Friday, July 31, 2009

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Eighth Circle,” by Stanley Ellin

(This marks the 59th installment of The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Previous recommendations can be found here.)

“[I]s this a suspense story, or is it at last a serious novel about a private detective?” asked New York Times critic Anthony Boucher in his October 1958 review of The Eighth Circle, by Stanley Ellin. “I’m not sure it’s 100 percent successful as either: as suspense it’s a little slow and almost unpardonably long; as a serious novel it solves its problems a mite hastily and overoptimistically. But such reservations come only from the attempt to judge the novel by standards of perfection, such as Mr. Ellin sets in his short stories. Imperfect, it is still one of the most absorbingly readable books of the season.”

I must confess, for many years I confused Stanley Ellin with the now-better-known Stanley Elkin, whose satirical novels (such as 1991’s The MacGuffin) never really appealed to me all that much, despite their being repeatedly acclaimed by other reviewers. (I generally prefer serious fiction to the humorous variety.) But periodic references to The Eighth Circle by knowledgeable readers, topped off with my recent re-discovery, in the Tony Hillerman/Otto Penzler-edited collection, The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, of Ellin’s brilliantly wicked little tale of arrogance and jealousy, “The Moment of Decision” (1955), finally solidified in my mind this author’s individual identity, and I set out to find what is probably his best-remembered novel, The Eighth Circle.

Thank goodness I did, for despite Boucher’s half-serious reservations, Ellin’s 1958 novel about a top-of-the-heap private eye whose over-involvement in his latest case threatens to ruin his career and result in his client’s conviction, ranks among the finest examples of detective fiction I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

Murray Kirk, The Eighth Circle’s protagonist, is the son of a New York City grocer and wannabe poet. He used to be a lawyer, but wasn’t terribly successful at that. So he follows a colleague’s recommendation and applies for a job with Frank Conmy’s upscale Manhattan private investigations firm, only to be hired on the spot. The work turns out to be better than clerking in a law office, but it doesn’t quite fit his preconceptions of life at a detective agency. Early on, he remarks to Conmy’s personal secretary, the steadfast Mrs. Knapp, that
“It’s not much like the movies, is it?”

Mrs. Knapp looked at him shrewdly. “No, it isn’t, Mr. Kirk. We don’t supply booze, blondes, or bullets. As a matter of fact, no one here is licensed to carry firearms except Mr. Conmy himself, and I very much doubt if Mr. Conmy knows one end of a gun from the other. Get it into your head, Mr. Kirk, that we are a legitimate business firm, authorized by the New York State Director of Licenses to perform certain lawful services. And you, young man, are as much bound by the laws of this state as the next person. I trust you’ll always keep this in mind.”
Readers who like their P.I. stories plump with fisticuffs and firearms might be disappointed with The Eighth Circle. There isn’t even a gun drawn until deep into Ellin’s story—and it turns out to contain no bullets. It’s just a threatening tool.

But there are plenty of compensations here for the lack of weaponry.

For instance, Ellin’s observations about the generally routine nature of P.I. work: prospective-employee background checks for companies, clipping and filing potentially useful stories from newspapers, etc. “It sounds like a nice day’s work,” Kirk tells one of his fellow operatives, not too enthusiastically. The response:
“Oh, you’ll get used to it. Anyhow, it keeps you off your feet, which is something. And it’s a hell of a lot better than writs and subpoenas. You’ve never been baptized, have you?”

“In what way?”

“That’s what they call it around here the first time a woman spits in your eye because you hand her a writ. There’s something about a legal paper that just makes a woman’s mouth fill up, and then, brother, you’re in for it. You’ll find yourself ducking like an expert after a while.”
Kirk needn’t bear up under such mundaneness for long, though. He establishes a friendship with his boss that results in Kirk becoming a partner in the firm and, 10 years after applying for a job there—and following Conmy’s death—he takes over, even moving into Conmy’s apartment, 30 stories above Central Park. It’s a most favorable arrangement, complete with pricey brandies, sharp suits, and comfy furniture on which to read books, watch television, or listen to the troubles of Didi, his garrulous, gorgeous, and upwardly mobile divorcée friend, who seems to fall in love with every man except the one she actually needs to be with, who is of course Murray Kirk.

