Detection: Helen McCloy and the Realist School
| Bizarre Events - Hard to Explain | What Is It?: Hard to Identify Objects
| Textual Analysis | Missing Objects
| Main Murder Mystery vs Subplots | Series Detectives
| Doubles and Impersonation
Subjects: Cognitive Psychology
| Social Anthropology | The Ancient World
| France Between the Wars | Codes
| Life History | Troubled Young People
| Buildings Full of Menacing Strangers | Architecture: New York City and Elsewhere
| Popular Fiction | The Press
| Feminism | Wealthy Americans as Nazi Supporters
| Business and Socialism
| Energy | Planes
| Blacklisting | Kitchens
| Twilight | McCloy's Style
Books: Dance of Death | The Man in the Moonlight
| The Deadly Truth
| Who's Calling? | Cue for Murder
| The Goblin Market | Do Not Disturb
| The One That Got Away | She Walks Alone
| Through a Glass, Darkly | Alias Basil Willing
| Unfinished Crime | The Long Body
| Two-Thirds of a Ghost | Before I Die
| The Further Side of Fear | Mr. Splitfoot
| A Question of Time | A Change of Heart
| The Sleepwalker | Minotaur Country
| The Changeling Conspiracy | The Impostor
| The Smoking Mirror | Burn This
Short Stories, non-series: The Nameless Clue / The Black Disk
| Chinoiserie | Dead Man's Code / Not-Tonight-Danger
Short Stories, Dr. Basil Willing: The Singing Diamonds
| The Case of the Duplicate Door | Murder Stops the Music
| Murder Ad Lib | Murphy's Law
| That Bug That's Going Around
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Dance of Death (1938) (Chapters 1 - 9, 19 - 21)
The Man in the Moonlight (1940)
Cue for Murder (1942)
The Goblin Market (1943)
The One That Got Away (1945)
Unfinished Crime (1954)
The Sleepwalker (1974)
The Impostor (1977)
Burn This (1980)
The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing (available from its publisher
Crippen & Landru)
- Through a Glass, Darkly (1948)
- The Singing Diamonds (1949)
- Murder Stops the Music (1957)
- Murphy's Law (1979)
The Singing Diamonds
The above is not a complete list of McCloy's novels and short stories;
it instead contains my favorite McCloy works, those I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.
The lists under the collections do not include all the short stories in the book, just the ones I recommend.
- Chinoiserie (1935)
- Through a Glass, Darkly (1948)
- The Singing Diamonds (1949)
Helen McCloy is the American author of numerous mystery and suspense books. She also published a science fiction novel,
and a handful of science fiction short stories.
Commentary on Helen McCloy:
Helen McCloy has affinities with the Freeman-Crofts Realist School tradition,
especially the scientific detection of R. Austin Freeman.
There is a great deal of science of all types in McCloy's works. There are also scientific
backgrounds to some of the tales, such as university scientific work in The Man in the Moonlight,
the lab and truth serum in The Deadly Truth (1941), and the UFO investigation in
"The Singing Diamonds" (1949).
Her psychiatrist-detective Dr. Basil Willing is somewhat
in the tradition of Freeman's medical-scientific sleuth Dr. Thorndyke.
Some of McCloy's best known works use approaches to mystery plot
construction pioneered by earlier writers in the Realist tradition.
McCloy's Through a Glass, Darkly is in the tradition of
Realist writer Dorothy L. Sayers' "The
Image in the Mirror".
There is an effort to focus on
Croftsian timetables, in the
early novel Cue for Murder. However, these are not used for alibis,
as they are in Freeman Wills Crofts.
Some of the best mystery plots in McCloy fall into a common category.
They involve bizarre, strange events, often quite dramatic or surreal.
The events are hard to explain. Motive is especially puzzling: why would anyone want to do such strange things?
The events typically involve behavior of one or more people.
Eventually, the book comes up with a logical solution, explaining why people are doing these things.
The events are physically possible. These are NOT "impossible crimes" or "howdunits",
where the challenge is to figure out how the actions could possibly have been physically performed.
Instead, the mystery is to figure out why the actions are taking place.
(There are indeed some impossible crime puzzles in McCloy, but those are different from
these "what causes the bizarre events" puzzles.)
I don't want to "spoil" these mysteries for the reader. Half of their pleasure comes
from their bizarre, out-of-the-ordinary initial premises - so I don't want to summarize these premises here.
So I will reference chapters in the books, to identify these puzzling situations:
McCloy's explanations can be quite inventive. The worst one is in The Man in the Moonlight.
SPOILER. The explanation in The Man in the Moonlight is that the bizarre opening events
are part of experiments by a Psychology Professor. This is an all-purpose "explanation"
that could be used to justify anything. Explanations in other McCloy novels tend to be more concrete,
and more logically linked to the strange events they are trying to explain.
Some McCloy mysteries involve strange looking objects or images.
The mystery puzzle is to identify these objects: to figure out what they are.
