Friday 22 November 2019

Forgotten Book - The Eighth Circle

Is The Eighth Circle a truly forgotten book? After all, it did win the Edgar from the MWA for best novel in 1959 and by then, when he was still in his early 40s, he'd already won two previous Edgars, for short stories. In later life, he'd become an MWA Grand Master. So this was a major book by a highly successful author. And it would be wrong to describe it as obscure. But I think it's fair to say that nowadays, it's far from well-known, and I must admit that I've owned my copy, a tattered green Penguin, for a long time without feeling moved to read it.

But finally I've done so, and although I don't think it's an absolute masterpiece - not as stunning as some of Ellin's brilliant short stories, such as "The Question", for example - it's a very good novel, a private eye story with a difference. Written at the same time that Ross Macdonald was establishing himself as the heir to Raymond Chandler, it's an attempt to get away from the traditional American p.i. story. And at the time of its appearance, I'm sure it struck a fresh note.

We see events from the perspective of Murray Kirk, a good-looking and successful gumshoe, who runs a highly successful agency. Ellin portrays the business, authoritatively, as being similar to many other forward-looking office-based firms of the late 50s, filing cabinets and all. Kirk's a cynic, not least about women, and has a rather strange relationship with a women called Didi whom he met through a case.

His life changes when he is persuaded to take on a case involving an allegation of police corruption. Murray's basic assumption is that the police are corrupt, and when he falls in love with the girlfriend of his ultimate client, a rather unappealing cop, he sets about trying to prove to her that the man is crooked. Things do not, however, go according to plan.

It's a long novel, and there isn't a huge amount of action or convoluted plotting. Nor are there as many snappy lines as you find in the Ross Macdonald books. Nevertheless, it's consistently engaging, with some very well-defined characters. I enjoyed it, as I always enjoy reading Ellin. He was a highly accomplished crime writer, and I think there's a simple reason why his reputation has faded a little. It's just because he never repeated himself. He wasn't a series writer, and he never followed fashion or a formula. Admirable. 


Todd Mason said...

Thanks for your take on this one! I imagine you've seen this ongoing series of reviews of the Edgar-winning novels...

Todd Mason said...

The line I've gathered on Ellin is that he wanted to work his short stories utterly meticulously..and looked upon his novels as worthwhile but less intricate work. I've yet to read any of his novels, but does this comport with your impression of his writing?

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for the link, Todd, very useful. I suspect that summary of Ellin is pretty close to the mark, though Mirror, Mirror on the Wall is certainly a very striking book (albeit based on a single startling plot twist). I'm hoping to read more of the novels.