. From the mean streets Ellin diverges into Mr Hotchkiss’ love of plants. This may seem like an unusual twist in the road, but it all feeds into the ending, in which the reader discovers what Mr Hotchkiss will do to protect the home he loves. Like ‘The Other Side of the Wall,’ this story could end in a number of ways and it is not immediately apparent which way Ellin will take it.

Generation Gap (1976)

This was probably my second least favourite story in this section, primarily because of the unsympathetic female protagonist and the troubling message the story seems to leave about the habit of hitchhiking. The tale centres on 16-year-old Bitsy, who prefers to save all her bus fare money from her parents, so she can spend it on life’s “essentials” and instead hitchhikes around. We see one such occasion in the story and whilst the reader will realise the warning the driver was trying to give about hitchhiking, Bitsy is myopically clueless on this matter and just sees the experience afterwards as a reason for not choosing family type men to hitchhike with, and as evidence that her older sister is wrong upon this point.

The Family Circle (1977)

Howard is bluntly informed of his father’s death by his college roommate. He goes home and, in the end, does not go back to college; it was never a place he really enjoyed anyways. His mother wants his full attention to take care of her many needs, something which angers his sisters. They both married men their mother disapproved of, and she has financially penalised them since. They fear Howard is using his position in the household to push them out of their mother’s will. The reader knows this is not the case and instead all he wants to do is to be friends with them. I won’t reveal any more of the plot but again you can see this as an example of a story with a multitude of endings and the one Ellin picks is rather fitting in my opinion.

Reasons Unknown (1978)

Larry Morrison finds an old friend, Bill Slade, now working as a cab driver, having been made redundant in his last job. Bill is on a very reduced income, as he could not get a job as good as his old one. His wife has separated from him, the lack of decent job being a deciding factor. Bill points out how he was made to leave as he was too expensive in wages due to seniority, as the company they worked for could get someone much younger who could be paid much less to do the same job. This conversation deeply troubles Morrison and as the plot unfolds, we see Bill having become an unintentional Iago figure. This is one of the stories in this collection which highlights the pressures on middle-aged working men and women, and I think the collection as a whole focuses much more on these types of problems, rather than those more romantically connected with the very young.

All in all I would say this is a very interesting set of stories, and one benefit of having them all in one place is that it is easier to chart the changes in Ellin’s writing style and the types of mysteries that he offered in his shorter works. I would also say his stories would be of great interest to those wanting to explore post-war American society, as again with these stories spanning across several decades you can see here and there the changes that were taking place.

Rating: 4/5

7 comments

  1. I am like your first comment-er – much prefer his short stories to his novels. In fact I wrote about that back in the days we were doing ‘The Verdict of Us All’: he was my choice for an author who only wrote one good book: his collected short stories…

    Liked by 1 person

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