Such mystery puzzles include:
- The heroine's strange adventures in Dance of Death (Chapter 6), and their explanation (Chapter 9).
- The little puzzle about how the refugee can afford such nice clothes, in The Man in the Moonlight.
- What do wholesome young woman Peggy and decadent rich socialite Claudia Bethune see in each other
socially, in The Deadly Truth (set forth in Chapter 2, explained in Chapter 14).
- Why anyone would want to kill the insignificant victim in Who's Calling? (end of Chapter 5).
Explanation (Chapter 9).
- Why the burglar took nothing in Cue for Murder (set forth then soon solved in Chapter 1);
why the engagement is concealed (Chapter 2).
- What the heroine discovers in the hotel in Do Not Disturb (end of Chapter 1),
and its two explanations (Chapter 2, Chapter 3).
- Why did the newsman in The Goblin Market suddenly abandon his office
(set forth in Chapter 3, solved in Chapter 16)?
- The puzzling behavior of the boy in The One That Got Away (Chapter 1).
- Why is such a bizarre approach behind the first death on ship, in She Walks Alone? (solved in Chapter 17).
- The bizarre problems of Faustina Crayle in the opening of Through a Glass, Darkly (Chapters 1-3).
- Why does superficial society sophisticate Clare Albany wants to be friends with an intellectual University family
in "The Singing Diamonds"?
- Why does the dog behave the way he does in "Murder Stops the Music"?
- The strange things that happen to the heroine of The Sleepwalker (end of Chapter 1).
The "incuse marks" in "Murphy's Law" are also an "odd visual pattern that needs to be identified".
However, they are not treated as the basis of a mystery.
"Textual analysis" is a kind of detection.
Sleuths look for hidden, meaningful patterns in things people say or write.
These patterns reveal hidden facts, or new perspectives on events.
Typically the reader gets a full look at the "text" the sleuth is studying, such as a letter, news article or memoir.
And can match wits with the sleuth, trying to discover the hidden pattern.
- The disk found in "The Nameless Clue".
- The strange object found in the fireplace in Mr. Splitfoot (Chapter 8).
- The doodle in "That Bug That's Going Around".
Such "textual analysis" detective work was included in mystery fiction long before McCloy started writing:
Helen McCloy works with textual analysis include:
Mystery puzzles about missing objects occur in both Helen McCloy, and other mystery writers.
In such tales, an object is mysteriously disappears, or is mysteriously hidden in a clever way, and its location defies
intensive search. Both the detective and the reader are challenged to figure out the location of the object,
or how it disappeared.
- Cue for Murder.
- The One That Got Away (Chapters 2,3,6,10,11).
- She Walks Alone (Chapter 8, end of Chapter 17).
- "The Singing Diamonds".
- "Better Off Dead".
- Two-Thirds of a Ghost (end of Chapter 11, Chapter 14)
- "Murder Stops the Music".
Helen McCloy works with missing object puzzles include:
The hidden necklace in The Deadly Truth has some resemblance to the above puzzles.
- The black coat in Cue for Murder.
- The money in She Walks Alone.
- The ruby in Unfinished Crime.
- The coin in "Murphy's Law".
Missing object mysteries have a relationship to the "impossible crime".
As the object's location stays unknown despite an intensive search, it looks more and more
impossible that the object is indeed hidden anywhere. Such mysteries can be called
impossible disappearances of an object.
Writers associated with missing object mysteries include Ellery Queen,
Stuart Palmer and Agatha Christie.
Helen McCloy, like several other Golden Age mystery writers, often included both
a main murder mystery in her novels, and a number of subplot mysteries, often dealing with
mysterious events other than murder.
In many McCloy novels, these subplots are far better than the central mystery of "who committed the murder?".
The subplots show imagination, originality and substance. But the murder mystery is often
simple, bringing the crime home fairly arbitrarily to one of the suspects.
Often there is nothing clever about the murder mystery: it doesn't reflect some hidden pattern that
is revealed by the detective during the solution,
or a clever murder scheme. It also often is not especially connected with events in the novel:
the novel might be full of spies and international intrigue, for example,
while the killer turns out to have some simple monetary motive unrelated to spying.
- Dance of Death
- The Man in the Moonlight
- Who's Calling?
- Cue for Murder
- Do Not Disturb
- She Walks Alone
- Unfinished Crime
- Mr. Splitfoot
- The Sleepwalker
In Agatha Christie mysteries, the main murder mystery about who did the killing,
is often the best part of the novel. This is not true in a lot of McCloy books.
Readers might well find this disappointing. However, shifting one's attention to the subplots
can often produce a far more satisfying reading experience.
McCloy's first mystery novel Dance of Death introduces her series detective
Dr. Basil Willing. It also introduces a whole number of characters connected with New York City
law enforcement. Such large casts of police characters appear in
S. S. Van Dine and some of his followers, such as
Ellery Queen. In Van Dine and Queen, these characters return
in novel after novel.
