One never knows just how good or bad a book is when it’s wrapped in a lurid 1950s paperback cover. This was a time when publishers and cover artists were a bit like Weekly World News editors–fighting to catch the eyes of buyers by constantly striving to reach new highs in glare and new lows in discretion. I’d sure that somewhere out there is a 1950s paperback edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine featuring a Roman babe about to lose her toga to the hands of a lecherous young Augustine.
In the case of Richard Lebherz’s 1957 short novel, The Altars of the Heart, what you get is both better and worse than the cover promises. The writing is far more subdued and sensitive, and the story and characters bear only slight connection to the nymphet and bed games suggested by the cover. “A Story of Love and Deceit in Summertime Rome”–well, that much is true, but woman is a good fifteen years older and the love is brief, confused, and one-way.
But there are also elements much creepier than would even be appropriate within the loose guidelines of these covers. The Altars of the Heart is one of a long string of tales of innocent Americans lured off their wholesome standards by the ease and sophistication of decadent Romans. In this case, it’s a spinster schoolteacher who sprains her ankle and goes to the wrong doctor for treatment.
The wrong doctor meaning one who seems to have spent a little too much time in Berlin working for the S.S. during the war and who seems to be in the midst of some kind of obsessive S&M relationship with his mistress. I say “seems” because Lebherz merely suggest these details. The doctor decides to romance the teacher as the means to getting a quick loan of $500 to help the mistress out of a jam–or rather, as he puts it to teacher, to “pay off medical equipment.”
Well, not to be a spoiler, but let’s just say that if you ever find yourself in the doctor’s situation, make sure to put your souvenir S. S. dagger out of reach. The schoolteacher flies home in panic, and the moral of the story seems to be … well, keep the S. S. daggers out of reach, I guess. What started out as a restrained minor work takes a Grand Guignol turn and never manages to find its way home save by means of a Pan Am ticket. Odd and forgettable.
Altars of the Heart, by Richard Lebherz
New York City: Grove Press, 1957
New York City: Berkeley Books, 1959
also published as Affair in Rome, Ace Books, 1960