Dan Sandman

03: Dreadful Summit by Stanley Ellin

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 15/01/2016 at 12:00 pm

Primrose Hill BooksMy mother and I live near a shop called Primrose Hill Books. When I was a child, customers could brave a white spiral staircase at the back of the shop, leading downstairs to the second-hand books. I remember seeing shelf upon shelf of used thrillers, romances, adventures, classics, autobiographies, and almost any kind of book imaginable. As one decade has past into another, that wonderful place, the room that whetted our curiosity, has been sealed up from public view. What now lies at the back of the shop has become a mystery. Most likely it is used to store the stock, as the ever-changing shelves at the front of the shop are filled with new publications. It is also possible that the family who own Primrose Hill Books have been using it as a bedroom, as their children have been growing up into  young people. These two speculations are each likely — or at least as likely as any fiction is likely — but the truth is usually far more complicated than we imagine.

I would like to keep the sense of mystery behind what now lies at the back of Primrose Hill Books. After all, it is such childhood memories that stir up the emotions that books evoke in our subconscious wanderings. As L.P  Hartley wrote in his classic novel The Go Between (1953), ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

Now, in winter 2016, following the mildest December in Britain since 1926, an icy weather front has finally decided to make its present felt this morning. The man in the post office works his Friday shift, a couple of bicycles ride in for the morning paper, and Primrose Hill Books opens for another day’s book-selling. Silently, I think about the book I finished last night, Dreadful Summit (1948) by Stanley Ellin. It was similar to Catcher in the Rye (1951) because its narrator is an American teenager, expressing himself in the uncomplicated language of disaffected youth.

It was the first time I saw her face real good, the way the kitchen light was shining on it, and it was all like dough, and a smeared mouth, and stupid’ (pp.92).

Composed in short chapters, this book was originally marketed as a novel of suspense. Written with the confessional honesty of the diary form and set on one day in New York, it tells of a sixteen year old teenage boy who seeks revenge for his father. Carrying a gun inside his overcoat, this is the story of his violent passage into manhood.

I picked up this time-worn paperback for the first time last Saturday, from the books table that daily stands outside Primrose Hill Books for seven days of the week. I had just come from a day of overwhelming lectures and tuition for my masters in English, in which I had spoken too much during class. My rather topsy-turvy vocal analysis of the two texts for Block 2 — by which I mean overly digressive — had led to an unsurprising craving for an easygoing crime thriller; a short novel of which I knew nothing about. Most assuredly, on Sunday I still craved the green Penguin I had skimmed on the previous day. Gratefully, it was still there the next day in all its antic glory. I went inside to purchase.

‘I like that you keep the books outside.’ I said, shyly handing over two circular pound coins and a hexagonal fifty. Gold and silver. ‘You can…’

‘See if you fancy something.’ Said the bookseller.

‘That’s right.’ I replied.


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