In McCloy's books, only a portion of the law officials from Dance of Death
return in later novels. And these only intermittently, instead of in every book.
Many of the later Willing tales are set outside of New York City, and the New York cops
usually make no appearance in such tales.
The supporting character seen most frequently in later works is Inspector Patrick Foyle.
His official title is Assistant Chief Inspector in command of the Detective Division.
In practice, Foyle is in charge of police homicide investigations. He is analogous in position to Inspector Queen in
the Ellery Queen books, and Inspector Piper in Stuart Palmer.
All of these men are the main police contacts of their detective heroes.
Foyle appears in such Dr. Willing works as Dance of Death, The Man in the Moonlight,
The Deadly Truth (Chapter 12), Cue for Murder,
Alias Basil Willing, "The Case of the Duplicate Door". He briefly talks on the phone
with Willing in Through a Glass, Darkly (Chapter 14), and is mentioned at the end of Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
He sends a telegram to the hero of She Walks Alone (start of Chapter 13), a non-Willing mystery.
In some ways, Foyle anticipates the personality of the policeman contact Max Ritter in
Lawrence Blochman's Dr. Coffee tales. Both Foyle and Ritter are earthier in speech than the
more educated scientist detective heroes they work with, Dr. Willing and Dr. Coffee.
Foyle and Ritter can be a bit what my parents used to call "gut level" in their dialogue.
But neither man is vulgar in speech or behavior, and both are intelligent and determined.
The other main recurring detectival character in the Willing tales is Dr. "Piggy" Lambert,
the New York City toxicologist. He tends to appear in fewer scenes per book than Foyle.
His lab is in New York's famous hospital, Bellevue. His appearances include
Alias Basil Willing (Chapter 9, section 2).
By contrast, such characters in Dance of Death as Commissioner Archer or
D.A. Morris Sobel don't seem to return in later books.
The unnamed Admiral in US Naval Intelligence who makes a brief appearance in the
final chapter of The Goblin Market, seems to return in "The Singing Diamonds".
This time, he has a name: Curtis Laidlaw.
Dr. Basil Willing is not an "amateur sleuth". Not only is he a credentialed professional psychiatrist
and medical doctor, he is also a paid official consultant to New York City's District Attorney.
And during World War II, he works for US Government Intelligence. He is thus unlike the many
unpaid amateur detectives of the Van Dine School, such as S. S. Van Dine's
Philo Vance, the detective Ellery Queen in the books by Ellery Queen,
or Miss Hildegarde Withers in Stuart Palmer. Despite
Dr. Willing's official professional status, he often resembles these amateur sleuths in
being a highly intelligent man, gifted at reasoning, who is not a policeman,
but who works with the official police on murder investigations in New York City.
In other words, McCloy's Dr. Willing books can have the "feel" of Van Dine school amateur detective novels,
even though Dr. Willing is paid and not an amateur detective.
Basil Willing meets his future wife Gisela von Hohenems in the second McCloy novel
The Man in the Moonlight. She shows up in subsequent Willing books.
It is hard to describe her as a "detective": I can't recall her doing any sleuthing in the novels.
She sometimes interacts with the other characters and suspects, though.
Gisela von Hohenems is a likable enough, inoffensive character, but I can't view her
as especially interesting. The books stress her beauty and appeal.
But she never actually seems to do anything of significance.
Willing and his wife have a daughter, also named Gisela.
She is mentioned as a child in Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
She shows up as a grown woman in "Murphy's Law" and "That Bug That's Going Around".
McCloy has series sleuths other than Dr. Willing:
Miguel Urizar is Hispanic; Dr. Alfred Neroni's ancestors come from Sicily and are ethnically Greek.
Much is made of Dr. Basil Willing as being of Russian descent. All of these men are non-WASPs.
They are also all suave social sophisticates.
- Police Captain Miguel Urizar of the fictitious Caribbean island of Santa Teresa,
appears in both The Goblin Market and She Walks Alone.
- Dr. Alfred Neroni in A Question of Time and The Sleepwalker, is a Boston medical doctor
who helps solve the mysteries in those books. He partly functions as a detective, although
he has no official standing as a sleuth.
Miguel Urizar is part of the same "universe" as Basil Willing, as links in his two novels show.
But as best I can tell, Dr. Alfred Neroni is not part of this universe.
WARNING: SPOILERS in this section.
Both doubles and impersonation are subjects that run through many McCloy works.
They often get treated as the basis for ingenious mystery puzzle plots,
or startling plot twists. They are also looked at as a surrealist development,
something odd and strange that happens to the characters.
Impersonation is a major plot gambit in McCloy's first novel Dance of Death.
One very young woman impersonates another. Later McCloy mystery-thrillers like
The Long Body and The Changeling Conspiracy raise the possibility of impersonation
as a plot twist. In all of these works, impersonation is a clever plot twist,
but not actually part of a mystery puzzle, strictly speaking.
These stories also resemble one another, in that the person being impersonated is a very young woman:
a teenage debutante in Dance of Death.
