“The Specialty of the House: Stanley Ellin” by Charles L. P. Silet
Stanley Ellin made his reputation writing “one-off” thrillers and superb short stories. He also did much toward erasing the distinctions between traditional genre and mainstream fiction by writing novels more concerned with character and locale than with plot. Ellin was born in 1916 in Brooklyn where he grew up, went to school and college, lived for most of his life, and died in 1986. During the late thirties he eked out a living working at a number of jobs including a junior college teacher, a magazine salesman, and a steelworker. Although he began writing during these years, he failed to sell his fiction and eventually abandoned his literary efforts. In 1937 he married Jeanne Michael, an editor, and they had one child.
After a short period in the Army during World War II, Ellin returned to writing and pursued it full time, while his family lived on his service unemployment allowance and on his wife’s editing salary. He first sold a story to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in 1948, and the classic “The Specialty of the House” won the magazine’s best fiction award that year. Also in 1948 Simon and Schuster issued his first novel, Dreadful Summit, beginning a career in which he eventually published another dozen novels and four collections of short fiction.
Ellin won three Edgars, two for short stories in 1954 and 1956 and one for his novel The Eighth Circle (1958). The French translation of Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (1972) received the 1975 Le Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere. And he was named Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1981.
Despite his highly-regarded novels, Stanley Ellin is today best known for his short stories. He achieved real brilliance in his first two collections, The Specialty of the House and Other Stories (first published in 1956 as Mystery Stories) and The Blessington Method and Other Strange Tales (1964), and produced consistently fine work his entire career. Some of his now-classic stories include: “The Specialty of the House,” The Cat’s Paw,” “The House Party” (an Edgar winner), “The Moment of Decision,” “The Blessington Method” (another Edgar winner), “The Day of the Bullet,” “You Can’t Be a Little Girl All Your Life,” and The Nine-to-Five Man.” Two of Ellin’s novels recently re-published by Foul Play Press, Stronghold and House of Cards provide good examples of his talents as a writer. Originally published in 1967 House of Cards is one of Ellin’s mid-career novels, and it is the kind fiction we do not see as much of anymore: the European tale of political intrigue. The story begins in Paris when a former boxer and aspiring writer, Reno Davis, an expatriate American, is hired as the well-paid tutor for the nine-year-old Paul de Villemont, the only heir of a wealthy and powerful French military family. Soon Reno learns that he is being employed as much for his skills as a bodyguard as a teacher, and he finds himself protecting not only Paul but also his stunningly beautiful, and apparently unstable, mother from the nefarious dealings of the de Villemonts who are involved in the clandestine world of modern-day fascism. As the novel nears its climax, it gains speed and the action crosses international boundaries into Italy where the narrative concludes in Rome with Reno, Paul, and his mother making a harrowing dash for the safety of the American embassy with the forces of evil in hot pursuit. Stronghold is a caper novel which revolves around a kidnapping plot in which four bumbling ex-cons led by the psychotic James Flood plan to hold a Quaker banker, Marcus Hayworth, and his family for ransom. The action takes place primarily in Flood’s up-state New York hometown, where he was once the town’s bad boy and where he was befriended by the Quaker community in an attempt to reform him. Unlike House of Cards the action in Stronghold is greatly restricted and is largely confined to Hayworth’s house and the town’s small Quaker community. The narrative develops its tension inside the parameters of this claustrophobic setting as the strengths of the Quaker’s passive resistance are tested against the violence imported by the kidnap gang.
In both these novels Ellin strips back the social veneer that shields the families to reveal the personal conflicts and tensions within. The de Villemonts, for example, have never quite recovered from the humiliation of the French loss of Algeria, and it drives them to throw in their lot with former FLN para-military forces in a world-wide plot to destroy western democracy. In Stronghold not only are Marcus Hayworth’s Quaker principles tested, but he is also forced to confront his personal failures in his own family, especially with his oldest daughter.
Although Ellin constructed his novels along traditional lines of the thriller, the scope of the books, the care in their writing, and the strength of the characters make them also serious studies of the nature of evil and the moral responsibilities of the individual. Such universal themes retain a particular relevance for our violent and corrupt times.
An Annotated Stanley Ellin Reading List
- The Specialty of the House (short stories, 1956)
- House of Cards, 1967
- Stronghold, 1974
- Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, 1972
- The Eighth Circle, 1958
Buy Stanley Ellin Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. His collection Talking Murder: Interviews with 20 Mystery Writers will be published by Persea Books in October, 1999.