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Stanley (Bernard) Ellin (1916-1986)


American mystery writer, one of the modern masters of the genre. Ellin won three Edgar Allan Poe Awards and the Mystery Writers of America's prestigious Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement. Despite his critical acclaim as a novelist, Ellin is best-known for his short stories, beginning with the 'The Specialty of the House' (1948). The story about a New York restaurant with a special treat for gourmets, was an immediate sensation. It was later dramatized on the television series 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' as many other Ellin's tales. Often Ellin's short stories deal with ethical problems, as in the 'Question'. The narrator is an executioner or 'electrocutioner,' as he likes to be called, and takes a pride in what he is doing for the state.

--"Well, you ought to make up your mind one way or the other,' I told him. 'I'd hate to think you were like every other hypocrite around who says it's all right to condemn a man to the electric chair and all wrong to pull the switch.'
--'Do I have to be to one to pull it?' he said. 'Do you?'

(from 'The Question', in The Blessington Method and Other Strange Tales, 1965)

Stanley Ellin was born in Brooklyn, New York, where he grew up and lived most of his life. In his childhood his father read him Beatrix Potter's tale Peter Rabbit on his demand over and over again. On the family bookshelves he discovered the works of Mark Twain, Kipling, Poe, Stevenson, and Maupassant. After studies at Brooklyn College, Ellin received his B.A. in 1936. Next year he married Jeanne Michael, an editor; they had one daughter. To support his family, Ellin abandoned his literary ambitions for a period and worked as a dairy farmer, "pusher" for a newspaper distributor, teacher, and steelworker. From 1944 to 1945 he served in the United States Army. In 1946, encouraged by his wife, Ellin became a full-time writer. 'The Specialty of the House' won the Best First Story Award in the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine contest of 1948. In the story Laffler, a gourmet, goes with his assistant for a dinner at a exclusive restaurant. The kitchen is what Laffler wants to see – which is a great mistake.

Ellin received Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1954 from the Mystery Writers of America for the short story 'The House Party', a suburban story with an element of fantasy. Two years later he was awarded for the short story 'The Blessington Method', a comment on the social rights of the elderly, and in 1958 for novel The Eight Circle, which was an attempt at a long, serious novel about a modern private detective, a man-about-Manhattan, who drives a Cadillac. The title was derived from Dante's Inferno, in which a circle of dark-colored stone is divided into ten individual pockets of punishment. Dante sees there barrators, sowers of discord, counterfeiters, misusers of public funds, and simoniac popes. When Kirk enters the eight circle, there is a surprise waiting for him and his client. However, Ellin left the protagonist, Murray Kirk, and concentrated on short stories.

Ellin's exploration of macho self-hatred and violence, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, won in 1975 Le Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. H.R.F. Keating selected it in 1987 for his list of the one hundred best crime novels. The murder mystery revolves round the hero's sexual background. "Ellin uses all the words, the words that are likely to offend and are generally labelled 'dirty', but held in place as they are in the web of the whole they are no longer 'dirty'. They are no longer words used for their titillating or shocking effect, as in so many cheaper crime novels, and cheaper novels of all sorts." (Keating in Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books, 1987)

Ellin made his debut as a novelist with Dreadful Summit (1948). It dealt with father-son relationship, when a sixteen-year-old boy obtains a gun and sets out to avenge his father's beating and humiliation. The action is squeezed into twenty-four hours. Following the tradition of John O'Hara, many of Ellin's stories have a surprise ending or a twist in the plot, which have made them attractive to film makers. Clive Donner's film Nothing but the Best (1964) was based on Ellin's black comedy 'The Best of Everything' (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 1952). Alan Bates is an ambitious clerk, Jimmy Brewster, who marries his boss's daughter (Ann Horton), and kills his former helper (Denholm Elliot) on his way to the top.

In Joseph Losey's film Big Night, made from Ellin's Dreadful Summit (1951), the author served as a front for two blacklisted writers, Hugo Butler and Ring Lardner Jr. Losey barely finished this film noir melodrama before he left Hollywood. The third wave of Hollywood HUAC hearings had began in 1951, and Losey had been named by two people. His lawyer invited him to testify secretly. "I simply said 'I'll have to think it over', and in three days I was on my way to Europe." (Joseph Losey by Colin Gardner, 2004) Sunburn (1979), starring Farah Fawcett, was very loosely based on the novel The Bind (1970). Again the hero appears to be a sharp, cold-blooded investigator, but has also his soft, knightly side.

Mystery Stories (1956) was hailed by Julian Symons as "the finest collection of stories in the crime form published in the past half century." It included such works as 'The Cat's Paw', 'Broker's Special', and 'The Moment of Decision', in which a dispute between neighbors leads to a fatal decision.

In Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series (1955-1965) one of the episodes from 1956, 'Help Wanted', was adapted from Ellin's original story. During the years also 'The Specialty of the House', 'The Blessington Method' and 'The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby', about an antique dealer, who do not want to sell his precious items, were seen in the series. Broadcast first on CBS, the programmes opened with a line drawing of Hitchcock's profile, accompanied by the theme tune, Charles Gounod's Funeral March of the Marionette. Hitchcock's introductions were written by Jimmy Allardice. 'The Moment of Decision' was adapted to s sixty-minute television show on The U.S. Steel Hour (1961). Fred Astaire, famous for his singing and dancing roles, was the host and played the narrator of the story, the brother-in-law of Hugh Lozier, "the exception to the rule that people who are completely sure of themselves cannot be likable."

Ellin's Edgar-winning short story 'The Blessington Method' gave the title for the second book. After his third collection, Kindly Dig Your Grave (1975), Ellin published in 1979 his complete mystery tales 1948-1978. Ellin's last story was 'Unacceptable Procedures' (1985), which questioned the morals of economic development. Ellin died of a heart attack on July 31, 1986 in Brooklyn. Ellin was a member of Mystery Writers of America and its past president. His works were a long time out of print, until Foul Play Press reprinted two of his novels in 1996.

The Luxemburg Run (1977) told of identity changes of David Shaw, a young American man in Europe. In Stronghold (1975) Ellin explored his own religious background and portrayed a family of nonviolent Quakers at the mercy of single-minded, murderous criminals. The story is narrated from the point of view of Marcus Hayworth, a leading member of a Quaker community in upstate New York, and the psychotic James Flood, the town's troublemaker in his youth. John Milano, Ellin's third PI character was introduced in Star Light, Star Bright (1979), in which Milano tried to prevent the murder of a renowned mystic guru, who begins to receive threatening letters.

The second John Milano book, The Dark Fantastic (1983), was rejected by Random House because of its insufficient political correctness in dealing with racial problems and attitudes in New York. For most of the readers it was clear, that the author did not share the racist, hate-filled opinions of his character, Professor Charles Witter Kirwan, who plans to blow up his one of his own apartment buildings. Kirwan and Milano alternately narrate the story.

House of Cards (1963) was a a Hitchcockian psychological thriller with international intrigue. "Ellin is not just a chessboard plotter, he is a plotter on the move, one of the greatest scenery-shifters since Helen MacInnes – an almost cinematic director of rhythms," wrote Melvin Maddosks in his review in Life (10 February, 1967). The film version of the book, starring George Peppard and Inger Stevens, was made in 1969. George Peppard played Reno Davis, a former American prizefighter, who lives in France. He has been trying to become a writer but takes a job as tutor of young Paul de Villemont, son of an aristocratic family. In the barred de Villemont mansion Reno becomes involved with Paul's beautiful, neurotic mother, Anne de Villemont (Inger Stevens). A fascist group with connections to the family plans a coup d'état, and pursues Anne and Reno throughout Europe. Orson Welles, in one of his most forgettable roles, was a menacing conspirator, named Leschenhaut.

For further reading: Conversations with Writers II, ed. by Stanley Ellin et al. (1978); Private Eyes: One Hundred And One Knights: A Survey Of American Detective Fiction 1922-1984 by Robert A Baker Michael T Nietzel (1985); Twentieth Century Mystery and Crime Writers, ed. by John M.Reilly (1985); 1001 Midnights by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller (1986); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea (1997) - Novellisuomennoksia: 'Oma pieni paratiisi' (A Corner of Paradise) teoksessa Seitsemän kuolemansyntiä (toim. Kari Lindgren, 1985), 'Talon erikoinen' (The Specialty of the House) valikoimassa Top Crime: Jännityksen valiot (1984), 'Palkanmaksu' (The Payoff) sarjassa Maailman parhaat jännärit 5/1971, 'Herra Applebyn seitsemäs vaimo' (The Orderly World of Mr Appleby) valikoimassa Jännityskertomuksia läheltä ja kaukaa (toim. Pauli Kopperi, 1963), Kiusallinen kysymys', Ellery Queenin jännityslukemisto 4/1963, 'Järjestelmällinen Hra Kessler', Ellery Queenin jännistyslukemisto 2/1962.