The start of Alias Basil Willing involves impersonation, the basic facts of which are shared with the reader.
The mystery in this book is why the impersonation is taking place.
BIG SPOILERS. Possible impersonations play a role in puzzle plot solutions in
The Man in the Moonlight, The Goblin Market, The One That Got Away.
Cue for Murder (1942) breaks new ground, in that one character's strong resemblance to another
is part of the solution to a mystery puzzle. There is no impersonation. Instead,
the two men involved can be classified as "doubles" for each other.
Vicente in The Goblin Market can be seen as a sort of double for his boss: at least,
the two men dress alike, like the two men in Cue for Murder.
McCloy's most elaborate employment of the double theme occurs in Through a Glass, Darkly
and Unfinished Crime. Doubles are explored intensively, both as mystery puzzle plot subjects,
and as surrealist events.
Dr. Willing is especially interested in human sensory perception,
the mechanisms by which people see, hear and feel. These often
play crucial roles in the stories. Although the designation of
Willing as a psychiatrist might lead one to assume that Willing
is a specialist in Freudian psychoanalysis, in actual fact he
seems most interested in perception and thinking, what today we
would call "cognitive psychology".
A persistent theme of McCloy's work consists of characters who
are alone in a private world, one limited and closed off by their
perceptions, perceptions of reality that are different from other
people's. Sometimes these "private" ways of perception
emerge from the character's physical and mental states; in other
stories the perceptions are imposed on them by other characters,
often the villains of the story up to some nefarious plot. In
some of her early stories, it is Dr. Willing who uses his expertise
in cognitive psychology to explore and define the parameters of
these private worlds. Later on, in a novel like The Sleepwalker
(1974), these concerns are woven into the fabric of a suspense
novel. I have to be a bit vague about the actual mechanisms and
content of these private perceptual worlds; they usually form
the basis of either the solution of McCloy's works, or major plot
surprises that she throws out midway.
Cognitive psychology is very much grounded in science. So this aspect
helps make the McCloy works that employ it scientific detective stories.
There are far too many appearances of cognitive psychology in McCloy to list them all here.
Instead cognitive psychology will be examined in detail in the discussions of individual novels.
Willing is also an expert in various kinds of mental illness,
their symptoms and diagnosis.
Psychiatrist and psychologist characters other than sleuth Dr. Willing also show up
in McCloy mysteries:
Children's imaginary playmates are mentioned briefly in Dance of Death (Chapter 8),
Who's Calling? (Chapter 2, section 3).
- The university professor of Experimental Psychology in The Man in the Moonlight.
- The young doctor studying to be a psychiatrist in Who's Calling?.
- A psychiatrist in Do Not Disturb.
- A psychologist in Panic.
- The young hero who is a psychiatrist specializing in juvenile delinquency
in The One That Got Away.
- The young woman who is assistant professor of Social Psychology in "The Singing Diamonds".
- A psychiatrist and some of his patients are among the suspects in Alias Basil Willing.
- Psychologist Dr. Clinton runs a clinic, mainly for recovering alcoholics,
but with other psychological patients too in Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
- Dr. Alfred Neroni in A Question of Time and The Sleepwalker is a
skilled Boston physician whose cases often involve a combination of medicine and psychology.
- The sinister psychiatrist in The Impostor holds the heroine prisoner in his clinic.
- The psychiatrist Dr. Lucien Bertrand is a suspect in The Smoking Mirror.
Poltergeist mysteries, created by emotionally disturbed pranksters, are studied in
Who's Calling? and Mr. Splitfoot.
The cognitive psychology of dogs is explored in Panic, "Murder Stops the Music" and Burn This.
Mysteries by other writers that explore aspects of Cognitive Psychology:
See also films:
In addition to psychology, the field of Social Anthropology sometimes gets discussed in McCloy.
These are usually brief discussions, and often don't play any significant role in the mystery plot:
- The Return of October (Joseph H. Lewis, 1948).
- The Makeover (John Gray, 2013).
The murder victims in both Panic and The Changeling Conspiracy
are older well-to-do scholarly men who have done archaeological work abroad.
Ancient Greece and its mythology is a key element of Panic.
- A college student is majoring in Anthropology in Dance of Death (Chapter 20).
- The university professor of Social Anthropology in The Man in the Moonlight.
- The mention of exogamy in Who's Calling? (Chapter 2).
- The book on matrilineal inheritance in the Ancient Greeks in Panic (Chapter 1),
plus discussion of Ancient Greek religion (Chapter 4).
- The ancient Scottish Picts in The One That Got Away. A look back at the way of life in Ancient Sparta (Chapter 8).
Also, a novelist's analyses of modern society are compared to anthropology (Chapter 2).
- A zoology professor is interested in reading about Social Anthropology in in She Walks Alone (middle of Chapter 13).
- The literary novelist's look at modern life is compared to that of a Social Anthropologist,
in Two-Thirds of a Ghost (Chapter 2).
