During his 1950s heyday, mystery author Stanley Ellin (1916-1986) was racking up Edgar Award nominations the way Meryl Streep collects Oscars. He was mostly acclaimed for his short story work, and a handful of his shorts were adapted into episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” including his most famous story, “The Specialty of the House” that originally appeared in a 1948 issue of “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.”
The story takes place at an unpretentious, dismal-looking Manhattan basement restaurant called Sbirro’s. Laffler has invited Costain to this hole-in-the-wall for the meal of a lifetime. The rap is that Sbirro’s refuses to change with the times and modernize, so the cobwebs in the restaurant’s corners have been there for 50 years. It’s also a secret restaurant that operates as a private club open to only a few in-the-know patrons.
Upon being seated at their table, Laffler is informed by the apologetic waiter that the “specialty of the house” - a dish called Lamb Amirstan - is not being served tonight. The restaurant has no menu, and every guest eats the same multi-course meal chosen by the enigmatic owner each evening, a fact the fussy Laffler defends with an air of culinary snobbery. As the food arrives, Costain starts out skeptical but is eventually won over by the quality of the meal despite the utter gastro-weirdness of the establishment.
As the men start dining together at the restaurant nearly every night with Costain packing on the pounds, the reader begins to suspect that there is something truly sinister happening here - otherwise, the story never would have caught the attention of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” The mystery behind the lamb dish and what exactly occurs in Sbirro’s kitchen intensifies throughout the pages of the story. I won’t give away the punchline here, but the secrets of the kitchen are left suitably ambiguous to the reader. There are enough clues along the way that your most ghastly conclusions can be supported by the preceding text.
For his part, Ellin does a fine job of building the mystery and suspense over the course of this short story. His prose is excellent, and it’s not hard to see why he’s regarded as one of the finest purveyors of short suspense from the era. If you want to read “Specialty of the House,” you shouldn’t have a problem finding the tale in any one of several short story collections and anthologies. It’s a more subtle work of fiction that what we normally cover here (the TV adaptation was more explicit), but it’s also a fine example of mid-20th century storytelling in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. Recommended.
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