Review: Holly Roth – The Mask of Glass

Many of us have a daydream where we change our appearance and see if those that we are close to are able to recognise us. What will be the feature that we are unable to hide? Our eyes? Body shape? It is, of course, also a well used device in crime fiction with both criminals disguising their true identity and deceiving their nearest and dearest (Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced) and also victims using disguise to avoid detection (Lisbeth Salander in Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy). Occasionally, the detective has to undertake this too – Sherlock Holmes of course revelling in disguise and trickery.

In this book by US author Holly Roth, who was writing in the 1950s and 1960s, Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps is both victim and investigator when a routine investigation into a missing deserter goes horribly wrong. His innocent enquiries at a seedy photographic studio result in him trussed up in a garage and only narrowly surviving an explosion. He crawls to the apartment of a family friend, Doc, who patches him up and nurses him back to health.

When Jimmy looks in the mirror his boyish good looks have disappeared and he now looks like a much older man with deep grooves down the side of his face and his red hair turned white. This is where the fun starts. I enjoyed reading of Jimmy embracing his new identity, testing it out on his girlfriend Rita and his astonishment at how people react to his more macho appearance. Equally enjoyable is Jimmy’s investigations into the men who nearly killed him. His revisits to the shop and attempts to dupe his way into the gang were gripping passages full of tension. There is a Jack Reacher/Da Vinci Code feel to the narrative, Jimmy goes from one scrape to the next but his natural bravado and military training help him to brazen out his situations.

The denouement was slighty disappointing, I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say it had something to do with Communists and H Bombs, a sign of the times I suppose when the book was written in 1957. It all seemed to be wrapped up on the last two pages so I had a slightly dazed feeling after finishing it. Given the preceding action, a little more explanation would have been welcome. It provided though a real slice of New York’s mean streets, contrasted nicely with Doc’s Second Avenue lifestyle.

This is #1237 in the vintage Penguin series.

Penguin Classic Crime: Elspeth Huxley

I recently started to collect the green penguin crime paperbacks. Introduced by Allen Lane in 1935, the Penguin main series was intended to open up book buying (and reading) to the general public. They were first sold in Woolworths for 6d and the crime books in the series were colour coded green. Once upon a time you could pick up early penguin crime books cheaply but now the going rate seems to be about £4 for a standard edition, and up to around £40 for the early editions. My collection is in its early stages as you can see by my picture below as I am only buying them as quickly as I can read them. I hope one day to have a row of books similar to Karyn’s who writes the excellent  A Penguin a Week blog although my bookshelves would be a sea of green.

I picked up recently picked up Elspeth Huxley’s Murder on Safari  – number 1129 in the series. Huxley was brought up in colonial Kenya and the majority of her early books were crime novels set in Africa. Murder on Safari features Vachell, the Canadian superintendent of Chania CID who is sent to a luxury hunting camp to investigate the disappearance of some jewels. When the victim of the theft is killed, attention focuses on each member of the hunting party. As a period crime novel, the book isn’t bad. There is a limited pool of suspects who could have committed the crime and the reader is presented with a possible motive for each suspect.  The characters are well drawn and sufficiently interesting for you to care who committed the crime. The descriptions of the Kenyan bush is interesting too and I liked how the luxury that existed within these camps – guests swilling champagne in their silk pajamas – contrasts with the perilous landscape outside.

However, I would say that the book has dated in terms of its vocabulary. There are broad generalisations made about the physiognomy of native Africans that is unacceptable today. Huxley does attempt to include some of the Africans into the plot as witnesses to the action but these scenes are not well written. Perhaps it is unfair to highlight stereotypical descriptions of indigenous people, as Huxley is by no means the only writer guilty of this. I have just finished listening to a talking book of Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad where the descriptions of the Arab locals is equally poor. But if we are going to try to resurrect some of the less well read authors of the period for the modern reader, it is worth pointing out that some writing has just simply dated.

Murder on Safari is now out of print but easily available second-hand.