Friday, December 11, 2020

Friday for Writers: A Character Description Lesson From Stanley Ellin

Ellery Queen's Grand Slam Cover
If not a household name, Stanley Ellin's still a not-inconsequential figure in the history of mystery and suspense fiction.

A new article about his unique private investigator novels popped up on the excellent Crime Reads website the other day.

That took me back to days when I was a kid and discovered Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine on the drug store magazine rack.

I found after reading numerous issues that Stanley Ellin's stories were among those I usually liked. 

His picture appeared on the cover during a period when the mag did a run of author portraits. Eventually EQMM released an edition of Ellin short fiction, Kindly Dig Your Grave and other Wicked Stories.

The Crime Reads article prompted me to pluck an anthology off my shelf, Ellery Queen's Grand Slam (1970). That included an Ellin story I hadn't read, "Coin of the Realm." It's a great collection that also included Joe Gores' Edgar-winning "Goodbye, Pops."

"Coin" is an interesting "all is not what it seems" piece from Ellin. 

I was struck enough by the way he slipped in the physical description of the POV character that I decided to share the passage with some writing students, and it seems worth a look for all writers making decisions about how to slip physical description in seamlessly. 

"You look like a million," he said, soberly nodding his approval.

Her own expression, as she eyed him from head to foot, was anything but approving."

"I wish I could say the same for you. Is that how you expect to go out? That ridiculous Hawaiian shirt and not even a jacket?"

"It's too hot for a jacket. And we're only going to Flea Market, for Pete's sake, not the opera."

"Even so. And that camera and that great big camera bag slung around your neck. And that awful cigar shoved into your mouth. Do you know what you look like?"


"An American tourist, that's what. A real corny American tourist."

Walt glanced at the beefy, red-faced, bald-headed image of himself in the full-length mirror...

The things he's carrying are ultimately significant in the story though it meshes perfectly with his wife's dissatisfaction that fuels the tale's opening exchange.

The guy does eventually look in the mirror--as many fictional characters are wont to--to study his appearance, but I thought the way Ellin built to that made it a natural move, and a great way to provide the reader needed information in an organic way.

If you haven't discovered Ellin as a reader and/or a writer, dig up his work and check him out. 

Ellin, Stanley. "Coin of the Realm." Ellery Queen's Grand Slam. Ed. Ellery Queen. New York: Popular Library, 1970. 29-43. Print.


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