- The suspect who is a social anthropologist in The Further Side of Fear (Chapters 3, 5).
This book contains more discussion of the ancient Scots. It also discusses the "levirate",
mentioned earlier in Dance of Death.
In addition to Panic, Ancient Greece runs through other McCloy works:
Other parts of the Ancient World also appear in McCloy:
- There are references to Ancient Greece in The Goblin Market, but they are
not especially archaeological.
- Sparta and its militaristic education for boys is deeply criticized in The One That Got Away (Chapter 8).
- Costume designs for the Ancient Greek play Medea are discussed
in Through a Glass, Darkly (Chapter 3). This allows McCloy to
introduce history and social lore about Ancient Greece, especially the activities of women.
- The Sleepwalker refers to the Ancient Greek concept of "enthusiasm" (Chapter 2),
speculation that Ancient Alexandria had the internal combustion engine (Chapter 3)
and the Greek presence in Sicily (Chapter 10).
- McCloy's sleuth Dr. Alfred Neroni in A Question of Time and The Sleepwalker,
has ancestors from Sicily, but they seem to be mainly descendants of Ancient Greeks.
- The archaeology of old Greek coins plays a role in "Murphy's Law".
Sicily and its Ancient Greek city of Syracuse are mentioned.
- A character is nicknamed Nemesis in Burn This, and a magazine New Parnassus.
Helen McCloy studied and worked for a new service and as an art critic in 1920's and 1930's France.
Perhaps inspired by this first-hand knowledge, France in this era pops up as a subject of McCloy books.
It is often part of characters' backgrounds, a place they lived before
returning to their homes in the USA or Britain:
- Augurs in Ancient Rome, and the Triumvirate, are mentioned in Two-Thirds of a Ghost (Chapters 6, 14).
- A valuable Ancient Roman statue serves as a MacGuffin in A Change of Heart.
The Roman cult of the Mithraic Mysteries is discussed.
- References to Persian mythology are a clue in The Impostor.
- Pre-Columbian mythology and prehistoric Danish statues are referred to in
The Smoking Mirror (end of Chapter 2, and the last pages of the novel).
The US public has always been fascinated by France. Americans want read about it.
So in addition to her personal connection to France, McCloy could be assured that including French material
in her books would appeal to readers.
- The heroine Dance of Death grew up in France.
- Socialite Claudia Bethune in The Deadly Truth was prominent in Paris society, before the war brought her back to the USA.
- The American heroine had been married and worked in France; both she and her French ex-husband are now in the USA in Do Not Disturb.
- Four characters in The One That Got Away lived in France before the War, and some of their life there is discussed.
- Characters in the novella "Better Off Dead" have a background in France.
- The heroine of The Long Body lived for a while in pre-war France, while her diplomat husband was stationed in Paris.
- A French character appears in "Murder Stops the Music", but he is not given a history in France, perhaps due to the tale's brevity.
- The D-Day invasion of France is discussed on the radio, in the historical opening of A Change of Heart.
- The Smoking Mirror is a historical novel mainly set in France in the early days of World War II.
- Dr. Basil Willing, McCloy's series sleuth, also has a background in Paris during these years.
Other countries appear too. China is the locale for "Chinoiserie", and a subplot in "The Singing Diamonds".
In addition, the New York City-set The Man in the Moonlight has a non-stereotyped Chinese character.
Caribbean islands are the setting of all or part of The Goblin Market, She Walks Alone and
"The Pleasant Assassin" (1970) is one of a series of
late McCloy short stories that center around secret codes.
These very short code stories - each
is around 10 to 12 pages - are jammed with enough plot and background
to furnish a whole novel. Their plotting tends to suffer from
coincidence and improbability, but they can be fun to read, anyway.
These code stories seem to begin with "Dead Man's Code" (1954).
This piece is signed by McCloy's husband at the time, mystery
writer Brett Halliday, and stars his series detective, private
eye Michael Shayne. However, Halliday's 1955 introduction to the
tale states that it was largely ghost written by McCloy while
he was busy with a novel.
McCloy's short story "Murder Ad Lib" (1964) also contains a code.
As discussed below, The Goblin Market (1943) has code elements.
McCloy's novel Panic (1944) has an extensive mystery subplot, dealing with a
new kind of cipher. Real-life code expert Étienne Bazeries is mentioned repeatedly.
Jargon and slang used by the Mafia to communicate appears in a subplot in The Sleepwalker (Chapter 10).
The slang is designed to be incomprehensible to outsiders. It is thus a simple kind of code.
McCloy cites speculation that much slang has origins in such thieves' code.
The Impostor is another McCloy novel with extensive material about complex secret ciphers.
The crooks in "Murphy's Law" (1979) use a simple code to communicate.
Some of McCloy's works do not contain actual codes, but link their imagery to
the world of cryptography:
McCloy's characters tend to have detailed life histories. These
are often explored and probed over the course of a novel, with
new aspects coming to light.
