While checking off a few very short stories over the last couple of days (see previous posts), my wife, Tara, and I have also been reading a novella-length piece by Stanley Ellin—part of our ongoing project to read aloud every story the author wrote. (We’re using the handsome Mysterious Press edition The Specialty of the House & Other Stories: The Complete Mystery Tales 1948-1978—and yes, I know that other stories were published after 1978 too.) “The Twelfth Statue” was originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 1967—toward the latter end of Ellin’s career—and while the style is as crisp and precise as ever, the plotting seems a little more ponderous here, and in general among these later stories, than in those earlier masterpieces like “The Moment of Decision” and “The House Party,” our own favorites among the tales so far. “The Twelfth Statue” follows an U.S. movie crew filming a low-budget gladiator flick in Italy—a dysfunctional family of sorts, with screenwriter, director, and others all united against a loathsome producer who has one eye on the budget and another on comely young girls, including the 16-year-old sister of a props man who’s building those statues for a crucial scene. One evening, after yet another confrontation with his crew, File walks out of the office and simply disappears into the night.
That disappearance actually kicks off the story, with many of the scenes being related in an extended flashback from the perspective of the script doctor as part of a slow return back to the central mystery and then into the investigation and much further beyond. As the story unfolds, most readers will likely suspect (and rightly suspect) where the missing producer has gotten himself too—though there’s an unexpected twist or two along the path to that revelation and an extra bit of twist after the truth comes out. But those brief twists don’t offer enough reward for the overlong narrative here, and while the final pages unfold as if they’re presenting moral decisions of great heft and responsibility, the author’s and the readers’ perceptions of that weightiness—at least this reader’s perceptions of it—may differ at least a little.
Plenty of other stories by the author I’d recommend instead, especially the ones already mentioned above. The frame narrative that Ellin utilizes in this story seems to have been a favorite of his during much of this later period, but other stories of his simply make better use of that structure—particularly 1959’s “The Day of the Bullet,” which is brilliantly evocative and emotional start to finish. — Art Taylor