This 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.
“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 on 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 a) Young’s name was put on it, something the publishers were apparently empowered to do contractually; and b) 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, in an earlier interview:
“… 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
In 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”
The 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 in the behaviour 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: