Sunday 22 December 2013

Penguin no. 2318: The Eighth Circle
by Stanley Ellin

- so in the eighth circle are the liars, flatterers, and sellers of office, the fortune tellers, hypocrites and thieves, the pimps and grafters, and all such scum.
                                                    The Inferno

Murray Kirk has worked his way to the top of a New York firm of private investigators, and found on the way that the life of a P.I. has little in common with the sleazy and sometimes violent depictions portrayed in films and on television. It seems that his is mostly a desk job, with others employed to do the leg work, but even then it rarely amounts to more than the routine checking of records. In the private investigation business it is information which matters - finding it, collating it, holding it and protecting it, and risks are to be mitigated rather than embraced. It is the filing cabinet rather than the gun which underpins success.

His ten years in the business have left him with few illusions, particularly with regard to the New York police force. He considers corruption amongst police officers to be the norm rather than the exception; corruption is inherent in the system, and in time even the most law-abiding man will find himself succumbing, either tempted by the easy money on offer, or else persuaded by pressure from officers further up the hierarchy with their hands out for a share of the bounty. Acquiescing in the corruption will be the easier path.

But it is not only on account of his occupation that he feels this way. His cynical disposition was primed by the experiences of his childhood. For years he had watched his father try to change the world from behind the counter of his grocery store, prosletyzing to his customers, writing mediocre poetry, and encouraging his son to become a lawyer in order to continue the good fight. But Murray Kirk came to consider such views naive and anachronistic, the hallmarks of a generation inspired by theory but lacking experience. They shared a kind of idealism which enabled them to survive the depression, but which failed to equip them for the realities of life in the modern era. After a few months struggling to survive on a law clerk's wage, Kirk quit his position and went in search of money, ending up as a P.I.

For the most part his concern has been philandering husbands, but occasionally it is those in authority who are accused of inappropriate behaviour. And this can be a problem, because even if a P.I. operates entirely legitimately, always ensuring that he abides by the laws of the state and within the constraints of his licence, the D.A can act against him should he choose; those charged with maintaining law, order and justice can use those powers for good or for evil. Murray Kirk has learned to be pragmatic; mitigating his risks means choosing his cases carefully, and ensuring that he keeps on the right side of the police and the law.

It makes little sense, in such circumstances, for him to accept Arnold Lundeen's case, and it is not a belief in Lundeen's innocence which has Kirk do so. Lundeen is a police officer who has been accused of graft - of accepting money to arrest a small-time player while turning a blind eye to the activities of an established bookie with much more to lose. It hints at a kind of symbiotic relationship existing between the police and the criminals: the bit-players are willing sacrificed, and the bookies get to continue their businesses unperturbed and the police maintain their arrest rates.

Lundeen swears he is innocent of the accusation, and his lawyer believes him, but it is easy for Kirk to write the latter off as an idealist: he is a middle-aged man with a family to support who has just walked out on a safe, cushy job as a commercial lawyer in the family firm to try and make his way as a criminal lawyer. Lundeen's girlfriend is equally adamant that Lundeen would never accept a bribe. Kirk takes on the case because he knows he will enjoy proving the pair wrong, and he will enjoy it all the more because Lundeen will be footing the bill. And he also has his eye on Lundeen's girlfriend.

The Eighth Circle is a complex and detailed story, grounded in the idea that P.I. work is largely dull and bureaucratic, despite what is portrayed in the films, based principally around order, efficiency and record-keeping; it is also a story about bias. The focus is always on the characters, and on exploring why they believe the things they do, and on how their beliefs affect their decisions and their actions. It is not only Kirk whose behaviour can be explained by his childhood experiences, for this is true of Lundeen's girlfriend Ruth Vincent as well. Even Wykoff, the most corrupt character in the book, has his idiosyncrasies and his delusions. Everyone here is blinkered to some extent, firm in their convictions and seeing exactly what they expect to see. But Kirk is forced to confront his biases and his preconceptions, and he is changed in the process, perhaps even redeemed. The focus on character means that the story has a very long build up, and it is always difficult to see where it is going; it becomes a thriller rather suddenly, just towards the end.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 2795: The Specialty of the House

1 comment:

  1. Stanley Ellin is sorely underrated. His shortv story collection-Specialty of the House-is one of my favorites.



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