Troubled young people, often teenagers, are a frequent McCloy subject:
- Who's Calling? (Chapter 9) describes the cryptic remarks about celebrities,
popular in newspaper gossip columns of the day, as a kind of code.
- In "Murder Stops the Music", Dr. Willing compares interpreting clues in a mystery, and discovering their real meaning,
to reading a cipher. He calls the discovered meanings "the clear": a standard term for decoded text.
- In The Changeling Conspiracy the hero's guesses while trailing a car are compared
to guesses breaking a cipher, when information is incomplete (middle of Chapter 4).
McCloy compares this to the cipher breaking methods of real-life expert Étienne Bazeries.
Odd nicknames adopted by criminals when they join a radical group, and other crook's jargon,
are compared to codes (end of Chapter 13).
An archetypal situation in McCloy is a vulnerable young woman,
living in a building full of potentially menacing strangers:
- The debutantes in Dance of Death.
- The puzzling behavior of the teenage boy in The One That Got Away.
- The suspicious teenagers in The Further Side of Fear.
- The teenage girl planning a poltergeist hoax in Mr. Splitfoot.
- The young people in A Question of Time.
- The kidnap victim and her friends in The Changeling Conspiracy.
- Thereon in The Impostor.
The heroine runs a small apartment house in Burn This, but there is not
much sense of her being menaced by the tenants.
Descriptions of elaborate, and sometimes unusual buildings were a common feature
in Golden Age mysteries. This interest extended to "landscape architecture":
grounds of buildings, college campuses, farm spreads, city street scenes and parks, etc.
- The poor cousin staying with her rich relatives in Dance of Death.
- The young traveler to New York staying in the sinister hotel in Do Not Disturb.
- The young art teacher Faustina Crayle in Through a Glass, Darkly
staying at the forbidding girl's school.
- The heroine of Unfinished Crime at her New York apartment building.
- The antiques writer temporarily staying in London in a set of flats in
The Further Side of Fear.
- The heroine of The Sleepwalker at her apartment house.
McCloy's books have some interesting examples of
New York City architecture and landscape architecture:
Architecture plays a role in such country-set mysteries as The One That Got Away and Mr. Splitfoot.
The wife in The One That Got Away (1945) who writes popular fiction is a recurring
kind of character in McCloy's books. Earlier, there was a somewhat similar
although far less sympathetic woman author of lucrative but low
brow popular novels in McCloy's Who's Calling? (1942).
In that early book, McCloy seems to follow the standard literary
party line, depicting popular fiction as worthless, formulaic
pap. By the time of The One That Got Away (1945), McCloy
is far more admiring of the skill it takes to write popular fiction.
Both women's writing is the main support of their families.
- The Manhattan college campus and Southerland Hall in The Man in the Moonlight.
- The theater, the alley and the bar next door, as well as the art gallery in Cue for Murder.
- The hotel in Do Not Disturb.
- The victim's New York City home and surrounding yards in Panic.
- The rounded garden in "The Singing Diamonds".
- The brief look at the streets and buildings in the far south of Manhattan in "The Case of the Duplicate Door".
- The cityscapes and buildings in The Changeling Conspiracy.
By Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956), there is a spirited defense
of mystery fiction, and a more skeptical look at standard "serious"
literature (Chapter 9).
However, there is reason to believe that McCloy had
positive feelings towards mystery fiction right from the start.
The dust jacket of her first novel, The Dance of Death
(1938), contains a quote from McCloy comparing the prejudices
facing mystery fiction in the 1930's to those faced by the Novel
itself in the 19th Century, and declaring her intention to write
many more mysteries.
"The Singing Diamonds" (1949) has a snotty university psychology professor,
who denounces "comic books, radio, movies and detective fiction" as harming the minds
of the American public. McCloy is perhaps taking a satirical view of such criticisms.
The huge real-life attack on comic books is best remembered today, involving a Senate hearing
and well-publicized books and articles demonizing comics. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham had already
begun his critique of comic books with a 1948 article in Saturday Review.
But radio was also under siege, something noted critically in
Cat of Many Tails (1949) by Ellery Queen.
Crime tales bore the brunt of this attack, whether in comic books or on radio.
The elderly, shut-in aunt in Unfinished Crime (1954) turns out to be a huge mystery fan,
often reading two books a day. She is excellent at figuring out the mystery plot
that is happening to her niece! This seems to be attributed to all the "training"
she got by reading mystery fiction (Chapter 6). She also mentions
Poe's "The Purloined Letter", relating it to her niece's adventures.
She later defends mystery fiction, by saying it offers strong portraits of
every day life and social customs. something that will be valuable in the future (start of Chapter 10).
A crook lures the hero of "Murphy's Law" into a theft-scheme,
by first loaning the hero a fiction story about Raffles the Gentleman Thief,
then telling the hero it would be fun to commit a theft in real life, just like in the story.
This is rather like the aunt in Unfinished Crime - only she is imitating the detectives of fiction,
while the crooks in "Murphy's Law" are imitating a fictional thief.