Selected works:

  • Dreadful Summit, 1948 (as The Big Night, 1950)
    - Film: The Big Night (1951), dir. Joseph Losey, based on the novel Dreadful Summit, screenplay Joseph Losey, Stanley Ellin, Hugo Butler (originally uncredited), Ring Lardner Jr. (originally uncredited), starring John Barrymore, Jr., Preston Foster, Joan Lorring
  • The Key to Nicholas Street, 1952
    - Nicholas-kadun avain (suom. Kirsti Jaantila, 1960)
    - Film: Leda (1959), prod. Panitalia, Paris Film, Titanus, dir. by Claude Chabrol, starring Jan-Paul Belmondo, Antonella Lualdi, Madeleine Robinson, Jacques Dacqmine
  • Mystery Stories, 1956 (contains Broker's Special, Death on Christmas Eve, Fool's Mate, The Best of Everything, The Betrayers, The Cat's-Paw, The House Party, The Moment of Decision, The Orderly World of Mr Appleby, The Specialty of the House; as Quiet Horror, 1959; The Specialty of the House and Other Stories, 1967)
    - Films: Help Wanted (1949), in Suspense, dir. Robert Stevens, teleplay Reginald Denham, with Otto Kruger, D.A. Clarke-Smith and Peggy French: Help Wanted (1956),in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. James Neilson, with John Qualen, Lorne Greene, Madge Kennedy; The Specialty of the House (1959), in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. Robert Stevens, with Alfred Hitchcock, Bettye Ackerman and Cyril Delevanti; The Blessington Method (1959), in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. Herschel Daugherty, with Alfred Hitchcock, Paul E. Burns and Penny Edwards; Moment of Decision (1961), in Alcoa Premiere, prod. Avasta Productions, dir. John Newland, with Fred Astaire, Maureen O'Sullivan and Harry Townes; The Best of Everything (1961), in Drama '61, prod. Associated Television (ATV); The Betrayes (1962), in Drama '62, prod. Associated Television (ATV); Nothing But the Best (1964), dir. Clive Donner, starring Alan Bates, Denholm Elliott and Harry Andrews; Il piatto della casa (1981, TV film); The Specialty of the House (1987), in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. Allan King, with Alfred Hitchcock, John Saxon and Neil Munro; Specialita séfkuchare (2000, TV movie), dir. Lucie Belohradská
  • The Eight Circle, 1958
    - TV film: Circle of Evil (1960), in Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, dir. Jerry Thorpe, with Desi Arnaz, Robert Clarke and Ken Clark
  • The Winter After This Summer, 1960
  • The Panama Portrait, 1962
  • The Blessington Method and Other Strange Tales, 1965 (contains The Blessington Method, The Faith of Aaron Menefee, You Can't be a Little Girl All Your Life, Robert, Unreasonable Doubt, The Day of the Bullet, Beidenbauer's Flea, The Seven Deadly Virtues, The Nine-to-five Man, The Question)
    - Films: The Day of the Bullet (1960), in Alfred Hitchcock Presents; dir. Norman Lloyd, teleplay Bill S. Ballinger, with Alfred Hitchcock, John Craven and Biff Elliot; You Can't Be a Little Girl All Your Life (1961), in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. Norman Lloyd, with Alfred Hitchcock, Keith Britton and Howard Caine; The Faith of Aaron Menefee (1962), in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, dir. Norman Lloyd, with Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Armstrong and Sidney Blackmer; Robert (1967), in TV series Half Hour Story, prod. Rediffusion Television, dir. Ridley Scott, with Angela Baddeley, Richard Davies and Freddy Foote; La méthode Barnol (1991), in Myster Mocky présente, dir. Jean-Pierre Mocky
  • House of Cards, 1967
    Film adaptation in 1968, prod. Universal Pictures, Westward Films, dir. by John Guillermin, screenplay Irving Ravetch (as James P. Bonner), Harriet Frank Jr. (as James P. Bonner), starring George Peppard, Inger Stevens, Orson Welles, Keith Michell
  • The Valentine Estate, 1968
  • The Bind, 1970 (UK title: The Man from Nowhere, 1970)
    - Film: Sunburn (1979), prod. Hemdale, Bind, Fawcett-Majors Productions, dir. by Richard C. Sarafian, screenplay James Booth, John Daly, Stephen Oliver, starring Farrah Fawcett, Charles Grodin, Art Carney, Joan Collins
  • Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, 1972
  • Stronghold, 1975
    - TV film: A Prayer in the Dark (1997), dir. by Jerry Ciccoritti, teleplay Andrew Laskos, starring Lynda Carter, Teri Polo, Colin Ferguson, Phillip Jarrett
  • Kindly Dig Your Grave, 1975 (ed. Ellery Queen)
    - Film adaptation: in TV series Tales of the Unexpected (1981), dir. Alan Gibson, dramatisation Robin Chapman, with Micheline Presle, Celia Gregory and Robert H. Thomson
  • The Luxemburg Run, 1977
    - Koston enkeli (suom. Pentti Pesä, 1981)
  • Star Light, Star Bright, 1979
  • The Specialty of the House and Other Stories: The Complete Mystery Tales 1948-1978, 1979
  • The Dark Fantastic, 1983
  • Very Old Money, 1984

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