Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Crime-story recommendation: Stanley Ellin's "The Twelfth Statue"

In recent months, having had to cut back on work, I have indulged myself by spending some time with reading material purely of my choice: nothing “topical”, nothing that has to be urgently reviewed or otherwise written about professionally. (Any books-page editors reading this, please feel free to commission a “non-topical” or “irrelevant” piece though!) This includes rediscovering one of my oldest pleasures: dipping into massive anthologies of popular/genre writing. Especially this super collection of 68 “impossible-crime” stories, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.

More on this book and its varied contents soon, but for now: if you’re a film buff who enjoys crime fiction (and especially if you have watched Godard’s Contempt or read the Moravia novel on which it is based), here’s a shout-out for a terrific story titled “The Twelfth Statue”, by Stanley Ellin. It was first published in 1967, and I’m almost certain Ellin had seen Contempt sometime before writing it.

This is basically a “vanishing person” mystery about a dictatorial and tightfisted producer of B-movies, Alexander File, who disappears one evening during a shoot in Rome, on a heavily guarded outdoor set, and is never heard from again. This basic information is tersely provided in the story’s very first paragraph, after which the narrative back-tracks to give us more details. We meet File’s main employees, all of whom to varying degrees are victims of his crassness (and hence presumably had a motive for harming him). Among them is the film’s director Cyrus, a one-time assistant to Cecil B DeMille and a man who has fallen on hard times and alcoholism, but who still retains vestiges of his artistic integrity – and still hopes to make that one film where he can put something of a personal vision on the screen instead of just being a workman for a money-minded producer.

In other words, this well-paced, suspenseful story has a subtext about the troubled relationship between Art and Budget, or between the serious-minded creative person and the money-obsessed financier who holds the reins and demands compromises. It worked on both those levels for me. I kept thinking of the unlikable character played by Jack Palance in Contempt, and what that film might have looked like if he had suddenly vanished into thin air.

(Two of the main characters in “The Twelfth Statue” are a conflicted scriptwriter and his perceptive wife, much like the Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli characters in Contempt – except that the couple in the short story have a happy marriage and they serve as anchoring figures for the reader: we see and learn things largely through their perspective.)

About how the story pans out: I won’t give many details away, even though this isn’t as much a denouement-dependent mystery as most of the other pieces in the anthology are. (By the story’s midpoint, a seasoned mystery reader should be able to make a largely accurate guess about what happened, but Ellin throws in a double-bluff and a couple of mini-twists near the end.) I will say though that I thought the story’s ending very moving and powerful, with a brilliant final image – one that involves a bullied director and a martinet producer locked together in the afterlife, their roles now reversed: Commerce stands, helplessly and subserviently, at Art’s feet. Many movie directors and scriptwriters (and film students and historians) will have wished, over the decades, that this happened more often in real life.

P.S. I’m a big fan of Stanley Ellin’s work, based on the 8-10 short stories of his I have read so far. Here is an old post about a brilliant story titled “The Question My Son Asked”.

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