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Underground Reading: Stronghold by Stanley Ellin

StrongholdStanley Ellin's Stronghold is an intriguing thriller, first published in 1975. Never afraid to take risks, Ellin experiments with both the structure and the content of the book. Ostensibly a straight-forward hostage caper, Stronghold quickly becomes an uncomfortably probing exploration of Ellin's own religious upbringing.

Stronghold is told from two aternating points of view. James Flood is a recently released convict, on a mission to make a lot of money and stick a thumb in the eye of society. Marcus Hayworth is a small-town banker and the leader of a small, local Quaker community. The men are polar opposites in almost every conceivable way.

James revels in violence while Marcus is a committed pacifist. James is comfortable in his leadership position - dictating orders to his criminal minions. Marcus, however, has a difficult time with his own role in his family and the community around him. James, at the start of his life, is committed to his philosophy of self-centered anarchy. Marcus, middle-aged, second-guesses his own achievements.

As James' plan brings the two men into conflict, Ellin's talent for suspense comes through. Although many of the smaller plot twists are predictable, the core of the novel is the surprising ways in which the two men interact. Even, in most cases, without being in the same place.

Ellin's own background was as a Quaker, and, to some degree, it reads as if he identifies with James Flood as his own darker alter ego. James is an aspiring writer, raised by Quakers, confused and overwhelmed by the chaos of the world around him. Marcus, in comparison, reads as a sympathetic, belated apology to his past. For every doubt or eyebrow the book raises about the Quaker community, Stronghold shows the enduring and loving nature underneath.

The book is deliberately slow - the conflict is between aggression and pacifism. As such, both sides aren't slinging bullets at one another. Despite the lack of copious bloodshed, the tension builds consistently throughout. Ellin proves, yet again, that he can use a 'simple' thriller to engagingly address some of the thorny issues underneath.

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