Stanley Ellin was the first author who popped to mind when I read this week's question: "If you could choose a dead author to mentor you today, who would you choose and why?" But then, he's also the author who pops to mind most often when I'm talking about some aspect of short story writing in the mystery genre.
A couple of weeks back, at the Books Alive! conference hosted by the Washington Independent Review of Books, I was on a panel with Donna Andrews, Laura Lippman, and Brad Parks, and one of the attendees asked about the requirements and rules of mystery fiction—which prompted an eager discussion about how the breadth and diversity of the genre ultimately means that there aren't any, "except," someone quipped, "that you have to have a crime, of course."
...to which I replied, "Well, actually.... I've just taught two Stanley Ellin stories in my short story class at Mason, and neither of them features a crime, and one of them won the Edgar for Best Short Story, so....."
Ellin is a master of the short story for a variety of reasons: the crispness of his characterization, the tightness of both his plotting and his prose, the relentlessness of his suspense, and then that combination of cold scrutiny, sly humor, and wicked irony. A careful, methodical craftsman (his short stories were published at the rate of about one per year for almost his entire career), he steeped himself in tradition, as he explained in the introduction to The Specialty of the House and Other Stories: The Complete Mystery Tales, 1948-1978:
So it was that even before adolescence I was deep into popular magazine writers who... now stand propped up as literary monuments on academia's lawns. I read Hemingway, Faulkner, and Scott Fitzgerald hot off the press. Ring Lardner, who still eludes the monument-makers, I worshipped. Simultaneously, there were explorations of the volumes in the family bookcase, among them collections of Mark Twain, Kipling, Poe, Stevenson, and de Maupassant....
Stanley Ellin, 1916-1986
Poe bred the blackest fantasies in me. De Maupassant's stories made me uneasy. I knew that something highly interesting was going on between the lines but couldn't quite fathom what it was. I also knew intuitively, even in my extreme youth, that here was a writer who reduced stories to their absolute essence. And that the ending of each story, however unpredictable, was, when I thought of it, as inevitable as doom.
The true magic again.
But at the same time that he was inspired and influenced by these past masters—incorporating that "true magic" into his own carefully polished tales—he was also innovative and even subtly revolutionary in his own way. Perhaps his best known stories include one that never clearly states the dire trouble beneath its surface, another whose ending leaves you perched on the edge of what happens next, and a circular tale whose ending is just another beginning.
Writers don't always make the best teachers, of course. The imaginative mind—creating, constructing—might not always be the best one to define, describe, organize and pass along "how to" advice. As Ellin himself discovered (see that paragraph above again), the writer learns first by reading. But at the same time, I'd have loved the chance to meet Ellin, to talk about his approach, to try to learn something, anything, there at the feet of the master.