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
Now and then someone asks me who my favourite crime-writer is, as they did last night at my book-group. My mind always goes a blank and I mutter something about still loving Agatha Christie. Last night I did in the end manage to come up with Andrea Camilleri, Michael Connolly (recent worthy winner of the CWA Diamond Dagger) and Ian Rankin. But I did feel a bit of a fool. After all I write crime fiction and – goodness knows – I also read plenty of it, so I ought not to be at a loss.
Perhaps the truth is that there are just too many to choose from and I don’t have just one favourite. And at the moment too my head is full of my own novel, which I am right in the middle of writing (and which also accounts for my neglect of my blog).
All the same, why didn’t I think of the excellent Ellie Griffiths, for example, whose Ruth Galloway series I enjoy so much? Or my favourite Scandi authors, Norwegian Jorn Lier Horst and Icelandic Arnaldur Indridason (though possibly uncertainty about pronunciation plays a part there)? There is also Simenon whose Maigret novels I return to again and again.
And then there are all the Golden Age writers, such as Helen McCloy whose books I am reading or re-reading in preparation for talking about her at the annual Bodies from the Library in June. I’ve also been loving the collection of short stories edited by Martin Edwards in the British Library Crime Classics series. And by the way, that series is now accompanied by a very attractive little book that I have been meaning to mention, The Pocket Detective, compiled by Kate Jackson, and containing a hundred puzzles, including word searches, spot the difference, anagrams, and crosswords (that staple of the Golden Age). I was delighted to be sent a review copy and the puzzles are perfect for mulling over during a coffee break: an excellent little present for the crime-lover (or writer) in your life – or maybe yourself. Kate by the way is the author of a terrific blog about crime fiction:http://crossexaminingcrime.com.
Happy New Year to my readers. I intend to do better with my blog this year and there may even be a new development in the offing. Watch this space.
Along with my good blogfriend Moira at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk I am posting my list of ten novels with theatrical settings. Theatres are closed communities of people engaged in a very stressful profession and so make wonderful settings – for crime novels in particular. Actors are good at lying. Deceiving people is what they do for living. And theatres can be sinister places, especially when the performance is over. Here is my choice:
Simon Brett, Murder Unprompted (1982) I could have chosen almost any one of the Charles Paris mysteries. This is one I happened to have on the shelf. They are all acutely observed and very funny. What an old reprobate Charles is, with his fondness for Bell’s whisky and his roving eye, yet his heart is the right place and he never quite loses the reader’s sympathy. In Murder Unprompted it seems he might at last hit the big time when he is the second lead in a play that transfers to the West End. Then the star is shot on stage . . .
Helen McCloy, Cue for Murder(1942). At the end of Act I of a revival of Fedora, a rare hoary old melodrama, it transpires that the corpse on stage really is a corpse and only the one of the three actors on stage could have been the killer. It’s up to McCloy’s psychiatrist sleuth Basil Willing to unravel the mystery. The theatrical setting is brilliantly evoked.
Gwendoline Butler, A Dark Coffin (1995). I suspect that Butler, who died in 2013, is not much read now and if so that’s a pity. She combined crime and the macabre in a quite original way. The series featuring John Coffin began in the late 1950s. By the time she reached A Dark Coffin he is a very senior policeman happily married at last to Stella Pinero, an actress in whose theatre two people are found stabbed to death in a box at the end of the performance. Butler wrote shortish novels, not a word wasted and all the better for that: very suspenseful, very good.
Glen David Gold, Carter Beats the Devil (2009). Charles Carter is a stage magician who is given his stage name “Carter the Great” by Houdini.The novel begins in 1923 with the most daring performance of Carter’s life. Two hours later US President Harding is dead and Carter flees the country, pursued by the Secret Service. This is one of those long densely written novels that you don’t want to end. Lots of fascinating stuff about the art of the stage magician. A great read.
Donna Leon, Death at La Fenice (1992). The first in her Venetian series, which have given me a lot of pleasure over the years. The audience are waiting for the third act of La Traviata to begin, when the artistic director appears between the curtains to ask ‘Is there a doctor in the audience?’ But Maestra Wellauer, poisoned by cyanide in his coffee, is beyond medical help. When Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates he finds that the man had plenty of enemies. Combines one of my favourite cities with one of my favourite settings.
Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s (1982). Freddie’s is a stage school for children and Freddie herself is an institution and something of a monster: ‘she knew she was one of those few people in every walk of life, whom society has mysteriously decided to support at all costs.’ It’s set against a production of Shakespeare’s King John. Fitzgerald herself described her subject as ‘The courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it.’ It is both funny and profound.
Christopher Fowler, Full Dark House (2003). I am a fan of Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May series. This was the first and it begins with an explosion at the Peculiar Crimes Unit. John May mourns the death of his old friend Arthur Bryant. It seems to have something to do with their very first case in 1940 during the Blitz. It began when a dancer is found dead – and minus her feet – in the Palace Theatre, which turns out to be a very sinister place indeed.
Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song (2009) is set in the vividly realised Tarleton theatre on London’s Bankside and is another crime novel that moves between the past and present. I love all the details of the old music hall shows, the terrific creepiness of the old theatre at night, and the on-the-edge-of your-seat suspense.
Ngaio Marsh, Opening Night (1951). Marsh is the doyenne of the theatrical mystery. She was made a dame for her contribution to the theatre in New Zealand. This is an usual crime novel in that the murder and the arrival of Alleyn don’t take place until well over half-way through. It’s a decent mystery, but the main appeal is the superbly realised theatrical setting.
Margery Allingham, Dancers in Mourning (1937). Reading this, I realised all over again what an excellent writer she is, so good at the way people think and behave. Chloe Pye, a dancer almost over the hill, has died. Her sister-in-law says: ‘ “. . . she was a good girl, I’m sure – at least her family always thought so, and now that time to be charitable if ever, when the poor soul’s lying dead.” This perfunctory dismissal . . . had the ruthlessness of a pronouncement of Time itself, and the more sensitive of them shivered a little. Arch, inviting Chloe Pye was dead indeed. It was like the drawer closing on a last year’s hat.’ Quite brilliant. The setting is a production of a musical comedy and Campion falls in love with the wife of the chief suspect.
That’s it. It is always such a treat getting together with Moira in this way – and I have had a lovely time rereading some old favourites. Do over to Moira’s blog at http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk and see what she has chosen.
I hadn’t heard of Helen McCloy before her novel, Cue for Murder, was discussed on one of my favourite blogs, Clothesinbooks.com. It’s set in a theatre and sounded right up my street. I did enjoy it, and but not nearly as much as I enjoyed Through a Glass, Darkly, regarded by many as her masterpiece. No wonder: it is truly scary and I wouldn’t want to read it alone in the house.
A young teacher, Faustina Crayle (great name), is called into her headmistress’s study and asked to leave the school immediately. The headmistress will give no reason, but is adamant. Faustina must go. Psychiatrist Basil Willing (McCloy’s series detective) gets involved through his friend, Gisela, who also works at the school. He discovers that something very strange is going on. Girls and servants at the school are claiming that on more than one occasion Faustina has been seen in two places at once. Is this truly a case of a doppelgänger? Or is it something else? Eventually there is a death and Faustina seems implicated. Basil gets to the bottom of it all in the end, but not before there has been another murder. McCloy creates a terrifically spooky atmosphere and I thought this was a great read. I’ll be searching out her other books.
I’m away a lot in August. I will be blogging, but only intermittently. Regular service will be resumed in September.