I didn’t get round to posting my talk on Helen McCloy, which I gave at Bodies from the Library last year. So here it is now. The title is ‘Murder in Mind: The Crime Novels of Helen McCloy.’
My attention was first drawn to Helen McCloy when her novel, Mr Splitfoot, was listed by H. R. F. Keating as among the 100 best crime novels ever published. It was some years later that I first read one of her novels. And when I did, I was surprised that she wasn’t better known.
It’s not as if she was one of those writers who produces only a few novels and disappears from view. She had a very long career. She was born in New York City in 1904 – her mother was a writer and her father was managing editor of the New York Evening Sun – and she died in 1994. She wrote around thirty novels, thirteen featuring her series character, Dr Basil Willing, the rest stand-alone thrillers and suspense novels, as well as a number of short stories. Her first novel, Dance of Death, came out in 1938, her last, Burn This, in 1980.
In addition she had a high profile in the world of American crime-writing. In 1950 she was the first female president of the Mystery Writers of America and she got an Edgar in 1954 for her crime fiction reviews. With her husband Davis Dresser, creator of PI Mike Shayne under the pseudonym Brett Halliday, she founded a publishing company and a literary agency. It’s during those years that her outcome as a novelist decreased. And when she did begin to publish more during the 1970s, it was with a string of stand-alone suspense novels, which I find less interesting than her earlier work.
She had only one series character – psychiatrist Basil Willing, who featured in her first novel and in twelve more, most of them written between 1938 and 1956, though two more were to appear at long intervals, Mr Splitfoot in 1968 and Burn This in 1980. Willing also appeared in a number of short stories, notably ‘The Singing Diamonds,’ which appears in The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Basil Willing. The early Basil Willing novels fall in the Golden Age category and employ some Golden Age tropes: notably the box of poisoned chocolates in Who’s Calling? and an impossible crime in the style of John Dickson Carr in Mr Splitfoot.
So why are her novels worth reading?
Her Basil Willing novels have gripping and original plots. McCloy specialised in the intriguing set-up. In her first novel, Dance of Death, published in 1938, the body of young woman is discovered in a deep snow drift in the depths of a New York winter. The body is not just warm but hot, and it turns out that she has died of heat stroke. In The Deadly Truth a woman visits her lover in a lab where he is developing a truth drug. After she’s gone he realises that she has stolen some – with interesting consequences at a cocktail and dinner party later that day. In Cue for Murder, someone playing the part of a corpse turns out really to be dead and must have been murdered by one of three actors in full view of the audience. In the novel that is often regarded as her masterpiece, Through a Glass Darkly, a young woman, Faustina, goes to Willing for help: she has been sacked from her teaching job at a girls’ boarding school because of something uncanny: several witnesses have seen her in two places at the same time. She apparently has a doppelgänger. In Alias Basil Willing, Willing is in a tobacconist’s in Manhattan when another customer follows him into the shop, buys cigarettes, and leaves in a hurry. The man hails a taxi to take him to 51st street with the instruction: ‘Come back and call for me; I am Dr Basil Willing.’ Intrigued, Willing gets into the next taxi and follows him.
It is one thing to have a gripping opening, and it is another thing to follow through and construct an interesting plot and a satisfying resolution. But McCloy did generally succeed in that.
To return to her first novel, Dance of Death, (Martin Edwards describes it as a ‘dazzling debut’ and I agree) McCloy introduces Dr Basil Willing as a psychiatrist attached to the district attorney’s office in New York, concerned mainly with testing the sanity of accused men and the reliability of witnesses. He is an American, but his mother was Russian. He is described as having a ‘thin intelligent face, disturbingly alert eyes and a slightly ironical manner’ – and after studying at Johns Hopkins, he has spent a further eight years in Paris, London and Vienna. He is essentially a Freudian and his claim is that ‘every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints and he can’t wear gloves to hide them’ and that ‘even a small everyday lie is a clue to the personality and preoccupations of the liar.’ One element of the novel might have been ripped from today’s headlines: a fashionable young woman makes money from appearing in adverts for a drug to aid slimming. These days she would be on Instagram and have her own Youtube channel.
Stemming from McCloy’s interest in psychoanalysis was her fascination with duality, with the conscious and the unconscious mind, with the two sides of a person’s nature, with the doppelgänger and the double. I have already mentioned Through a Glass, Darkly. There it appears that a young woman’s doppelgänger commits murder while the young woman herself is miles away and at that very moment is speaking on the phone to her friend and fellow teacher Gisela (Basil’s girlfriend and in later novels his wife and the mother of his daughter). Similarly in Dance of Death Basil recognises the dead woman from a newspaper article, yet it seems that at the very time her body was lying in the snow drift, she was dancing the night away at her own coming out ball.