While some McCloy works take a positive view of mystery fiction, The Sleepwalker (1974)
has a brief comment lampooning British Golden Age mysteries of the 1920's for dullness.
McCloy claims they have a murder in the first chapter, then nothing more happens.
Alias Basil Willing has a brief but sharp satire of the reviewing of "serious" literature
(end of Chapter 5).
McCloy herself was a prominent mystery reviewer. She won the Edgar Award
from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) in 1953 for her criticism.
She was also President of the MWA in 1950: the presidency is primarily an honorary position,
used to recognize top mystery authors.
Several McCloy stories take a look at journalism, and various institutions that support it:
McCloy had a real-life background as both a journalist and mystery writer.
- The hero is a traveling newspaperman, working for a press service that creates stories in "The Nameless Clue".
- Newspaper gossip columns play a role in Who's Calling?.
- The hero and other characters work at a news service, and the roles of women journalists are examined, in The Goblin Market.
- US Naval Intelligence manipulates press coverage, and how scientists talk to the press, in "The Singing Diamonds".
- Newspaper reporter Frank Lloyd is a supporting character in Alias Basil Willing.
- The heroine works as researcher for a magazine in Unfinished Crime (although this fact is mentioned only in passing).
- Book reviewers are prominent in Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
- The heroine is a professional writer, authoring articles on antique furniture in The Further Side of Fear.
- The heroine is a newspaper columnist who quits her job to become a political speechwriter in Minotaur Country.
- The heroine works for a magazine until it is taken over by a conglomerate and closed down in The Impostor.
- The heroine tries to get a job at a news service in The Smoking Mirror.
- Book reviewing is looked at in Burn This, and an intellectual magazine New Parnassus.
The heroine is a woman who writes short stories and verse.
McCloy's comments on literature, mystery fiction and popular fiction tend to concentrate
on the final product: the books themselves, their contents and quality.
Plus a look at the personal lives of authors.
By contrast, McCloy's portrait of journalism tends to offer inside looks at journalistic institutions:
how a news service works, what a reporter's work is like. The Goblin Market is especially detailed.
However, "The Singing Diamonds" does take a look at actual newspaper articles,
in examining how the government might manipulate the press.
A few of McCloy's works make explicit feminist statements:
McCloy shows women as successful at their jobs, running businesses and organizations:
- A woman notes critically that no women detectives or reporters investigated the case, in "The Nameless Clue".
- Women journalists and the restrictions placed on them by male chauvinism, are examined in The Goblin Market (Chapter 4).
- The One That Got Away sees Nazi pathologies as rooted in a denial that in Nature,
differences between men and women are small.
Instead the Nazis are obsessed with "exaggerating social differences between the sexes" (Chapter 11).
McCloy also states that human societies in general, exaggerate the difference between men and women, for economic reasons.
- Men who have systematic hatred of women are discussed in The Impostor (Chapter 1).
- A feminist look at bad treatment of woman scientists is in "That Bug That's Going Around".
McCloy has a special concern with maternity, and women raising children:
- The Sleepwalker takes place at a small nonprofit run by women, which benefits poor working women by providing daycare their children (Chapter 1).
- As listed above in the sections on "Popular Fiction" and "The Press",
there are several woman writers of fiction or journalism in McCloy.
- Unfinished Crime shows suspect Judith Jenkins as a shrewd, successful business person
who has made a go of her decorator shop. Unfinished Crime thus depicts women as having a gift for business and work (Chapters 3,4).
- A woman in "Murder Stops the Music" is a famous classical pianist, now retired.
McCloy's writing is feminist, in that it sometimes endorses feminist ideas, treats working women as successful and admirable,
and has some incisive comments on feminist issues.
However, feminism is just one of many strands woven through McCloy's books.
Her books frequently spend 95% of their time discussing other topics.
- The One That Got Away denounces Fascism, depicting it as rooted in woman hatred, and rejection
of a mother's tender care of children. It cites the Hitler Youth as an example of how the Nazis wanted to replace the female-headed
home by public macho-oriented programs of child rearing (Chapter 8).
- Sara justifies Caroline's donation to a hospital, by noting it has an outstanding maternity clinic, in Unfinished Crime (Chapter 11).
- The nonprofit in The Sleepwalker justifies helping poor unwed mothers with children,
by noting such help reduces child mortality rates (Chapter 1).
- A mother vigorously protests experiments her psychologist professor husband runs on their baby, in The Man in the Moonlight.
I have not made a systematic study of which McCloy works pass the Bechdel Test. I suspect some McCloy novels
with male protagonists might fail. Those with female protagonists might be more successful.
Unfinished Crime, a novel written from the Point Of View of its heroine, easily passes the Bechdel Test:
Caroline, Edna and heroine Sara discuss the ruby at the center of the book's mystery (near the start of Chapter 7);
later Caroline and Sara discuss the mystery of the ruby again (middle of Chapter 11).
These are substantive discussions, strongly linked to the book's mystery plot.
