AT THE START of Stanley Ellin's story, "Unreasonable Doubt," the narrator is asked what has been the most interesting case he has ever worked on.
"Well, sir," he replies "there's one I regard not only as the most interesting I ever handled, but which would have staggered any lawyer in history, right up to Solomon himself. It was the strangest, most fantastic, damnedest thing that ever came my way. And the way it wound up with -- is enough to knock a man out of his chair when he thinks of it. But let me tell it to you just as it took place."
Few readers, I think, could resist a promise of such dimensions, and few would feel at the tale's conclusion, eight pages later, that it had not been fulfilled -- and fulfilled many times over in 34 other tales in this collection, culled from 30 years of the author's uniformly accomplished production.
But is it Art? Stories in this vein of well-carpentered dramaturgy -- with a baited-hook beginning, a brisk development and an ending that at once baffles and fulfills the reader's expectations -- have fallen under the suspicion, among "serious" readers and academic critics, of being inconsiderable, the literary equivalent of marine watercolors, mere popcorn as against the haute cuisine of fiction that aspires to the lyrical and epiphanous condition of Literature. Once such stories might have found a home in The New Yorker, as did those of John Collier, Shirley Jackson and Roald Dahl, the authors of Ellin's jacket copy offers as points of reference. They do so no longer, nor are they likely to appear in the two major short story annuals (though one of these, by an irony of history, is named for O. Henry). The tradition lingers on only in the pages of Playboy and its ilk and in the surviving genre magazines. (All but one of the stories here assembled first appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Good for EQMM!) So to say that Stanley Ellin is the best living practitioneer of the well-made tale and a worthy successor to De Maupasant might be construed as faint praise.
The difficulty some readers have in apprehending such fiction as Art of capital letter status is similar to that which many gallery-goers experience before the paintings of Wyeth or Hopper. Because such paintings can be enjoyed by the uninitiate and do not wear their rigors on their sleeves, because they offer a quick, gratifying coup d'oeil and don't require (though they may sustain) heroic efforts of appreciation, they might be dismissed as no more than purveyors of the picturesque. Of course they are not, except by the most doctrinaire of modernists, since it is hard to argue with the authority of a great painting, once one has seen it, while it is quite easy to refuse to read a book.
In an Ellin tale, as in a Wyeth painting, there is usually a picturesque element, i.e., such innatuely attention-grabbing stuff as National Enquirer headlines are made of. Having grabbed attention, Ellen then disposes these sensational materials in hold clear patterns governed by the laws of poetic justice. "Yes, of course," one thinks at the conclusion of each tale, "just so, exactly." The reader is not asked to do any of the hard work ordinarily associated with art as it is celebrated in lit crit textbooks, that art which values nuances of tone above a pattern's bare gestal, open-ended deconstructions above a sense of closure, amd moral ambiguity above poetic justice. Poetic justice is too easily apprehensible, too amiable, too pretty. Further to its detriment, poetic justice resembles the justice of law courts in its conservative bias, confirming our assumptions about good and evil rather than unsettling them. It establishes (as jokes do, or parables, or hymn-singing) a moral community of people in contented aggrement that (yes, of course) it is altogether fitting and proper that worms should turn, biters be bitten, and fatted calves served up on appropriate occasions.
May it not be the case, though, that conventional wisdom is no less wise for observing conventions, and that art is no less artful for being stylized? Ellin's stories succeed or fail, it would seem to me, in proportion as the wisdom they embody is large-spritied, clear-headed, and focused on issues of urgent and elemental importance, and in proportion as they fulfill their appointed esthetic tasks of wit, concision and mortise-to-tenon inevitablitiy. On the latter score Ellin is rarely to be faulted, and on the former his ratio of hits to misses is very high indeed. However, it is impossible to illustrate the poetry of Ellin's brand of justice without synopsizing, and thereby spoiling, a good story, since it is always the final thrust of a plot that drives home its paraphrasable meanings. Suffuce it to say that few writers have examined so tellingly or so variously the problem of complicity, the dilemma ever social being faces of being part of a system that institutionalizes privilege for some and misery for many others. Though liberal in his political sympathies, Ellin is able to write stories on such topics as capital punishment, big business, or Vietnam without becoming preachy or simplistic. The devil is given his due -- but not all the good lines. Ellin can write about violance without appealing to a prurient interest and about elemental horrors in a light tone without trivializing his subject matter. (Though not invariably: when he makes a false stop, it's usually due to coyness.)
It must add that poetic justice, as practiced by Ellin, doesn't mean that crime doesn't sometimes pay. Murder is more often gotten away with than punished in these tales, for the poetically just reason that most of his victims deserve what they get. The literal-minded may argue that dream should take a more responsible attitude, but what do they know about fiction anyhow? It's that sort who've bowdlerized fairy tales and don't Care who murdered Roger Ackroyd.
The Specialty of the House is art -- even, within its own terms, art of high order. But beyond all that fiddle it's a book guaranteed to fulfill that deep-rooted and age-old human need, the need to be entertained.