In one of the Willing novels the murderer is actually suffering from a split personality and doesn’t even know himself that he is the villain. In She Walks Alone, one of McCloy’s standalone thrillers, the narrator comments ‘Now I saw that I had never known [X] If it hadn’t been for Rupert Lord’s money the inner [X] might never have cracked through the apparent [X], a surface enamel fired by social pressure. . . . that apparent [X] was not a deliberate deception, he was another phase of [X’s] nature, just as real as the inner [X]. That was how the apparent [X] had been able to fool me and everyone else. He was part of the truth.’ That is a recurring theme in McCloy’s novels and a chilling one.
McCloy was an intelligent and elegant writer, both witty and ironic. In Through a Glass, Darkly the headmistress of a girl’s school puts forward a case for the existence of psychic phenomenon, including perhaps the doppelgänger.
‘So you believe in it?’ asked Basil.
She replies, ‘I am a modern woman, Dr Willing. That means I believe in nothing.’
So why isn’t McCloy better known? Partly perhaps because there was a gap in her career. She only published three novels in the 1960s, and when she stepped up her output in the 1970s, it was with a series of suspense novels and thrillers, which generally did not have the originality of her earlier books.
Then too, in her early work she was a writer who liked to experiment – in one of the Willing novels, for instance, it is apparently not until very late that he appears. Similarly, The One That Got Away is told by a first person narrator, also a psychiatrist, who observes Willing at work. I admire her boldness, but it led some unevenness in her work.
Neverthess at her best she is a splendid writer. But don’t take my word for it. Her novels and short stories have been reprinted by The Murder Room and are available as ebooks. Try her for yourself.
Rather fittingly, I watched the last episode of Inspector Morse on New Year’s Eve. The first had aired in 1987 and this final one in 2000. I’d worked my way through all thirty-three in four or five months. By the end, the power-dressing of the 1980s was long gone and mobile phones were no longer the size of bricks.
There is a special interest in watching such a long-running series in condensed form. The extent of Morse’s dysfunctional love life is much more apparent than it was the first time round, when I was watching it spread out over such a long period. He is so susceptible, forever falling in love with a woman who turns out to be the murderer or is otherwise compromised. And how discreet it all is. We never follow him into the bedroom – and the series is all the better for that. The last episode ends of course with Morse’s death and it is all the more poignant when viewed with the knowledge that John Thaw was dead himself only two years later.
I did love that series and I think that is why I didn’t get into Lewis when it began in 2006. It seemed all wrong that the series should go on without Morse and John Thaw. But a couple of days ago I watched the pilot episode and was won over. I loved the touches that paid tribute to Morse and John Thaw: the red Jag that Lewis almost steps in front of; the Endeavour music scholarship endowed anonymously; the crossword clue on Morse’s notes relating to an earlier case. It was beautifully done. So: a worthy successor after all. I’ve got the box set and there are thirty-three episodes, so I won’t be running out of comfort viewing any time soon.
For me one of the stand-out exhibitions of last year was Troy: Myth and Reality, which I saw at the British Museum a couple of weeks ago. There are some stunning objects – the vases in particular – and it was wonderful to revisit the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I had a grammar school education which meant doing five years of Latin, but looking back I feel it would have been more useful and interesting to have studied Classics more broadly and to have read texts in translation. Through my degree in English Literature and History of Art I did become familiar with the Greek myths and legends, but it wasn’t many years later on holiday in Greece that I decided to read the Iliad from beginning to end and just experience it as the fantastic story that it is. A couple of years later on holiday in Crete I did the same thing with the Odyssey.
There is something very special about reading a story in the place where it originated. In my journal I transcribed this passage from the Odyssey: ‘Alcinous ordered Helias and Laodomas to dance by themselves since no one could compete with them. Polybus, a skilled craftsman, had made them a beautiful purple ball, which they took in their hands, and one of them, bending right back, would throw it towards the shadowy clouds, and the other, leaping up from the ground, would catch it skilfully, before his feet touched earth again.’ I noted that the next day on the beach I saw two bronzed young men in tiny swimming trunks doing the exact same thing as Homer had described it somewhere around three thousands years ago. My copy of the Penguin Classics edition with its creased spine and water-stained pages is a momento of a great holiday.
The exhibition at the British Museum runs until 8 March. It retells the stories through objects and paintings, examines the historical basis for the existence of Troy, and draws parallels with the present day realities of brutal warfare and its victims. I thought it was wonderful.
