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David Ely Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1927. Education: The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1944-45; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1947-49, B.A. 1949; St. Antony's College, Oxford (Fulbright scholar), 1954-55. Military Service: Served in the United States Navy, 1945-46, and the United States Army, 1950-52. Career: Reporter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1949-50, 1952-54, 1955-56; administrative assistant, Development and Resources Corporation, New York, 1956-59. Awards: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, for short story, 1962.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Trot: A Novel of Suspense. New York, Pantheon, 1963; London, Secker and Warburg, 1964.

Seconds. New York, Pantheon, 1963; London, Deutsch, 1964.

The Tour. New York, Delacorte Press, and London, Secker andWarburg, 1967.

Poor Devils. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Walking Davis. New York, Charterhouse, 1972.

Mr. Nicholas. New York, Putnam, 1974; London, Macmillan, 1975.

A Journal of the Flood Year. New York, Fine, and London, Phoenix, 1992.

Short Stories

Time Out. New York, Delacorte Press, 1968; London, Secker andWarburg, 1969.

Always Home and Other Stories. New York, Fine, 1991.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Wizard of Light," in Amazing (New York), March 1962.

"The Alumni March," in Cosmopolitan (New York), 1962.

"McDaniels' Flood," in Elks Magazine (Chicago), 1963.

"The Captain's Boarhunt," in Saturday Evening Post (Philadelphia), 21 March 1964.

"The Assault on Mount Rushmore," in Cavalier (New York), July1969.

"The Carnival," in Antaeus (New York), 1971.

"The Light in the Cottage," in Playboy (Chicago), 1974.

"Starling's Circle," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (NewYork), July 1976.

"The Running Man," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (NewYork), December 1976.

"The Weed Killer," in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (NewYork), May 1977.

"The Temporary Daughter," in Seventeen (New York), April 1978.

"The Rich Girl," in Seventeen (New York), July 1978.

"The Looting of the Tomb," in Ellery Queen's Scenes of the Crime, edited by Ellery Queen. New York, Davis, 1979; London, Hale, 1981.

"The Marked Man," in Best Detective Stories of the Year 1980, edited by Edward D. Hoch. New York, Dutton, 1980.

"Methuselah," in Atlantic (Boston), March 1980.

* * *

David Ely's fiction describes the cost and conditions of freedom—what an ordinary man must do to understand himself and his world. His novels are shaped like thrillers; in each a man is driven onto a quest (initially for the wrong motives) which ultimately leads him to himself, to his unconscious mind, his heart. The novels describe with remarkable sensitivity individuals coping with worlds that are alien, inimical and all-powerful. The triumph of the individual spirit in hostile modern milieu is accompanied by pain and sorrow, loss of innocence and simple comfort, but it brings both self-knowledge and peace.

Trot, Ely's first novel, is subtitled "A Novel of Suspense" and predicates the world of all of Ely's fiction: an alien, minatory and hostile environment, in this case the Paris underworld after World War II. An Army CID man, Sergeant Trot, abruptly becomes the victim in a case on which he is assigned. Suspected of corruption and murder, he hides with the criminals he has stalked. The inversion of his world causes him to reassess his concepts of justice and freedom. Finally he is able to reinstate himself by breaking an extortion-murder plot by escaped Nazis. But the significant victory is Trot's own self-revelation.

In Seconds, probably Ely's best-known novel, a Babbitt-like man, a cipher known only by the code name "Wilson," abandons his comfortable but aimless upper-middle-class existence when a mysterious corporation offers him a new life, a second chance. He is surgically rehabilitated and supplied a total identity as a successful artist, but the new freedom proves too painful and challenging. Wilson disintegrates under the stress of his open and unfamiliar world of freedom and nonconformity. "I never had a dream," he says when he returns to the corporation to be erased.

The Tour deals with the same theme in a more terrifying form. A parable of American imperialism and military-scientific manipulation of other cultures, it describes a "tour" designed to provide jaded bourgeois travelers with ultimate thrills in a mythical Central American banana republic. The tour includes episodes of sex, jungle survival and guerrilla fighting, carefully staged for the fuddled gringos. Behind the scenes a test is made on an automated counter-insurgency weapon, a robot tank which wipes out a starveling guerrilla band (and its builders) and nearly decimates the tour. The novel develops as an analogue for U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia and for other paramilitary "tours" of policy. It is similar in shape to Peter Matthiessen's important At Play in the Fields of the Lord.

Poor Devils attacks the sociological concepts of poverty and its alleviation. Another parable, it describes the slow education of a history professor, Aaron Bell, who stumbles onto a Project Nomad, a genocidal agency for a "final solution" to poverty, a technological bureau that fights poverty with coldly mechanical games theory and supertechnology. Bell's education leads him to discover the futility of his life and his career, the absurdity of history and ideals faced with amoral technology. The old man he has pursued, Lundquist, a "picaresque saint," teaches him finally that he must discover (or invent) his values himself. Bell opts out of the system of research and manipulation to become a Whitmanesque wanderer, following the "Lundquist heresy, the preamble written short for men in too big a hurry to read much: Life, liberty, and the pursuit. "

An allegorical study of personality in existentialist terms, Walking Davis describes Pierce Davis, who decides to walk around the world. Setting out from Spark, Iowa, Davis makes a Robinson Crusoe voyage of survival and self-discovery, finally plumbing all his human resources and learning that "You can't build a monument to a hero. If a man's a hero, he builds his own." His walk leads him into a strange union with nature and himself, stripped of all pretense like Camus's Sisyphus, reduced to one essential human function—questing.

Mr. Nicholas describes the complete symptomology of paranoia, centering on an executive in the surveillance industry who becomes convinced that "He was being watched everywhere and all the time." The protagonist, Henry Haddock, eventually adjusts to a life without privacy, wherein his public function subsumes his whole personality, and he becomes reconciled to a world without privacy, without self. The story develops allegorically in that it describes a whole world pressed and overcrowded, when personal rights are lost to the pressure of the many.

Ely's novels are all parables of the New Babbitt redeemed, the affluent and self-satisfied "Executive Man" freed to make real, life-or-death decisions, to direct his life and test the morality of his society. The transformations are costly, painful and sometimes tragic, but they are real and significant actions, leaps of faith which give meaning to the small existences Ely depicts.

—William J. Schafer

Susan M(iddleton) Elya (1955-) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights [next]

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almost 4 years ago

wherein his public function subsumes his whole personality

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over 5 years ago

My sole experience of David Ely's work is through the incomparable film adaptation of SECONDS (1966) by the director John Frankenheimer, which is my personal favourite of all his movies. With this story, like Pars Lagerqvist's BARABBAS, which I've also never read (but have seen the filmed version with Anthony Quinn as the main character), a startling intelligence and compassionate and compelling story of attempted but ultimately failed redemption vividly comes through the cinematic version and gives it a special quality hard to quite define but for me has a kind of sublimnity.

The protagonist Wilson's dilemma of neither being able to endure his old or new reinvented existence because neither truly have freedom and the key decisions for him are all made by others, is an insightful meditation on just what we mean by freedom and civilisation itself. As the organisation that takes over Antiochus Wilson's life soon demonstrates, the harsh reality in both cultures is coercion. The price you pay for disobedience is ostracism, anonymity and death.

This universal story of the quest for identity and spiritual fulfilment resonates so strongly in the filmed SECONDS I've been compelled to buy the novel and hope to read more of David Ely who is badly under-represented in the library system where I live in Greater London. There are well known authors who illuminate and explore the great issues of conscience and personal morality of all of us and I feel David Ely is only partly recognised.