STANLEY ELLIN'S FIRST story, "Specialty of the House," has become a classic. It appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the mid-'40s, and let's just say that it is about a small, unpretentious restaurant where a guest might be advised not be enter the kitchen to congratulate the chef.
In the three decades since, Ellin has made a specialty of the crime short story with such talent that he is the best in the field today, producing what Julian Symons has described as "the authentic shiver... The little final twist is a turn of the knife in the reader's sensiblity."
Ellin also has some fine full-length novels to his credit, including the admirable The Eighth Circle and The House of Cards, which became a film starring Orson Welles. And now we can add another with Star Light, Star Bright (Random House, $8.95).
First of all, it shows what an imaginative storyteller can do with a cliche -- or what has become a cliche in less talented hands. Star Light, Star Bright is about a private eye, but it is not just another private eye story. Ellin writes scene, atmosphere and character while offering a nonstop plot. His hero, Johnny Milano, is an investigator who can chop a gun out of the hand of a ratty fence; however, he also knows a Van Gogh when he sees one and understands the merits of the legal hassle over a tax-exempt art collection.
And what a collection of wicked characters Ellin has assembled for Milano. There is Sharon Bauer, who had left Johnny standing dewy-eyed in the wet English countryside after he rescued her from drugs and a cheap agent-pimp. There is her billionaire husband, Andrew Quist, who has a Roman senator's classic head and crippled arthritic legs, watching Sharon's films nightly in the private viewing room of his Palm Beach estate. And there is Daskalos, the Hollywood astrologer who arranged the marriage and has become a religious gurn.
There is also the loyal secretary whose passion it to complete her study on the relationship between Van Gogh and Jack the Ripper. The houseguests are rounded out by Hollywood hangers-on who want Quist to put up the money for a movie to be based on an incestuous love story.
Milano, who doesn't want to be reminded of Sharon's Fleurs de Rocaille perfume, reluctantly goes to the Florida estate when his partner receives a hefty check from Quist. There have been threatening notes, ones with a literary flair (they begin "I am in Hell"), and they are specific: Daskalos is to die at midnight two days henece. Ellin, the consummate storyteller, turns surprise on surprise to a croker conclusion as the ominous deadline is kept.
REGINALD HILL is a sprightly sophisticated author able to construct a taut plot around believable characters who develop into complex individuals. In A Pinch of Snuff (Harper & Row, $9.95), Detective-Inspector Peter Pascoe, a mod British policeman who's occasionally disillusioned but never slips into jaded cynicism, returns in a case that begins when he goes to have his teeth seen to. While drilling on Pascoe, the denitist mentions having seen a porn film exploiting sadomasochism, adding that, in his professional opinion, the teeth really were knocked out in the scene where the girl is beaten. Pascoe himself is skeptical and gets no support from his superiors; nonetheless, he doggedly follows leads and discovers some unsavory people who may have gone beyond blue films to "snuff" flicks, in which the violence and killing is not acting.
NO ONE DARES interrupt Harley Ross when he retires to his workroom-library in the morning to write a few more chapters for the latest of his sensationally successful novels. Then one morning the door creaks open: Harley truns around in outrage, and there is Marta, his wife who left him two years before. In Welcome to the grave (Doubledhay Crime Club, $7.95), we find out what happens when Harley's schedule and comfortable life are interrupted. Mary McMullen, an erratic writer, has come up with a set of interesting characters and this time controls her tendency to coyness.
CHARLES RUSSELL, whose new escapade is jauntily chronicled by William Haggard in The Poison People (Walker, $7.95), is a retired intelligence officer who operates in a very civilized yet undeniably effective manner. He is an urbane man, having about him the air of a mature James Bond. Here he becomes reluctantly involved with an eccentric lord bent on a personal vendetta to avenge his son's death. Russell leaves the comforts of retirement for a trip to Delhi, where drug traffic and Indian politics become entwined.
FIFTY YEARS ago, The Roman Hat Mystery marked the first appearance of Ellery Queen, both the author and the detective. Now The Mysterious Press has issued a special Golden Anniversary edition. It's a replica of the first, a volume highly prized when it is found by crimefiction collectors. The anniversary reissue ( $10) contains a new introduction written by Frederic Dannay, the survivor of the two cousins who wrote under the Queen pseudonym.