The Glass Heart: Marty Holland (1946)

“Women always take one look at me and go back to their husbands.”

Marty Holland (1919-1971) doesn’t seem to be remembered these days. There’s very little about her on Wikipedia. Her first novel, Fallen Angel, was adapted for the screen and starred Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell. The File on Thelma Jordan was based on one of Holland’s unpublished stories. The Glass Heart is a grimy, hard-boiled tale of lust, murder and blackmail (sign me up, baby) but unfortunately, the dark, hard centre of this novel slides into conformity, tinged with sentimentality, towards the end.

Curt Blair, an unemployed petty thief, hangs out in restaurants and makes a marginal, opportunistic living.

It was one of those ritzy has joints in Beverly Hills, away from the hoi polloi. Fancy lace tablecloths, demi-tases, and waitresses in pink organdy outfits. One of those places. I was sitting up at the counter, sipping coffee, puffing on a cigarette, soaking in the warmth of the room, and glancing now and then through the draped window at the rain outside. It was raining like hell. No ordinary downpour: heavy, splotchy drops–the way it rains in California.

Curt steals a customer’s expensive camel hair coat, but he’s spotted and chased. He runs into a gated garden, hoping to hide, but the owner thinks he’s her new handyman. Curt decides to stay, in spite of the nastiness of the bossy owner, Virginia Block. She lists all the work she expects him to do–he’ll live at the house and be responsible for the general upkeep of the house, car repair, gardening etc, and all for twenty dollars a week. Curt considers telling her to shove it–especially when he sees his tiny, filthy room, but when he thinks of the police, he decides it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lay low for a few days.

That was the plan, but Curt didn’t factor in Virginia who calls herself a “defenseless old woman,” and “a woman alone,” but in reality, she’s a penny-pinching, shrewd slave-driver. Crafty Virginia owes money all over town, and one of Curt’s many jobs is to lie to bill collectors. When Curt finds out that Virginia’s husband disappeared, he’s not surprised. Curt rationalises that the absent husband probably couldn’t take the heat any longer and escaped. Curt should move on, but he sniffs that the old lady has money and that if he plays the game, he could be living on easy street. The old lady, by the way is fifty. Curt starts laying on the compliments and Virginia gets skittish with the flattery. Enter a female lodger, a would-be actress, Lynn Cook, and all of Curt’s intentions to smooch Virginia are thrown out of the window.

What was it about the dame that sent my fever up? Chemistry? Or whatever you call it. This one really had it, whatever it was.

Another female lodger, Elsie, moves in. Soon Curt is blackmailing Virginia concerning the whereabouts of her missing husband, and then passing on the proceeds to both of the female lodgers. Curt admits “I’ve always been a sucker that way. I can’t say no to a pretty dame!” This toxic situation can’t last forever, and Curt is playing with fire.

Written with great snappy dialogue, the plot oozes noir. Curt’s involvement with three women is a perfect scenario for noir, but the plot backs off from the darkest descent. There’s a light touch in Curt’s relationships and his marshmallow attitude towards young attractive women. Ultimately the book’s hard edge disappears almost as if the author was reluctant to take the plot to its logical, dark consequences. Still, I’m glad I read this. Virginia is a great (nasty) character.

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