Originally published in 1948
Every sports fan in New York knows Al Judge, the hard-bitten reporter whose column is the scourge of gamblers, gangsters, and corrupt players across the city. Sixteen-year-old George LaMain is Judge’s biggest fan—right up until the night he decides the writer has to die. George is in his father’s saloon, waiting for his dad to give him his birthday present: a trip to the fights at Madison Square Garden. They are about to leave when Judge demands George’s father strip and lie down on the barroom floor. George doesn’t know why, but his old man does it—and Judge beats him senseless in front of the whole bar.
When he’s finished crying, George takes his father’s gun and sets out into the night. To avenge his disgraced father, he plans to gun Al Judge down. But before he can become a killer, this birthday boy will have to grow into a man.
When you’re going to kill somebody, you’re not a kid any more, and when you know in your heart you’re not a kid, somehow or other, everybody else seems to know it too.
Some months ago JJ from The Invisible Event suggested that as a fan of inverted mysteries I really need to check out a copy of Stanley Ellin’s The Speciality of the House. That book, a collection of short stories, is definitely one I want to get to even if I have to split my coverage of it into several blog posts but when I stumbled onto a copy of this much shorter work – Ellin’s first novel – I couldn’t resist picking it up.
The book is told in the inverted style though it doesn’t exactly align with any of the labels I have given other examples of the genre so far. We know who it is that George plans to kill, how and why right from the start of the book, meaning that this is probably more accurately classed as a crime story rather than a mystery, though the reader will likely find themselves asking questions that our protagonist never seems to get around to considering. By the end of the story Ellin will give us answers.
The story takes place on the day George LaMain turns sixteen. He is looking forward to attending a big boxing match to celebrate with his father Andy. Before they can get going however Al Judge, a prominent sports writer, turns up at Andy’s bar to confront him and demand that Andy take off his shirt and lay down on the floor. To George’s horror his father meekly acquieses and Al sets about beating him senseless, humiliating him in his son’s eyes. Flushed with anger George grabs his father’s gun and the tickets for the match which he expects Al will be attending and sets out to kill him.
Ellin tells the story from George’s perspective and in his voice, brilliantly capturing the false maturity and bravado of a child who is determined to be seen as an adult. In the early chapters as George tells us his story and offers his opinions of others, the reader may well find themselves thinking that he is someone who does not recognize how dependent he is on his father for guidance and worry about how he is going to fare navigating the city on his own, let alone dealing with someone as worldly and tough as Al Judge.
It should also be said George is not necessarily a good kid or even a particularly likeable one. While he praises his father for keeping him from getting into trouble, his narration frequently infers that he has potentially violent appetites and that he is choosing to view his mission to kill Al as a coming of age story. It is as if seeking revenge or even to kill someone validates his manhood in his own eyes and throughout the early chapters he regularly repeats his intention to kill Al as a sort of mantra.
While George may not be a particularly pleasant character, I do think he is an interesting one. I was reminded a little of some of Jim Thompson’s creations – a sort of more innocent version of William Collins from After Dark, My Sweet. In playing at being a tough guy, his naïvety and inexperience dealing with adults and understanding their intentions becomes painfully clear. Ellin places him in several situations that expose that inexperience and it is interesting to see how he interprets them and the ways they seem to change him. As a character journey I think it is quite compelling and it offers an interesting perspective on the awkwardness of that transition from childhood to adulthood that is largely successful.
Ellin introduces George to several colorful characters in the course of his quest who often get in the way of his plans, sometimes intentionally and sometimes inadvertantly. These characters not only serve as interesting complications for George to overcome, they are also used to draw a contrast with George’s character and to demonstrate his immaturity and poor judgement. I felt most were drawn pretty well and felt pleasingly dimensional given how short the work is overall.
The least vibrant characters are probably the two that are most important to the story’s plot: George’s father and his target, Al Judge. It is not that they are poorly drawn or particularly unconvincing but rather their appearances are both quite short, talked about more than they are seen. This is a little unfortunate in that I think after chapters of build-up the brevity of the resolution with Al may feel a little anticlimactic to those primarily interested in the plot.
While the moment of confrontation felt a little rushed, I think Ellin does a superb job of exploring the consequences of what happens and following his themes to their logical and appropriate conclusions. I think the tone struck at the end is really surprisingly powerful and, to my surprise, even a little emotional as it wraps up that coming of age story quite perfectly.
Which is, I suppose, the issue if you are coming to this for the criminous content. Dreadful Summit‘s least interesting element is the one it is building to. As important and necessary as that moment is as a catalyst for all of the other stuff that happens, it is not particularly complex or thrilling in itself while almost all of the build-up to that point is character rather than plot-driven.
That didn’t bother me – I think it tells the story it tells well and I appreciate Ellin’s economy in telling it. The book’s short page count is appropriate and the choice to focus on what George thinks and feels is absolutely the right one. Those who are primarily interested in plot though may want to pass this one by.
The Verdict: More coming of age story than crime novel. The character work and development of theme are very good though.
Sergio @ Tipping My Fedora shared his thoughts on the book in this excellent review. I seem to have enjoyed it more than he did though I think the review is quite fair and I think he is right to suggest that the substance to the book lies in the interruptions to the plot.
Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name offered up these thoughts as part of his Forgotten Book blog series, drawing parallels with The Catcher in the Rye and his own Dancing for the Hangman.