J. Kingston Pierce is the editor of the crime-fiction blog The Rap Sheet, which has won the Spinetingler Award and been nominated twice for an Anthony Award. He also writes the book-design blog Killer Covers and serves as senior editor of January Magazine. Pierce is the author of more than half a dozen non-fiction books, including San Francisco: Yesterday & Today (2009), Eccentric Seattle (2003), and America’s Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (1997). He lives in Seattle, Washington.
I’m always surprised when I get to talking with committed detective-fiction fans, and I ask them whether they have read Stanley Ellin’s The Eighth Circle ... and almost invariably, the answer is “no.” In fact, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who’ve actually said “yes” to that question.
How is it that The Eighth Circle, which was first released back in 1958 and a year later won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Mystery Novel, could be so roundly forgotten? Well, it doesn’t help that it hasn’t been reissued much over the ensuing decades; the last edition appears to have come out in Britain in 2004. Certainly the handsomest and probably the most coveted version, however, is the Dell paperback from 1959 (shown below), which features a Robert McGinnis cover illustration. I like that edition so much, I’ve purchased a handful of copies over time and now pass them out to readers who seem especially deserving of an introduction to this remarkable tale.
The Eighth Circle ranks as a standout because it doesn’t try to jam in all of the conventions of the genre, and even endeavors to play against a few. Yes, this is a private-eye novel with a certifiable member of that breed as its protagonist: Murray Kirk, the son of a New York City grocer, who, after an unsuccessful stint practicing law, answered an advertisement to join Frank Conmy’s upscale Manhattan investigations firm and was hired on the spot. And yes, it boasts a plot filled with dire possibilities: Kirk, who’s now risen to become the suave head of the firm, and has even taken over the late Mr. Conmy’s elegant Central Park-side apartment, is hired to save the bacon of Arnold Lundeen, a policeman attached to the Vice Squad, who’s been caught up in a huge corruption scandal linked to a city-wide betting ring. But there’s no classic femme fatale in these pages, unless you imagine schoolteacher Ruth Vincent, Lundeen’s black-haired and long-lashed fiancée, to be more dangerous than she ever lets on. Furthermore, there are no bloody demonstrations of fisticuffs here, or even a gun drawn until well into Ellin’s story--and that weapon turns out to contain no bullets.
Ellin, who’s said to have studied several P.I. firms before sitting down to pen The Eighth Circle, offers here what at least seems to be a more realistic portrayal of the mid-20th-century sleuthing biz. Complete with officious secretaries. And plenty of paperwork and accounting responsibilities. And some boredom besides--because really, no modern enterprise exists independent of the periodically mundane, does it?
What ultimately propels this novel’s plot and keeps the reader hooked is the ethical quandary in which Murray Kirk finds himself. Despite his much-studied air of professional distance, he winds up falling hard for cop Lundeen’s unflashy but warm-hearted betrothed. In fact, he reasons that if he could get Lundeen out of the way--somehow reveal or manufacture the man’s guilt without leaving too many of his own fingerprints behind--he could have Ruth Vincent all to himself. The problem is, the more Kirk works on this case and tries to redirect things to his advantage (something that isn’t entirely lost on his veteran employees), the more clearly he recognizes the innocence of his client and the consequent hopelessness of his heart’s pursuit of darling Ruth.
It’s only too bad that Ellin abandoned Murray Kirk after The Eighth Circle (though he did go on to compose other P.I. novels, including 1979’s Star Light, Star Bright). As the exemplar of a less-disheveled, more-businesslike and morally divided gumshoe, he could really have been a contender in this genre.