“I have the heart of a young boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk”
Robert Bloch was the prolific author of novels, short stories and screenplays in the horror, science fiction and mystery genres. He also possessed a wicked sense of humour, as evidenced by that macabre little quip attributed to him. Along with several treatments of the Jack the Ripper story (including one for Star Trek), the 1959 classic novel Psycho is the work that will forever be linked to his name (as a ‘for instance’, see the cover on the right). Too quickly classed as a horror author in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s hit movie adaptation (among its various sequels are two written by Bloch himself), nearly all his novels are actually psychological thrillers. A case in point is The Scarf, Bloch’s underrated longform debut after a decade of publishing short stories.
I offer the following review as part of Bev’s 2012 Vintage Mystery Readers Challenge for which I have selected to read and review at least eight mystery novels on the theme of amnesia published pre-1960 as well as Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog.
“I didn’t realise it at the time, but what she really offered me was a womb to crawl into when I felt low. A spinster’s womb – safe, sterile, sexless. Antisocial, antiseptic, antiphysical.”
While still fairly short (it’s about 65,000-words in total), The Scarf more than justifies the transition to novel-length (and originally in hardback too) with a detailed look at the inside of a very damaged psyche. On top of that, its fascination with psychoanalysis, sexual derangement, first person point of view, and narrative surprise, clearly paved the way for Bloch’s later and better-known books and provides an interesting primer for his development. Indeed its remarkable how distinctively ‘Bloch’ this book already is (he was only 30 years old when it first came out), with much of it generating material – like the stay at a motel during a rainstorm and the psychiatrist’s climactic explanation - that would reappear in Psycho. Bloch’s mastery of the short form is still well in evidence in the book’s impressive prologue, which could easily have been lifted out and marketed as a standalone story. It tells of a young and impressionable boy who is taken under the wing of a sympathetic English teacher, instilling in him a desire to become a writer. Shortly before he is due to leave for college, she invites him round to her home for a farewell celebration. This turns sinister when it becomes clear that the spinster has fallen in love with him. She drugs him, binds his hands with the eponymous garment and turns on the gas with the apparent intention of killing him and herself. The boy survives, but from now on women and sex in general have become twisted in his mind, the scarf turned into a fetish linking sexual desire with death.
“You’ve heard of love at first sight?
Well, love had nothing to do with it.”
The bulk of the novel is set ten years after this traumatic episode as we follow the progress of Daniel Morley from Minneapolis to Hollywood via Chicago and New York in a black and scornful rendition of a ‘Horatio Alger’ style success story. Dan, tormented by his mother from an early age (and yes, there is even a textbook ‘primal scene’ when he catches his parents in bed), runs away from home to eventually emerge as a con artists of sorts, able to trade on his good looks and easy charm with the ladies as a means of survival. But he wants to be a writer and so uses his experiences with the women he exploits as literary source material. The only trouble is that just as his career starts to take off, so he finds it necessary to kill off the women he has sucked dry for his ‘art’ – using his totemic scarf. First up is Rena, a none too bright lush from Duluth with a husband currently serving a long stretch in prison who falls for the idea of being his muse. Dan uses her alright, steals her money, and then chillingly strangles her with his scarf. This is largely described in retrospect I hasten to add – Bloch can be mordant when he wants to be, but unpleasant physical detail is left off the page. This is nothing like the hideous brutality of Mickey Spillaine or the violent insanity of Jim Thompson’s otherwise fairly similar The Killer Inside Me (1952).
“The moment I hit Constance in the face, I knew I was in love with Pat Collins.”
The pattern is then repeated in Chicago when Dan hooks up with gorgeous model Hazel Hurley who gets him a job writing copy at a radio station – Dan uses her as the basis for the main character in his book, ‘Queen of Hearts’, but when she gets pregnant and wants them to get married, he deserts her. Ultimately this also ends in her death when they struggle near the City’s famed elevated train. Dan moves to The Big Apple when his book sells and eventually it becomes a hit as does he, becoming the toast of the town. This success is not least thanks to the intervention of another woman, the rather unbalanced Constance Ruppert, who happens to own half the company publishing Dan’s novel. But Dan has fallen for his young editor Pat, who is engaged to Constance’s ex-husband Jeff, an insightful psychiatrist but a pretty lousy doctor (he has no problem discussing his ex-wife’s medical history with Dan). Constance, who knows about Hazel and is using this as leverage to make him marry her, becomes ever more demanding and by this point we know where this is heading. Dan has become fairly good at covering his tracks, so when he comes up with an ingenious scheme to get rid of Constance, we are not surprised that he manages it even though by this point one would have though that someone would have noticed a new Bluebeard in town.
Dan now movies to Hollywood when he is hired to work on a movie version of his book – everything should be hunky dory, but he is hounded by his inner demons. Only confessing his darkest fears in a personal diary, to which we periodically return, it becomes clear that he can only write about what he knows and that ultimately he will kill the women he writes about – this terrifies him when he realises how much he loves Pat. Dan is also becoming increasingly paranoid, believing he is being followed by a man in a green jacket and convinced that even strangers can tell what is really going on inside his seemingly affable exterior. But perhaps Pat can save him he thinks – but does he deserve to be saved? Or will he succumb to his desperate urge and destroy the one thing he cherishes (Dan knows his Oscar Wilde).
At the start of my review I mentioned that the novel’s standout prologue, which is bookended with a sting-in-the-tale epilogue, could have been hived off as a stand-alone short story. Well, there’s a reason for that – in 1966 Bloch revised his first novel for a paperback reprint and in fact added various new elements like the epilogue, reinstated material that had been cut from the original version by the original editor, and also updated it (there are now references to Bob Dylan for instance). Like Gore Vidal with his breakthrough novel, The City and the Pillar, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, these examples of authors amending an earlier text have generally been considered worthwhile editorial endeavours – and have not led to howls of protest like those that keep meeting the latest bit of George Lucas meddling in his own work. It would be too big a spoiler to discuss the epilogue in any detail, but lets just say that Dan proves to be less than reliable as a narrator, and certainly pretty forgetful in some crucial aspects. This leads to a neat reversal in the finale, adding an extra frisson to the novel without in any way detracting from what has gone before and can be seen as being entirely beneficial, adding to the positive impression one has after finishing a dark but fascinating walk on the wild side.
I have included this title in my list of Top 100 Mystery Books and on re-reading it see no reason to amend my choice.