Season’s Greetings to all you readers, writers and bloggers out there
and may you have a wonderful 2020!
Our garden in the snow (not this year, I hasten to add!)
It’s a busy time of the year, but I’ve taken time off from writing Christmas cards to be interviewed by writer Sue Hepworth on her splendid blog. You can find the interview here: http://www.suehepworth.com/2019/12/mystery-and-suspense.html .
I’ve been so busy writing guest posts and articles for other people’s web-sites to promote my new book that I haven’t had time to write anything for my own!
However, you can go to Martin Edwards’ splendid blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name, to read about where I got the idea for An Air That Kills: http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.com/2019/11/an-air-that-kills-by-christine-poulson.htm
and to Barry Forshaw’s highly informative and entertaining crime fiction website, Crimetime.co.uk, for an article about the research I did, specifically, on how to murder someone with a mosquito:
Finally, for Female First, I’ve contributed to a feature called, Seven Things I Want My Readers To Know About Me: https://www.femalefirst.co.uk/books/christine-poulson-an-air-that-kills-1218145.html
Normal service will be resumed soon.
My new Katie Flanagan mystery, An Air That Kills, comes out on Friday. An author’s work is not over when she has delivered the final draft to her editor, or even when she has sent back the corrected proofs. Far from it. There is still all that is involved in trying to promote the novel. So for the last week or two, I have been writing pieces for other people’s blogs and web-sites. I’ll be putting up links as they appear. And this time there is actually a blog tour – which is a thrill! I’ve never had one before!
Soon I’ll be getting back to the next writing project, but for now I’ll try to make the most of my little bit of time in the spotlight and as for Friday – the bottle of wine is already cooling in the fridge. Of course I hope the book will do well and I am very grateful to my lovely publishers for the effort they have been putting into PR. And I love the striking cover design. But for now, whatever happens, simply being published and having a new book out will be ample reason for raising a glass or two.
Writing a novel involves spending an awful lot of time on one’s own. It can be difficult to meet other writers and that is where the Crime Writers’ Association is such a godsend. I joined in 2002 when my first novel came out and through the CWA I have made some very good friends. They have helped to keep me going through the inevitable ups and down of a writer’s life. And there’s the opportunity just to hang out with other writers at conferences – I have been to the Lake District, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Hereford, Shrewsbury, Lincoln. We are a famously convivial lot. But the stellar event in the UK crime-writers’ firmament is undoubtedly is the Daggers Dinner, held this year on 24th October at the Leonardo City Hotel in London. The photo shows me and my friends, Sarah Ward (left) and Kate Ellis (right) quaffing prosecco. Kate won the Dagger in the Library that evening. The winner of the Gold Dagger for best crime novel of the year was M C Craven for The Puppet Show.
The following week-end I headed up to Newcastle to hear my short story, ‘Safe as Houses,’ read brilliantly by Janine Birkett as one of three stories on the programme of Haunted: Ghost Story Readings for Halloween at the Lit and Phil (a Newcastle Institution – in every way). The other too were a Victorian shocker, ‘The Phantom Coach’ by Amelia B Edwards, and the disturbing ‘Three Miles Up’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard. It was all great fun. The other reader and the producer, Stephen Tomlin of Demiparadise Productions, is shown here with me and Janine.
So now it’s back to earth . . . But there’s the CWA Christmas Party and a spring conference in Torquay to look forward to.
If you are a crime writer, I hope you’ll consider joining us. If not, you could join our sister group, the Crime Readers’ Association, for free and receive news and reviews every month: http://thecra.co.uk.
Some years ago I was invited to submit a horror story for an anthology. The brief was that it must include some aspect of contemporary technology. I said doubtfully to my husband, ‘I’m not sure this is my thing.’ His reply was bracing: ‘You’re a writer, aren’t you? So write something!’ And I did. The story, ‘Safe as Houses,’ was duly published in Phobic: Modern Horror Stories, by Comma Press. It begins with a woman hearing a baby crying over a baby monitor. But there’s no baby in the house. . . I scared myself writing it! That’s part of the fun.
A few months ago I was contacted by an actor, Stephen Tomlin, to ask if ‘Safe as Houses’ could be one of three ghost stories to be included in a series of Halloween readings that he was planning for the north of England. I was delighted to agree and I’ll be attending one of the performances at that Newcastle institution, the Lit and Phil on 1 November. I am looking forward to hearing something that I have written performed by a professional actor – a first for me.
For details of the other venues and how to book tickets, go to www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk