Invisible Ink: No 87 - Holly Roth

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The Independent Culture

The photograph on Holly Roth's paperbacks shows a glamorous, attractive woman in the classic Fifties mould. Born in Chicago in 1916, she grew up in Brooklyn and London, travelling the world because of her father's business. Roth eventually came to regard herself as a New Yorker.

After working as a model, she started writing for newspapers and magazines. In the Fifties and Sixties, there was plenty of work to be found providing fiction for weekly periodicals. Roth began writing tightly plotted suspense novels, which were serialised in Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post.

It seems likely that Roth considered herself a pulp novelist, but her books were well written and reflect the preoccupations of the times; her thrillers high concept before the term had been created. They include The Mask of Glass (1954), in which Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps wakes up in hospital injured and disfigured, his red hair turned white. Forced to piece together the events of the night that deprived him of his identity, friends and a future, he discovers an international no-man's-land where human life is the most expendable commodity.

In The Sleeper (1955), a long-term communist sleeper agent working for the Army is arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment by a military court. There is public outcry at his treatment, so the security conduct a PR exercise by allowing a journalist to interview him for a series of articles. Then they realise that the spy is hiding secrets in the quotes he's giving the writer. In Button, Button (1966), a metal button with a yacht motif is a key piece of evidence in the investigation of an airline explosion that kills a heavily insured businessman.

There were 12 such novels, four written under the pseudonym K G Ballard – an oddly coincidental choice of a name considering J G Ballard was a rising star at the time. But a bigger coincidence followed. In Operation Doctors (1962), a woman falls from a boat and loses her memory. Roth died after falling off a yacht in the Mediterranean, and her body was never recovered.

In the Fifties, female suspense writers proved very popular, and Roth was compared with Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, frequently tackling the kind of Cold War-influenced subjects that have now become a strictly male province. Her books were critically overlooked at the time, and if the plots seem far-fetched, her ability to turn up the tension is unquestionable.