Although generally acknowledged as a master of the well-constructed plot, Stanley Ellin actually placed considerably greater emphasis on the value of characterization. In a brief essay titled “Inside the Mystery Novel,” published in the 1982 edition of The Writer’s Handbook, Ellin offers what is for him the basic principle of fiction writing: “Plot is the skeleton, characterization the flesh, everything else the clothing.” He further states that there are two vital elements in “putting the story across”: “the characterization of the protagonist—demonstrated in his pursuit of his goal—and the ambience of the locales through which he moves.” Although the plot is undoubtedly essential, it is the center of attention for the literary critic rather than for the reader, and as Ellin indicates, its failure is far more notable than its success:[The author] must provide a plot for his story that makes dramatic sense, but if he achieves this, he will not be judged by it. If, however, he totally fails to construct a sound plot, he will be judged by it in very unkind terms.
In his first novel, Dreadful Summit, Ellin illustrates these precepts. The plot is relatively simple: A bartender is taunted and sadistically beaten by a customer. His teenage son witnesses the beating and determines to avenge his father’s (and his own) humiliation. Focusing on the development of the teenage protagonist, Ellin creates a three-dimensional character whose youthful sense of responsibility is distorted by the emotional effects of profound humiliation and the desire for vengeance. The result is an admirable study of adolescent psychology, a story in which a Dostoevskian protagonist struggles with and is all but overwhelmed by impulsive and destructive vindictiveness.
The Key to Nicholas Street and Stronghold
In his second novel, The Key to Nicholas Street (1952), Ellin expands beyond the concentration on a central protagonist to a narrative of shifting viewpoints, revealing how five characters are variously affected when the woman next door is found dead at the bottom of her cellar stairs. Once again the mechanism of the plot, although expertly contrived, is subtly overshadowed by intriguing characterization. Ellin takes a similar approach to group characterization in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, in which he explores psychosexual areas relatively new to the mystery novel, and in Stronghold (1975), the story of four escaped convicts, the two women they hold hostage, and the father and son-in-law who fight for the women’s freedom. Stronghold, however, is somewhat flawed by its breadth of characterization; it is clearly a novel that needs an effective center, a central protagonist to provide the core of strength, integrity, and sanity through which the actions of such a diversified array of personalities could be more effectively analyzed and interpreted.
The Eighth Circle
Ellin does provide such a protagonist in The Eighth Circle, his third novel and the first to introduce the private investigator as central figure. Murray Kirk is a private eye unlike any of his predecessors in the genre. A disillusioned lawyer who joins Frank Conmy’s detective agency as a trainee operative, Kirk soon finds success as a gumshoe; he also puts the agency on a sound fiscal footing, expanding and increasing its efficiency. As the novel opens, Frank Conmy has...
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