Friday, 13 September 2013

Penguin no. C2795: The Specialty of the House
by Stanley Ellin

Hugh Lozier was the exception to the rule that people who are completely sure of themselves cannot be likeable. We have all met the sure ones, of course - those controlled but penetrating voices which cut through all others in a discussion, those hard forefingers jabbing home opinions on your chest, those living Final Words on all issues - and I imagine we all share the same amalgam of dislike and envy for them. Dislike, because no one likes to be shouted down or prodded in the chest, and envy, because everyone wishes he himself were so rich in self-assurance that he could do the shouting down and prodding.

Ellery Queen, or whoever is writing in his name, does an exceptional job of raising the level of anticipation of a prospective reader in his foreword to this collection of ten Stanley Ellin short stories, and I think that cover by Michael Trevithick also assists. Queen begins by discussing the excitement each member of EQMM's editorial team would feel whenever they learnt that an interesting story sent into their office was the work of an unpublished writer, with the pleasure of reading amplified by the thrill of discovery. It was in such a spirit that they received Stanley Ellin's first story The Specialty of the House in 1946, and while Queen asserts that the story itself was unforgettable, he also notes that he was never given the opportunity to forget it. Readers of his magazine would approach him for years afterwards to mention the story and encourage him to find another in its league.

Stanley Ellin's first short story was awarded a special prize in EQMM's third contest for best first story received that year, and he went on to enter a single story in each subsequent annual contest. He was not a prolific author, being known for the careful attention he paid to his writing, and particularly to his opening paragraphs, and Queen mentions that in one case he is known to have rejected 42 alternatives before finding an opening paragraph which satisfied him sufficiently that he was able to continue with the story. These subsequent stories invariably achieved a second or third placing in EQMM's annual contests, but his tenth entry, The Moment of Decision, was judged the best story of its year. The stories collected in this edition chart that chronological progression from best first short story to best overall.

The Specialty of the House is called Lamb Armistan. It is an infrequent inclusion on the menu at Sbirro's unprepossessing basement restaurant, purportedly because of the difficulty he has in sourcing its principal ingredient. This unpredictability seems to work in the restaurant's favour, with the customers returning night after night, desperate to ensure their presence on any occasion on which this exceptional dish will be served. And this unusually loyal clientele is undaunted by Sbirro's novel stipulations which include no choice of meal, no women allowed, and no alcohol or tobacco to be consumed on his premises.

Laffler is one of Sbirro's regular patrons, and he excels in finding rationalisations to explain Sbirro's peculiarities: he argues that choice is inefficient and distracts the chef from producing the best possible meal, and that alcohol and tobacco dull the senses. His guest Costain is initially unimpressed by the dull surroundings and bland food but he too soon develops an obsession to equal Laffler's, and before long he is planning his evenings around dining at Sbirro's, apprehensively awaiting the appearance of the much-vaunted dish. But Laffler has an additional obsession: he longs nightly for an invitation to enter Sbirro's kitchen. The story leads up to the occasion on which this wish is to be fulfilled.

That Laffler's kitchen obsession is so mundane is in keeping with the tone of Ellin's early stories, which seem to feature ordinary protagonists with small ambitions. The Cat's Paw features Mr Crabtree whose quest is finding ongoing employment, and in The Best of Everything Arthur longs to be noticed by  his boss's daughter. These are people primarily concerned with acceptance and security, and they tend to weight very heavily the one thing they perceive to be missing from their lives. And then it will be there within their reach, achievable but for some hurdle. The dilemma each faces is an ethical one, and despite being unexceptional people, their skewed perspectives have them behaving in an unexpected way. There are consequences for the choices they make.

While we are given some insight into the lengths they are willing to go to, and an intimation of the disaster which may await them, the consequences of their actions are never made explicit. The focus of these stories is always on the quandary, the choice and the justification, and not on the resolution. We are left to imagine the outcomes of a succession of protagonists, each of whom is moving towards a predictable doom, and without any means of intervening.





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