Friday, June 22, 2012

FFB Review: "KINDLY DIG YOUR GRAVE and Other Wicked Stories" (1977) by Stanley Ellin (Reviewed By Barry Ergang)

KINDLY DIG YOUR GRAVE and Other Wicked Stories (1977) by Stanley Ellin

Reviewed by Barry Ergang

The late, great Stanley Ellin was a painstaking craftsman, as Ellery Queen (Frederick Dannay) details in his introduction to Kindly Dig Your Grave and Other Wicked Stories. The results justified the pains he took, as demonstrated by the fact that his first published story, “The Specialty of the House,” is acknowledged as a classic of its kind. (Those who haven’t read it may have seen the televised versions on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,” the former version having a shorter running time but being truer to the original story. As of this writing, both versions are available on YouTube.) Ellin won two Edgar awards for other short stories and one for a novel. The (mostly) character-driven stories in the collection under consideration here bolster his well-deserved reputation.

In "Kindly Dig Your Grave," the reader meets Madame Lagrue, a Parisian art dealer who specializes in bad paintings that sell especially well to the American market hungry for work "by great French artists at reasonable prices." She has found an effective method of dealing with hungry artists to whom she can pay a pittance for their canvases, which she then sells for a 500- to 1000-percent profit. One of her hapless suppliers is a painter named O'Toole. When a tough-minded young Algerian woman who goes by the alias Fatima becomes enamored of him, she quickly realizes how Madame Lagrue is taking advantage and sets out to rectify the situation in this comical biter-bit tale.

Dispirited in spite of being exonerated of graft charges and told he can return to duty though not even his father is sure he's innocent, Noah Freeman takes a trip to Rome, Italy to try to decide whether or not to go back to work as a New York City police detective. He finds himself drawn to an attractive but distant, cynical young woman, Rosanna, who works at the pensione he's staying in. When he learns that her father was killed by partisans twenty years earlier during WWII because they were sure he had betrayed them to the Germans, resulting in the deaths of three members of the Resistance, and that the stigma attaches to her and her brother to this day, Noah sets out to get to the bottom of "The Crime of Ezechiele Coen." I correctly guessed the outcome of this story quite early into it. Nevertheless, it lost none of its power or poignancy.

 In "Death of an Old-Fashioned Girl," Elizabeth Ann Moore is anything but. She's quite the drama queen, portraying herself as na├»ve and ingenuous: "During her brief lifetime she must have ingested enough romantic literature and technicolored movies to addle a much larger brain than hers, and in the end she came to believe that human beings actually behaved the way the heroine of a melodrama would." She's actually quite manipulative, which is how she managed to entice artist Paul Zachary to divorce his wife Nicole and marry her. When she ends up knifed to death, the police aren't lacking for suspects. They include the narrator, another artist, and his wife; Sidney and Elinor Goldsmith, art gallery owners and the folks who discovered Zachary and helped him achieve success; and Zachary himself. How the narrator and Zachary became friends, and how theirs and the others' lives converged and Elizabeth Ann died make for an absorbing story with a neat and fitting irony at its end.

When Max de Marechal, editor of a magazine for wine connoisseurs, tells the wine merchant Drummond he's writing an article about the greatest vintages various experts have sampled and asks for an interview, they get into a small debate over specific vintages and whether there could ever be any consensus among a group of experts. De Marechal maintains there is one he's never tasted but which has acquired a legendary status among authorities: Nuits Saint-Oen 1929. Because it was produced in such a small quantity, he's certain that a single bottle no longer exists. Drummond tells him he has "The Last Bottle in the World" in his company's cellars. He has not been tempted to open it because it's so old the wine might be bad. De Marechal asks if he'll sell it, and Drummond says no. Ultimately, de Marechal introduces him to millionaire Kyros Kassoulas and his wife, and he becomes involved in a tense domestic drama in which the wine plays a pivotal role.

In another story set in Paris, "Coin of the Realm," Millie gets on her husband Walt's case for dressing like a tourist. Walt rather proudly proclaims that that is what he is, and accompanies his tastefully-attired wife to a flea market. While Millie haggles with a furniture seller, Walt, ostensibly looking for coins for his business partner's collection at the partner's request, goes to see another seller, Piron, for a much more sinister reason.

While Broderick and Yates, both slightly inebriated, wait on Broderick's boat, Chappie and Del set out in a dinghy toward the Miami Beach shoreline. Del stays on the dinghy while Chappie swims to the Royal Oceanic Hotel to fulfill a grisly task. When they return to the boat they demand "The Payoff," the nature of which readers will never guess.

There are any number of things Albert doesn't like—about himself and about others. His first name, for instance. He resents his mother naming him for a figure on a pipe tobacco can. He doesn't like women, but in his therapy session with Dr. Schwimmer, he discusses his recurrent dreams about a "Girl, Doctor. Maiden, if you will. Not a woman" with whom, for the first time in his fifty years, he has fallen in love. In "The Other Side of the Wall," told almost entirely in dialogue, Dr. Schwimmer employs a radical approach to help Albert achieve catharsis and surprises the reader in the process.

 A change of pace in tone and approach from the stories that precede it, "The Corruption of Officer Avakadian" displays Ellin's skills at writing humorously. First-person narrator Avakadian, a  young, uncompromisingly by-the-book police officer, has been partnered with the soon-to-retire Schultz, a jaded cop who is not above a bribe or a free meal. When they are dispatched to the home of Dr. Cyrus Cahoon and his wife in a wealthy neighborhood, they learn from Mrs. Cahoon that her husband has been kidnapped. The victim happens to be present and confirms the story, which becomes more and more bizarre as its details are revealed.  

Script doctor Mel Gordon can’t resist the lure of a poorly-written script, and Alexander  File, tight-fisted producer of low-budget schlock movies, knows it. Because he’s been successful working in television, Gordon no longer needs to work for File, as he had done for a number of years earlier in his career. But when File sends him the script for Emperor of Lust, Gordon agrees to fly to Rome to improve it and help with the production. Apart from making movies as cheaply as possible, File’s primary interest is in “dewy and nubile maidens, unripe lovelies all the more enticing to him because they were unripe. He loved them, did File, with a mouth-watering, hard-breathing, popeyed love.” Once filming begins, it’s not long before tension sets in and conflicts develop between File and Gordon, and between File and his director, his cameraman, and a young man hired to create props in the novella “The Twelfth Statue.” And then one evening File “walked out the door of his office and vanished from the face of the earth as utterly and completely as if the devil had snatched him down to hell by the heels.” Readers who think they see the ending coming will only see part of it, so they can look forward to at least one additional surprise.   

The author’s elegant, flexible writing style and sense of place, combined with storylines that are far from run-of-the-mill and populated with colorful characters, make this collection a wonderful read. I can highly recommend it to those who appreciate the kind of literary craftsmanship whose ultimate result is pure artistry.

Barry Ergang ©2012

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Kathleen Kaska said...

Thanks for educating me about Stanley Ellin. I remember briefly coming across his name, but couldn't remember when or where. Then I read that "Kindly Dig Your Grave" made its way to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and all came clear.

Peg said...

I'm looking for Ellin now at my library. Many thanks for the review Kevin!

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Barry did another great job on a review.

bloodymurder said...

I love Ellin's work, both in the shorter and longer forms. Of his longer books I think THE EIGHTH CIRCLE and THE DARK FANTASTIC do fascinating things with the private eye genre while MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL, a shorter novel, is utterly unique and deserves a place on everyone's mystery shelf.

Barry Ergang said...

I haven't yet read THE EIGHTH CIRCLE, though I have a copy, and I haven't read MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL. I read HOUSE OF CARDS, THE DARK FANTASTIC, and STAR LIGHT, STAR BRIGHT a long time ago and, though I don't remember them now, I do recall enjoying them.

The short stories in THE BLESSINGTON METHOD are also excellent.

Xavier said...

Nice review, Barry. Ellin is one of the all-time greats, IMHO. I second Bloodymurder's recommendations to which I would add the lively THE VALENTINE ESTATE. (I have read many good things about THE BIND but I haven't yet read it despite owning a copy bought at Shakespeare & Co)

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Barry does excellent reviews. I have always been honored to run his stuff.

Unless something quickly changes we won't make the rent and will be quickly evicted so I have reminded Barry of all the codes to keep the blog running for however long he wishes.