Stanley Ellin seems to have faded into obscurity if looking up the books by him still in print in paperback (I don't see any) is anything to go by. According to the biographical information he won the Edgar three times, was the Grand Master in 1981 and was "one of America's great short story writers of the twentieth century". His 1948 story "The Specialty of the House", which I am now curious about and will be looking for this week has been widely anthologized and was adapted for TV for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries is the sort of book you dip into randomly and that's what I did this weekend looking for a story to read. The opening paragraph caught my eye making the choice an easy one.
"As a child I had been vastly impressed by Boerum House. It was fairly new then, and glossy; a gigantic pile of Victorian rickrack, fretwork, and stained glass, flung together in such a chaotic profusion that it was hard to encompass in one glance. Standing before it this early Christmas Eve, however, I could find no echo of that youthful impression. The gloss was long since gone; woodwork, glass, metal, all were merged to a dreary gray, and the shades behind the windows were drawn completely so that the house seemed to present a dozen blindly staring eyes to the passerby."
In retrospect I now see that all the clues to the ending were there from the start, right in that first paragraph. But hindsight is always 20-20 right? This is the story of a murder, but the murder that took place is understood only by those involved as the perpetrator was never brought to justice. There were no witnesses and no evidence showing that a crime had actually been committed. Death by accident is the conclusion. But everyone knows that isn't the whole story.
The murder in question is that of a wife who 'fell to her death' in Boerum House's staircase. Charlie and Jessie were happily married when the accident befell her. And likely it was his sister Celia who hurried her along to her death. Only no one can prove it. On Christmas Eve the family lawyer has come to visit and even he knows there is more to the accident.
"The inquest is over and done with, and you've been cleared. But nobody believed a word of your precious sentiments then, and nobody ever will. Keep that in mind, Celia."
Harsh words, but fitting for a harsh woman. Even her appearance is severe with her hair pulled back from her face so tightly her wrinkles are smooth on her face. She is a jealous and forbidding woman and you don't realize just how much so until the last few lines of the story.
An enjoyable and quick story to read and pass a half hour with. I suspect this is not his best perhaps (but with the holiday setting perfect for this collection), but entertaining nevertheless. I was hoping to read another but I ran out of time. The story following the Ellin is by Joseph Shearing (pen name for Gabrielle Margaret Vere Long) another writer who was quite popular in her day and whose works have also been adapted to the screen. I think I've already decided on next weekend's story.
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I'm jumping ahead a bit with my New Yorker short story reading. I hope to catch up with the last of my stories before the end of the year--more desire to begin with a clean slate. I have more or less read every story that appeared in the New Yorker this year and have to say I have enjoyed it immensely and am rather impressed that I have managed to do so.
When I saw that Israeli author Etgar Keret's story "One Gram Short" was chosen for the December 1 issue I had to read it next. I think I have read more books translated from the Hebrew this year (not surprising considering the class I just finished taking) than any other language. The novels have been very specifically related to the political environment so I thought a story about a character trying to get his hands on a gram of pot would be something else entirely.
"On Gram Short" tells the story of a man who is attracted to a waitress in a coffee shop. He wants to ask her out, wants to connect with this beautiful young woman but somehow asking her to go to a movie seems too big a step--a move that makes a statement he is not exactly ready to make. So he thinks he can impress her by asking her to smoke pot with him. Pot he does not yet have in his possession. The story is about how he comes by him gram. Well, it turns out to be more and it comes his way in one of the most unexpected of ways.
Although in his Q&A Keret says that this is "a story about a guy who yearns for an authentic moment and hopes to reach it with the help of pot, but in the end (accidentally) reaches it with the help of a black eye instead" rather than touching on the political, it seems as though every aspect of life--however peripherally--still is a reflection of the political situation not only in Israel but also the region. It was a good story--not at all what I expected but in a way, exactly what I expected.
Etgar Keret has a book of memoirs coming out in the summer of 2015 called The Seven Good Years. I will be reading some of his short stories in the coming months.