Friday, April 26, 2013

The Book You Have to Read:
“Carambola,“ by David Dodge

(Editor’s note: This is the 125th entry in our ongoing blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s recommendation comes from Randal S. Brandt, a librarian at the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Brandt is also the creator of two critically lauded Web sites: Golden Gate Mysteries, an annotated bibliography of crime fiction set in the San Francisco Bay Area; and A David Dodge Companion, which chronicles the life and works of mystery/thriller writer David Dodge [1910-1974]. To learn more about Brandt and his interest in Dodge, click here).

Even for a largely forgotten author like David Dodge, his 12th novel, Carambola (1961), represents a new level of obscurity. Although it was published to positive reviews, it failed to capture the attention of contemporary readers.

At the start of the 1950s, David Dodge was on top of his game as a writer. In 1952, he struck literary gold with To Catch a Thief, his story of an American jewel thief living in quiet retirement in the South of France, who is drawn back into his old life when a copycat crook starts operating in the glittering playground of the rich and famous. That novel was optioned by Alfred Hitchcock before it was even published and, in 1955, the movie adaptation was released by Paramount Pictures featuring an all-star cast headed by Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, and with filming having taken place on location along the spectacular Côte d’Azur. Dodge’s next two novels, The Lights of Skaro and Angel’s Ransom, followed in 1954 and 1956, respectively, and shared with To Catch a Thief the key elements of expatriate Americans in exotic foreign locales.

Dodge’s next novel, however, was a distinct departure from his usual “blood and thunder” melodramas. Loo Loo’s Legacy (1960) is a comedic novel set in a boarding house in an unnamed East Coast city, featuring a large cast of eccentric characters. It was an utter failure. Dodge, who had been alternating his writing of thrillers with his work on a series of popular, humorous, anecdotal travel books, was encouraged by his publishers to employ that lighter tone and style in a novel. But then, when he took their advice, those publishers failed to put any effort into marketing the novel.

Discouraged by that experience, Dodge returned to more familiar storytelling territory with Carambola, a classic example of the “chase novel.”

The American hardcover appeared in April 1961 and was followed later that same year by an English hardcover version under the title High Corniche. But the paperback reprint publishers failed to take it up and, to this day, no paperback edition exists. As with Loo Loo’s Legacy, the publishers deserve no credit for boosting sales of Carambola. Its drab gray jacket art on the first edition certainly could not have aided readers in judging the book by its cover. And a British reprint edition that appeared in 1972 has one of the least appealing fronts in the history of thriller fiction: a profile photograph of a jaunty, grinning fellow with a bared chest, regrettable sideburns, and a comb-over. I know it was the 1970s, but come on. Really?

Dodge’s story begins on a beach in Cannes, France, when Andy Holland, an itinerant mining engineer, recognizes one of the contestants in a beauty contest even though he has never seen her before. The nearly 18-year-old American girl, who introduces herself as Mike (short for Micaela) Magill, is the spitting image of Holland’s ex-wife, Marsha, who had left him in the middle of a Peruvian jungle a little more than 18 years previously. As a novice engineer engaged in his first contract, he--as Marsha put it--chose a gravel bar over her. Realizing that the girl in the bikini must be his daughter, Holland soon tracks down Marsha herself. He then learns that Marsha’s husband, Harry Magill--the only father Micaela has ever known--is in hiding in Barcelona, where he is wanted on a charge of murder. It seems Magill had avenged his wife’s honor by shooting the man who’d raped her.

Holland also learns that an egotistical, but well-connected, Spanish marqués, Carlos de Vilasar, has committed himself to helping Magill. The price of his help, though, is Micaela’s hand in marriage. Marsha is torn between her own desperation over her husband’s fate and the prospect of giving her young daughter to a man who neither loves nor respects her, and who routinely risks his own life and the lives of others in the pursuit of reckless thrills. To keep his daughter from a disastrous marriage, Holland agrees to go to Barcelona and find some way to get Magill out of Spain.

Holland finds Magill hiding in a barrio with a fiercely loyal Catalan smuggler called Candelas. Originally planning to travel by fishing boat up the coast to France, this trio’s first escape route is thwarted by a ship captain’s greed and loose tongue. So, instead, they strike out overland through the tiny country of Andorra, high in the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border. Andorra is a smuggler’s haven and Candelas has useful connections there, including a wealthy baron--a “master among contrabandists”--who lives in a 15th-century castle and offers them food and shelter. After leaving Andorra loaded down with packs of illegal goods--anyone not carrying contraband out of the country would immediately attract the suspicion of the authorities--they have to make a difficult night-time climb over a rugged mountain pass.

David and Elva Dodge in Princeton, N.J., 1956

As Holland, Magill, and Candelas attempt to reach safety in France, they are pursued from both sides of the border by the Spanish police, the French customs guards, and the Marqués de Vilasar who, angry at being outflanked by Holland, has put up a huge reward for their capture. The journey is complicated by Magill’s various physical limitations, as well as by Holland’s ambivalence about saving a man who stands between him and his chances at rekindling a relationship with Marsha and starting one with his newly discovered daughter. These feelings are pitted against Candelas’ threat that any harm that befalls Magill along the way will also be visited upon Holland--at Candelas’ hands.

Another impediment to the success of this novel may have been its strange, foreign-sounding title. Carambola is a Spanish word that has dual meanings. It is a billiards term referring to the impact of a cue ball against two other balls in succession. Candelas invokes this image when making his threat to Holland, and throughout the course of the novel, as alliances form and break among the three principal characters, that meaning is apt. However, the word can also mean “fluke,” “by lucky chance,” or “sheer luck,” and it is certainly sheer luck that Holland happens to be on the Cannes beach at the exact moment his daughter is there for him to recognize, thus providing the motive for his actions on Magill’s behalf. This latter meaning of carambola also takes on ironic significance, as Holland, who has spent much of his professional career in the Arab world, frequently muses on the Muslim concept of inshallah (“God willing”), which suggests that there is no such thing as luck or chance; everything has been predetermined and one must simply accept one’s fate.

(Left) Kendal Dodge in Cannes, circa 1956

When Carambola was originally published, David Dodge’s own daughter, Kendal, was a 21-year-old student at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, living away from her parents for the first time. From the time Kendal was 5 years old until her high school graduation, Dodge and his wife, Elva, had been traveling around the world, settling down for extended stays in Guatemala, Peru, and the South of France, where Dodge would gather local color for his international thrillers and practical advice for cost-conscious travelers (his The Poor Man’s Guide to Europe was a best-seller for much of the ’50s). After spending four years back in the United States, so that Kendal could attend high school, David and Elva began traveling again, but this time they left her behind in college. No doubt, they were feeling a bit insecure about their little girl growing up. With its theme of fathers being motivated by the desire to protect their daughters, it is no coincidence that Dodge dedicated Carambola to Kendal.

1 comment:

Keith Alan Deutsch said...

Very nicely done, except for the abrupt, premature ending. I wish the essay had gone on to Dodge's death, and a statement about how his writings fared during the years after he had died. Both Dodge and his writing career are intriguing. By the way, if Dodge was not selling well, and remained in obscurity, how did Hitchcock find out about Dodge's novel TO CATCH A THIEF before it was published? Keith Alan Deutsch