Sunday, 21 June 2015

Penguin no. 1323: The Content Assignment
by Holly Roth

In the course of that afternoon I learned a good deal about that particular black line. You could walk Seventy-seventh Street's few miles, from river to river, in not much over an hour. Its east portion - from the East River Drive to Fifth Avenue - was largely elegance. First came beautiful town houses with polished brass, old shady trees, quiet and peace. Around Park Avenue I encountered vast but still quiet apartment houses, equipped with canopies and doormen. Near Fifth Avenue the town houses came again - more formidable now, magnificent stone structures that spoke of wealth.

The Content Assignment features the most enticing summary I have come across in an old Penguin. The synopsis writer would have you convinced that the story is going to be tense and compelling, and it may of been on account of that, or perhaps because the other Holly Roth novel I have read was such a well-written thriller, that my expectations were high when I first took this down from the shelf. But I couldn't take The Content Assignment  seriously, and couldn't believe that an author expected any reader to do so. I kept waiting for it to improve, but it read all the way through as something that had simply been churned out.

John Terrant is a free lance journalist who develops the habit of reading every newspaper he buys from its first word to its last, often a few days after publication. He has little interest in the information he is reading, and only the slight justification that hidden in the text might be something he can use as the basis of an article. He recognises that this habit is a form of procrastination he is using to divert his mind from thoughts of Ellen Content, a young woman he had met in Berlin two years previously and who had since disappeared.

But his newspaper reading is a very convenient obsession from the perspective of the plot, because it means that he reads the list of passengers recently embarked on an ocean liner travelling to New York, and so finds Ellen's name; it is the first clue he has found in solving the mystery of her disappearance. It seemed a bit of a long shot from the perspective of Ellen, however, because she cannot have known of his recently-developed obsession when she used her only opportunity to get a message to the outside world to set in place the series of events which brought about the newspaper item.

The time that John and Ellen had spent in each other's company could be counted in hours, and there had never been any mention of mutual affection, but even two years later all John can think about is finding out what has happened to her. They had first met when he was working as a journalist in Berlin shortly after it had been partitioned, and he had fallen in love immediately. They had seen each other only four times, and their last meeting had been brought to an early end by an unwelcome phone call which made him aware of Ellen's other life.

He had wondered why a woman as highly skilled and capable as Ellen would be content to work as a civilian typist at the American Army's office of information. But when she gets him to convey a Russian widow to safety and provides him a cover story, he realises that she is a spy; and then she disappears. Within hours of reading the newspaper item listing her name he has wrangled a flight to New York from London from an implausibly generous editor who works for the paper that buys his copy, on the basis of vague promises, seemingly never fulfilled, to let them have a scoop should one eventuate.

The FBI and the CIA are also working on finding Ellen, but they have a team of decoders employed in the search for clues, not one of them seemingly a match for Terrant. Time and again he is warned to desist from his search because of the danger to himself and because of his lack of expertise, but - fortunately for Ellen - time and again he ignores the advice.

The plot always seemed to be a secondary concern, with the author's interest focused more on playing up the aspects of American life which might seem a little baffling to a 1950's English audience, in exploring the differences between Americans and the English - here represented by a single individual - and in describing in detail the layout of New York city and - to a lesser extent - New York state.

I was also left with a sense that this was written at a time when there was some level of paranoia about just how much a government organisation might know about the lives of nondescript citizens - although it is only organisations in the West that seem to be of concern; despite their interest in the case, the Russian agencies seem comparatively inept, remaining largely oblivious of all that is going on.

This idea of a man in love outwitting legions of experts seemed a bit much to take. There are just too many things which have to line up perfectly for this plot to work, and I was unable to suspend disbelief sufficiently to buy any of it.

First published by Hamish Hamilton 1954. Published in Penguin Books 1958.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1353: The Sleeper

5 comments:

  1. I think this was Holly Roth's first published novel, so some inexperience is to be expected. Government incompetence is also to be expected.

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  2. Can I recommend The Diary of a Nobody when you next want a funny book to read. I picked up my old penguin copy from a secondhand book stall, and when I eventually got round to reading it, I couldn't put it down!

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  3. Very variable, I find Roth. I'm still surprised that she's so completely forgotten - she's no worse than plenty of other writers who are rediscovered and republished.

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  5. Holly Roth published four of her novels under the pseudonym "K. G. Ballard," which is how I first came to hear of her. As a keen teenage reader of the science-fiction writer J. G. Ballard in the late 1960s, I was excited to discover, in the catalogue of my local public library, a novel attributed to him that I'd never heard of. So I put in a request for it, and when the book came I was mightily disappointed to find that it wasn't by J. G. Ballard at all, but by some American crime and spy novelist called K. G. Ballard... The initials spelled out KGB -- geddit? -- so it was likely to be a pseudonym. Years later, I discovered that the writer in question was named Holly Roth. I've never read any of her novels, apart from skimming that one I got from the library thanks to a cataloguer's error, but I've maintained a certain interest in her over the years, especially when I learned that she had died a somewhat mysterious death at the age of 48 in 1964, when she fell off a yacht near the coast of Morocco and, presumably, drowned (her body was never found). Just today, I've found out a new datum about her: although her surname was Roth, she really was a Ballard! Her father was one Benjamin Roth, but her mother's maiden name was Frances Ballard -- this according to Allen J. Hubin's _Crime Fiction IV_ (2010) . So she was a Ballard on her mother's side, and I was wrong to assume, as I had done, that that was an arbitrary pseudonym, selected simply because she wanted something beginning with "B"... Anyway, if anyone knows one piece of information about Holly Roth that I'm missing -- the date of her death (sometime in October, I think, of 1964) -- I'd be grateful to hear from them.

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