Friday 10 August 2018

Forgotten Book - Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall is a novel which illustrates, among other things, the late Stanley Ellin's versatility as a crime writer. He was always, and will I think remain, best known as an author of short stories, most famously "The Specialty of the House", but he was also an accomplished novelist, equally at ease with the private eye story and with the novel of psychological suspense.

The first edition dust jacket of Mirror, Mirror, describes the book as "spellbinding, shocking - unlike anything else Stanley Ellin has ever written". The victim of the bullet lies on Peter Hibben's bathroom floor in his Greenwich Village apartment. What has happened? The scene seems like a nightmare, yet it is not. Peter's search for answers becomes a journey into his sexual past". The blurb concludes: "The disclosures will be disturbing to some, but you will not be able to put Mirror, Mirror down any more than you can guess the outcome".

The book was first published in 1972, and the date is significant. At the time, the publication of Portnoy's Complaint had ushered in a new era of frankness about sex; it's impossible to imagine this book being regarded as publishable even ten years earlier, even though the central plot twist was comparable to that in an earlier classic of psychological suspense (no, I'm not going to reveal which one!) I suspect that present day readers may feel that Ellin takes the then-new freedoms a bit too far at times, but it's certainly true that he manages to blend controversial material with a plot of classic ingenuity. The story is, in essence, a cunning refashioning of the "whowasdunin" type of mystery, and there is even a sort of cipher which provides a vital clue to the mystery.

Harry Keating included this novel in his list of the 100 best crime books; it also won a major prize in France. Keating pointed out, correctly, that as well as all the shocking stuff, there's plenty of humour. This was, in its day, a ground-breaking crime novel, and although I have some reservations about it, it is nevertheless a good example of the taut, readable prose of an author who was in the front rank of post-war American mystery writers, and deserves to be remembered. 

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