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.
Not long to go now to the annual British Library event, Bodies from the Library, and I am busy putting together my talk, Murder in Mind: The Crime Novels of Helen McCloy. She is a fine writer who has been unjustly neglected. I intend to put that right. If she is known at all it is for Through a Glass, Darkly – a novel I find chilling even on rereading – but she was far from being a one-novel wonder. I’ll be looking at the reasons why she sank out of sight so completely and saying why I think she is well worth reviving.
I’ve also been rereading with great enjoyment the novels and short stories of Cyril Hare in preparation for the session in which Martin Edwards and I will discussing him: Cyril Hare: Master of the English Murder. He is another writer who is not as well known as he deserves to be.
There will also be sessions on John Dickson Carr, E. C. R. Lorac, and much much more, including the chance to mingle with fans of golden age crime fiction. For details of what I am sure will be a splendid day, go to https://bodiesfromthelibrary.com
‘Have you locked up, Nurse Cherry?’
‘Yes, Nurse Silver.’
‘Every door, every window?’
Yet even as she shot home the last bolt of the front door, at the back of Nurse Cherry’s mind was a vague misgiving.
She had forgotten – something.
She was young and pretty, but her expression was anxious. While she has most of the qualities to ensure professional success, she was always on guard against a serous handicap.
She had a bad memory.
If there was one thing Ethel Lina White knew about, it was suspense. It’s no wonder that this short story, ‘An Unlocked Window’ formed the basis for one of the most memorable and terrifying episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
She is an inspiration to late-flowering writers. She didn’t publish her first crime novel until she was fifty-five and yet the third, Some Must Watch, became a Hollywood movie, The Spiral Staircase, in 1946. Her fifth, The Wheel Spins, was filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes in 1938. In 1945 Midnight House was filmed as The Unseen with Raymond Chandler as one of the script writers.
She wrote fourteen novels between 1931 and her death in 1944. She was a best-seller in her day and was much translated. She wrote the kind of suspense that sets your heart racing. The atmosphere and the build-up of tension in the best of her novels is masterly. The books are rattling good reads and as the trap closes in, they’ve often kept me reading when I ought to have been doing other things. There can be no greater tribute to a writer of suspense.
She was born in Abergavenny in 1876. She was working in the Ministry of Pensions in London when she at last began to earn money from writing fiction in the 1920s. She wrote three mainstream novels in the 1920s before her first crime novel, Put Out the Light, a competent whodunit with Gothic overtones, came out in 1931. It was followed the following year by Fear Stalks the Village, in which she really began to hit her stride. Joan has recently taken up a job as a companion in what appears to be an idyllic village only to find that a series of poison-pen letters reveal an underbelly seething with fear, distrust and disaster. Rereading Fear Stalks the Village I was reminded of what an entertaining writer she is — and what a sardonic sense of humour she had, as here, for instance: ‘The squire turned to his wife. Although he usually bullied her, there were times when he followed her advice; for if he had no positive virtues, he had some rather good faults.’
It was followed in 1932 by Some Must Watch, perhaps her most best-known novel. Helen is the lady help for an elderly invalid in an isolated mansion with a killer at large. She is surrounded by people, the house seems secure, and yet slowly the net tightens. The housekeeper gets hold of a bottle of brandy and sinks into a drunken stupor, the handy-man departs on an urgent errand . . .
Next in 1935 came Wax, the plot of which centres around a neglected and sinister waxworks gallery in the small town of Riverpool where a young woman, Sonia, has come to take a job as a journalist. Here too hardly any one is what they seem and the novel reaches a stupendous climax during a night among the waxworks.
Why did Ethel Lina White slip out of sight? Perhaps in part because she didn’t have a series detective or detectives, like Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham or Ngaio Marsh. And perhaps it hasn’t helped that she didn’t write just one type of novel. Yes, she wrote what might be loosely described as ‘women in jeopardy’ novels, but that wasn’t all. The First Time He Died is a farce about a man who fakes his own death in order to collect the insurance. She Faded into Air is an impossible crime novel much in the vein of John Dickson Carr (and I don’t think it loses by that comparison). The Elephant Never Forgets is in part a spy story set in the Soviet Union.
As for the ‘women in jeopardy’ label, her female protagonists are not helpless little women, who rely on men to get them out of their predicament. They are women who must work for their living and rely on their own resources: a teacher in The Third Eye, a lady help in Some Must Watch, a journalist in Wax. In The Wheel Spins, Miss Froy is not the fussy old spinster of Hitchcock’s film, but intrepid and independent, taking jobs all over Europe as a governess in order to have adventures and learn new languages.
One of the burning issues of the day was the so-called surplus woman question. The 1921 census showed that there were one and three-quarter million more women than men due to the First World War. Deaths were disportionately high among officers, so many middle-class women had little hope of the marriage that their upbringing had lead them to expect. They became teachers, nurses, secretaries, civil servants and this social reality is reflected in Ethel Lina White’s novels. She herself knew what it was to work for a living in a tedious job. Add to that the effects of the Depression. What would become of a woman if she could get neither a husband or a job? Joan in Fear Stalks the Village is supporting other members of her family, and with no welfare state safety net the consequences of losing her job would be dire. There’s plenty to worry the women in Ethel Lina White’s novels even without deranged serial killers roaming the countryside. Ethel Lina White’s sympathy with her female protagonists and her surprisingly tolerant attitude to sexual mores make her an engaging as well as a gripping writer.
Some Must Watch has been reprinted by Arcturus and all Ethel Lina White’s novels are now available as e-books.
Bodies from the Library has become an annual event. I went for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was delighted to be invited to speak this year. Sarah Ward and I will be talking about ‘Forgotten Women Authors’. Sarah’s choice is Elizabeth Daly and mine is Ethel Lina White.
I’ve already mentioned Ethel Lina White on the blog: here and here and I have plenty more to say about her. I love the fact that she didn’t publish her first crime novel until she was fifty-five and yet her third novel, Some Must Watch, became a Hollywood movie and her fifth, The Wheel Spins, was filmed by Hitchcock as The Lady Vanishes. She was a best-seller in her day and wrote the kind of suspense that sets your heart racing. Yet she is little-known now. If you want to know more, come along on the 17th June!