THE TODD DOSSIER (1969) by Robert Bloch

Bloch-Todd-Dossier_macmillanThis medical thriller was the first novel by Robert Bloch that I ever read, though I didn’t know it at the time. The reason I picked it up was because it was credited to Collier Young, the creator of Ironside and writer-producer of several films made with Ida Lupino and the late Joan Fontaine, both of whom he was married to (consecutively, not at the same time, I might add). To add further to the familial confusion, Todd Dossier was a novelisation of a treatment developed by the husband-and-wife team of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne for a film that was ultimately never made.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“If ever anyone ever needed a heart transplant it was Hollis Todd. Because he had no heart of his own, No heart at all.”

In the 1950s Collier Young collaborated as writer and producer with his (then) wife Ida Lupino on a series of sober, low budget independent films on important topical themes, including The Bigamist (the title says it all) and Outrage, one of the first films to tackle the subject of rape. He later went to produce the sitcom Mr Adams and Eve, which co-starred Lupino with her new husband, Howard Duff. In July 1968 it was announced that Young was developing a project for Cinema Center Films with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, who would have made their screenwriting debuts had it got made. But it didn’t, though Robert Bloch had already signed a contract with Dell publishers to novelise the treatment, which he duly did. It was only afterward that he learned that Young’s name was put on it, something the publishers were apparently empowered to do contractually, and that it would also be appearing in hardback, for which Bloch would receive no royalties. In his autobiography, Once Round the Bloch, Bloch commented that his agent was so disgusted that he quit the business. As Bloch remarked ruefully,

“… there was no clause in the contract stipulating that writing credit should go to anyone; the authors of the film treatment and I were just cut out and the novel appeared in hardcover and paperback as ‘by Collier Young’ – and several reviewers remarked on what a fine job he had done on ‘his’ first novel.” - from Robert Bloch (1986) by Randall D. Larson

1390749044In the style of Young’s topical movies of the 50s, this is a story ripped from the headlines, following hot-on-the-heels of Christiaan Barnard’s first successful heart transplant at the end of 1967. Hollis Todd is one of the world’s richest men but after a debilitating heart attack three years earlier, he has now deteriorated to such an extent that he is in dire need of a new heart. One night in October he is flown to LA to attempt a replacement even though the donor that had been identified becomes suddenly unavailable when consent is withdrawn by the parents on religious grounds. Todd gambles that another suitable donor will appear and flies out anyway  – and this is precisely what happens when ex Olympic athlete Anton ‘Tony’ Polanski is badly injured in a car collision and brought in very near to death a few hours before Todd’s arrival.

“Doctor, can you tell us something about how it feels to perform a miracle on such a remarkably rich man?”

The transplant takes place and is a great success so it is only about a third of the way through the story that we start to question why the dossier that we are reading was prepared in the first place. One of the surgeons, Dr Charles Everett, potentially unbalanced by marital difficulties, starts to have suspicions about the state of the donor’s body – what if Polanski didn’t get injured in a car accident as reported? Why is there blood in his mouth that is not his own blood type – does it belong to the driver of the car that hit him? What if finding this seemingly perfect match – one with the body of an athlete with the correct blood and tissue type – wasn’t so serendipitous after all? Is Everett being paranoid, looking for conspiracies where they don’t exist due to the stress of his work and his problems at home, or is there something going on? And who is it that starts following him when he starts investigating the background of the couple that hit Polanski with their car?

“A ten-thousand-to-one shot, and Todd found a way to load the dice”

Bloch_The-Todd-Dossier_hbThe book is unusual in that, as the title suggests, it is presented as a series of documents prepared by the DA and is thus made up of interviews, statements, assorted TV news and press pieces, diary entries, transcripts of tape recordings and so on. In this respect it harks back to the glory days of the 19th century epistolary novel such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone and The Woman in White. This can be a hard form with which to maintain momentum in a thriller but Bloch dovetails it all with a sure hand, cutting from the various types of documents to provide a build up of suspense as the story finally starts to come into full view, while still managing to keep the various ‘voices’ distinct and separate.

Q: Did you notice anything out of the ordinary during the course of the operation?
A: No, I did not.
Q: Let me rephrase the question. Did you notice anything out of the ordinary inthe behavious of any members of the surgical team?

While reading this book I was reminded of the Denzel Washington movie John Q, in which a man desperate to arrange a transplant for his child takes a group of hospital patients hostage. I found it almost totally disgraceful in the way that it manipulated character and story in a quite dishonest way, pulling its punches at every turn. Todd Dossier is a modest but much more successful attempt to deal with the ethical perils implicit in the idea of body organs being treated just like any other commodity available to the highest bidder, something that has subsequently become a reality. At the time the book was written this was still a fairly original idea (it was several years before Robin Cook published Coma (1977) while other examples include The Organ Bank Farm (1970) by John Boyd and Extreme Remedies (1974) by John Hejinian) and together with its unusual construction this makes for a very satisfying novel.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘Medical Mystery’ category:

mark9b-vintage-silver-card

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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57 Responses to THE TODD DOSSIER (1969) by Robert Bloch

  1. Sergio – What an interesting way to address the topic! Even today the issue of organ donation raises so many questions and ethical challenges. It sounds as though this one handles the issue effectively. And I agree; it takes a deft hand to craft a story from evidence, transcripts and the like. I’ve read a few novels where that works well, but it’s not easy. Kudos to Bloch for taking that on as well.
     
    And I couldn’t agree with you more about what I’ll call emotional blackmail (I know that’s a bit harsh) in order to add impact to a film. You can do that without resorting to such scenes.

    • Thanks very much Margot – at the time this was a big topical idea though of course there are usually only two ways for these kinds of plots to go in mystery books!

  2. TracyK says:

    Very interesting review and history of this book. I don’t think it is going to make it to my reading pile, but I enjoyed the post a lot.

  3. neer says:

    This book seems very interesting Sergio. Thanks for writing about it, I’ll surely look it up. There is a play: HARVEST by Manjula Padmanabhan which looks at organ donations by people of the Third World to those of the First World because they are desperately in need of cash. Kudos to Bloch for thinking about this at such an early stage when people must have been looking at only the positive side of transplants.

    • Thanks for that extra info Neeru – this in a way is what is disturbing as the real world scenario – this book is truly small fry by comparison, as is Cook’s better-known Coma.

      • Todd Mason says:

        There was a sort of ferment in the sf community at the time…with Larry Niven speculating that organ demand would be so great among elites that small infractions might lead to the death penalty…something which, as Algis Budrys noted, would tend to get the mob out and about with pitchforks. But that doesn’t stop the illegal trade, in reality, one whit, of course…

  4. Colin says:

    I’ve heard of this book. I think the structure is interesting but, as you mention, not the easiest way to engage readers. It’s good to hear you feel this is a more successful variation – I had a really hard time getting through The Moonstone years ago, but The Woman in White worked out better IMO.

    • The book is a light and easy read on an interesting topic and stanbds up fairly well – I love both the Collins’ and tend to transfer my affections every other year – at the moment I agree, Woman in White is the one I am fondest of.

      • Colin says:

        I’ll have to keep an eye out for the book then.

        It’s been at least 10 yrs since I read The Moonstone but I recall having difficulties getting into the story – of course that may be down to me rather than the book.

        • I do need to re-read it myself in facy as it’s been too long though I suspect that is why my sympathies sway, based on which one I read most recently!

          • Colin says:

            Again, based on memory, I felt the characters in The Woman in White were a lot more sympathetic and thus easier to connect with.

          • Well certaionly Fosco and Marian make for surprising and really memorable antagonists – but The Moonstone has the great Inspector Cuff -…I’m just torn! Nice to have such riches to choose from, eh?

          • Colin says:

            True. You know, I remember coming to the book having read that it was one of the earliest examples of the detective story, and I think that raised my expectations too high.

          • Those pesky expectations – I blame all those people in PR!

          • Colin says:

            :)

            Mind you, I generally struggle a bit with literature of that era – the whole style of writing changed quite radically, and quite fast, in the years following.

          • I quite agree and certainly, given that they appeared usually originally in serial form spread out over a year or more, there is no denying that they feel very, very different.

      • Todd Mason says:

        It sounds more like the kind of multiple document assembly that Dos Passos used so tellingly on the novel U.S.A…

  5. Very interesting review, I’m always impressed by your long-forgotten books & films… and the story about the writer’s credit was as shocking as the plot!

  6. Richard says:

    Ah, Sergio, you do find interesting books and then do your research. Fine review as always. I have great difficulty reading books written in this format, just as I do with books written in deep dialogue or in letters or even filled with frequent, drastic flashbacks or two page chapters. I guess I’m just stuck in the “regular format”. The format here would keep me from reading this one, but it’s good to know of it.

    By the way, I remember and liked the sitcom Mr Adams and Eve, which co-starred Lupino and Howard Duff. I recall little about the stories, just liked the actors. It would be fun to see an episode again.

  7. John says:

    Those first two paragraphs of Hollywood inside dope are amazing! Sometimes it seems as if there really are no scruples or ethics in the movie biz. Never heard of this book nor did I know of Bloch’s connection to it. I found a copy of Bloch’s autobiography at a book sale last year and meant to take it with me on a vacaion last year but forget to pack it. I’m definitely going to read that book very soon. There have got to be more tantalizing tidbits like the one you quoted contained in its pages.

  8. Robert Bloch could write just about anything. I haven’t read this medical thriller, but I will be looking for it. I’ve really enjoyed Robert Bloch’s short stories. He was a master of the form.

    • Thanks George – I think I have more of his short story collections than almost any author (with the possible exception of Harlan Ellison, who has written very few novels, so …)

  9. Todd Mason says:

    I knew Bloch had published something as by Young, but hadn’t sought it out yet…what’s remarkable, of course, is that Dell or anyone thought Young’s name would sell more books than the three writers who actually did the work (I’m startled that no one has come hat in hand to reprint the novel, perhaps with the treatment appended, in the wake of the success of the scenarists and the continuing PSYCHO cult).

    • Sounds great Odd, I’d love that – maybe too awkward in terms of rights? There are drafst of the treatment out there (well, I’ve seen a ‘third draft’ for sale anyway) though I could never really afford to put my hand on one – I have no idea if they have structural similarities or not and would love to know. Would the success of Ironside have raised Young’s profile? I admit, it’s odd …

      • Todd Mason says:

        I suspect the same sort of ego stroking and bad commercial judgment (only worse) that led to the STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS novels being attributed to George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, respectively. Simple foolishness. I doubt that Collier Young’s name was one to conjure with, even given IRONSIDE…particularly when compared to By The Author of PSYCHO…and a little nudge for fans of RUN, RIVER (Didion) and THE STUDIO or DELANO (Dunne) if they were mentioned. Admittedly, PLAY IT AS IT LAYS and TRUE CONFESSIONS (and THE PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK) and the fuller appreciation of Bloch (and the development of the PSYCHO cult) were in the (rather near, in some cases) future…

        • Maybe selling it as a first-time novel was of itself a marketing tool? Or maybe, just maybe, it was Young all along who just decided to bag the credit for selfish reasons! I dare say also that the resistance to novelisations as a lower art form was already in place and by deciding to put it out in hardback they want to eliminate the connection – did Alan Dean Foster also do C£3Kas well? Let’s face it, Spielberg even had a huge amount of help with the screenplay (which is just Bradbury’s It Came from Outer Space anyway)

          • Todd Mason says:

            Oh, that’s what I meant about ego-stroking, crediting it to Young. Again, I might well be wrong, but I doubt his name was much of a commercial incentive for the novel. Dunno who did the CLOSE ENC novel…having disliked the film, I never picked it up even to hazard a guess, but I suspect the real writer has come out since then.

          • Do you know, a quick internet search has yet to yield another name for that book … ho hum indeed!

  10. Yvette says:

    This sounds mighty interesting, Sergio. I like the idea of a story put together by witness accounts and other official bits and pieces. documents, diary entries etc. The heart topic though reminded me a bit of Michael Connelly’s BLOODWORK. Sort of. Have you read that? I’m not Connelly’s biggest fan, but this one was topnotch. PS Forget the movie.

    • Actually not read the book (I thought the movie was mediocre with a very guessable villain but I am a Clint fan so would happily watch it again). I think I read the one that followed, Angels Flight? It has a fun joke in which Terry sees a poster for an Eastwood movie stuck on the side of of a bus stop as I recall

  11. Kelly says:

    I had to read the first paragraph a couple of times to wrap my head around it. (Not your fault, of course, just the number of names involved.) This sounds neat—I like epistolary stuff.

  12. Again, a fine choice and review, Sergio. I didn’t know about this book or the colourful history behind it. I don’t think any of our fellow bloggers above have mentioned it but I see shades of this plot in the late Henry Denker’s A GIFT OF LIFE (1989) about heart transplant and a surgeon having to decide between a powerful and wealthy man and an ordinary man with a family dependent on him. It was a well-written novel as many of Denker’s books were. I put him in the same league as Howard Fast and Erich Segal with their family centric novels.

  13. Ela says:

    This sounds really interesting, Sergio, and although I haven’t read any Bloch, I like this kind of presentation (if it’s done well) as a bit of a change from the usual form of story-telling.

  14. karabekirus says:

    Great choice indeed. But I think, among all these novels dealing with transplants or organ harvests, one should give credit to a very old book titled (Donovans Brain) by Curt Siodmak, which dealt with most of these ethical issues.

  15. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have just obtained this book and will be reading it soon.

    • Really hope you enjoy it Santosh :)

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        I have finished reading the book. I enjoyed it very much. It was so absorbing that I finished it in a single sitting. Really suspenseful.
        From the beginning, the reader knows that the DA is looking into the case. Hence one knows that the Police will ultimately discover the truth even though Everett is reluctant to proceed further in the matter. However, the manner in which the Police come to learn the truth is unexpected.
        I would give this 4 fedora tips or at least 3.5

  16. Pingback: April 2014: Classic crime in the blogosphere | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

  17. Aben Lal says:

    A favourite book of mine. A lovely style in writing too. Haven’t read too many books/stories in this style. A personalised narrative by each character makes for an insight into the mind and soul of the character and causes a oneness with the character. Adds on to the suspense. Wonder if you would call Hollis Todd evil or merely dedicated to a single cause…….himself! A wonderful piece of ‘shiver in the spine’ reading!

    • Thanks Aben – it’s a clever update on the epistolary approach found in the Wilkie Collins and later used with great success by Lawrence Sanders in “The AndersonTapes” – the jury, shall we say, is still out of Todd. Me? I think he and his friends were evil bastards :)

  18. Bev Hankins says:

    this one sounds very interesting, Sergio. I don’t read a lot of medical mysteries–but I think I would enjoy this one.

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