All that is back-story, though. What’s in the foreground here is the case of Arnold Lundeen, a cop attached to the Vice Squad, who’s caught up in a huge corruption scandal linked to a city-wide betting ring. Lundeen’s idealistic lawyer comes to Kirk for help, and he makes a decent case for why Kirk can do some good for the accused patrolman. But what finally secures the sleuth’s involvement is Lundeen’s fiancée, schoolteacher Ruth Vincent, an ebony-tressed, long-lashed lovely (“it was incredible that a cop, a dumb, dishonest New York cop, should ever have come into possession of anything like this”). The trouble is, Murray Kirk slowly but surely becomes more interested in being with Ruth than he is in helping her boyfriend. In fact, he reasons that if he could get Lundeen out of the way—somehow reveal the man’s guilt without leaving too many of his own fingerprints behind—he could have Ruth all to himself.

Unfortunately, Kirk’s professionalism gets in the way of his selfish scheme. He learned well from Frank Conmy. He’s turned into a fine detective and a fine man, despite his own doubts. The more Kirk tries to redirect things to his advantage (something that isn’t entirely lost on his veteran employees), the more he learns to respect—even envy—Lundeen’s attorney, and the clearer he recognizes his cop client’s innocence. How does he then live with himself, if not with Ruth at his side and in his bed?

This is a novel far richer in character development and exposition than it is in the conventions of modern gumshoe fiction. But I don’t think it was meant to transcend the genre, to be “at last a serious novel about a private detective.” Ellin simply brought to this yarn his own tastes and expectations. As Kevin Burton Smith explains at The Thrilling Detective Web Site, “Ellin studied several P.I. agencies before writing the novel, so The Eighth Circle is a far more authentic look at real P.I. work than most P.I. novels.” The author also imbued this book with his interest—often on display in his abundant short stories—in the high and mighty of Gotham, people whose veneers he relished ripping away to expose the conflicts, fears, and hatreds that lay beneath. His efforts were rewarded; The Eighth Circle won the 1959 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Mystery Novel. (Twenty-two years after that, New Yorker Ellin was presented with the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award, its greatest honor.)

It’s too bad that Stanley Ellin—who died of a heart attack 23 years ago today—abandoned Murray Kirk after Circle. That protagonist had so much potential, especially on his way down in the world. Ellin did, however, go on to pen three more P.I. novels: The Bind (1970), Star Light, Star Bright (1979), and The Dark Fantastic (1983). The Bind showcased another Manhattan-based investigator, Jake Dekker, working in that story with a beautiful young confederate to get to the bottom of a questionable insurance claim in Florida. (The Bind was subsequently turned into a mediocre 1979 film called Sunburn, starring Farrah Fawcett and Charles Grodin.) The second and third books took as their lead Johnny Milano, “a shrewd detective, specializing in high-price (and high-stakes) recovery work for insurance companies.” I’ve never had the opportunity to read those three, but after being so captivated by The Eighth Circle, I think I need to do a little detective work of my own and find copies.

READ MORE:The Murders in Memory Lane,” by Lawrence Block (Mystery Scene).


Bill Crider said...

THE EIGHTH CIRCLE is a classic. I seem to recall that THE DARK FANTASTIC created a bit of controversy when it was published.

Jerry House said...

Any Ellin is worth reading, although I am partial to the short stories. Ellin's annual story for EQMM was eagerly anticipated.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend tracking down a
copy of The Specialty of the House
and other stories: The Complete
Mystery Tales, 1948-1978. He wrote
terrific short stories as well as

Frank Loose said...

Your solid review has prompted me to seek out this book and the s.s. collection that Anonymous mentioned. Thanks for the interesting column.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your appreciation of Stanley Ellin, a great writer of both short stories and novels (Mirror Mirror on the Wall, The Dark Fantastic). It's too bad some readers confused the warped, racist views of the first person narrator of half of THE DARK FANTASTIC with the views of Ellin himself...I hope that Hard Case Crime, or another publisher, decides to reissue Ellin's works.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. I tore "The Moment of Decision" out of an anthology and keep on rereading it when I feel the need for some well crafted perfection. I love the description of Hugh and his home and his flaw that is his failing.
Best of luck with your novel.