Wealthy Americans as Nazi Supporters
SPOILERS. Several Helen McCloy novels are among a number of books and films,
that suggested rich Americans might be Nazi sympathizers and traitors:
All of these were created in 1942-1945, in the midst of World War II.
These works have a distinct class attitude: they suggest that the rich,
as a social class, are full of Nazi supporters and traitors.
- The film Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock, 1942).
- Frances Crane's The Yellow Violet (1942).
- Helen McCloy's The Goblin Market (1943).
- Helen McCloy's Do Not Disturb (1943).
- Vera Caspary's prose thriller novella "Stranger in the House" (1943).
- Zelda Popkin's So Much Blood (1944).
- Lawrence Lariar's The Man with the Lumpy Nose (1944).
- Helen McCloy's The One That Got Away (1945) (Chapter 8).
The last chapter of Do Not Disturb sets forth these rich men's far right philosophy.
Their conservative politics is directly linked to their support for the Nazis.
Business organization and innovation are a recurrent McCloy interest:
- The earlier comic book series Lt. Bob Neil of Sub 662,
which has an untitled story showing Nazi spies in upper class clothes and settings
(More Fun Comics #51, January 1940).
- Another comic book example: "The Rattlesnakes of the Deep" (Blue Bolt Comics #33 (Vol. 3 No. 9), February 1943),
about Blue Bolt.
- The Illustrious Dunderheads (1942), a non-fiction work by mystery writer Rex Stout,
collects politicians' speeches that argued non-interventionist or pro-Nazi ideas.
It makes horrifying reading. (Stout bitterly opposed such politicians.)
- John Rhode's mystery novel known as They Watched by Night (1941) in Britain
and Signal For Death in the USA looks for a hidden Nazi spy in an English village.
All the suspects are upper class English gentlemen.
This mystery lacks the explicit political commentary of McCloy and related writers.
Still, it sees the possibility that upper class Britishers might turn into traitorous Fascist ideologues.
Allan Dwan was a Hollywood director whose films often look at financial processes.
- The business and advertising aspects of the debutante world in The Dance of Death.
- Stock market manipulations that victimize small shareholders, and the hiring of professional strikebreakers in The Deadly Truth.
- The business aspects of being a sculptor in The Deadly Truth (Chapter 12.4).
- Direct mail marketing in "The Singing Diamonds".
- Book contracts with publishers and agents in Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
- A black man who owns a successful catering business in Two-Thirds of a Ghost (Chapter 6).
- A professional organizer of charity fundraisers in "Murder Stops the Music".
- Conglomerates in A Change of Heart.
- A small nonprofit in The Sleepwalker.
- Conglomerates are also examined, more superficially, in The Impostor.
A private company that produces electrical power, and a proposed public agency that would do the same thing and compete with it,
are featured in She Walks Alone (middle of Chapter 4, the paragraph on the newspaper towards the end of Chapter 15, Chapter 17).
This scenario directly pits private enterprise versus government action.
The One That Got Away (1945) (Chapter 10) links some of its detectives to socialism:
A sympathetic character endorses socialism in She Walks Alone (1948) (middle of Chapter 13).
This man is not a Communist: among the books he is shown reading (middle of Chapter 12) is the anti-Communist
Darkness at Noon (1940) by Arthur Koestler.
- The narrator-hero wrote a thesis on the psychology of socialism.
- Chief Constable Lord Ness represents the British Labor Party in Parliament.
McCloy books satirize well-to-do people who are opposed to socialized medicine:
Energy and how it is produced and used, are major issues for society in Helen McCloy works:
- A prosperous Park Avenue doctor in The Deadly Truth (Chapter 12.2).
- A wealthy society woman in Unfinished Crime (Chapter 11).
Issues of Energy show up in several mystery and science fiction works by other authors.
In mystery fiction:
It is notable how many woman mystery writers are interested in Energy
(Leslie Ford, Blanche Bloch, Dorothy Stockbridge Tillet, Virginia Perdue, Christopher Hale
Frances Lockridge and Helen McCloy are female).
- The future when the world will run out of oil, and alternative energy is used, in The Deadly Truth (1941) (Chapter 10.4).
- Oil tankers and their role in providing energy for World War II, play a role in The Goblin Market (1943).
- The proposed construction of a power system in the Western US, in She Walks Alone (1948)
(middle of Chapter 4, the paragraph on the newspaper towards the end of Chapter 15, Chapter 17).
Key science fiction texts include:
Some mysteries mention electric cars:
There is a new field: Energy Humanities. Scholars contribute to understanding energy, society and the future.
- "The Man Higher Up" (1909) in The Achievements of Luther Trant (1909 - 1910) by
William MacHarg and Edwin Balmer.
- A Pocketful of Noses (2009) by James Powell takes place in the imaginary country of San Sebastiano.
Among its features are the imaginary "Plessy-Voltiger electric landaulets".
- The Detroit Electric Scheme: A Mystery (2010) by D. E. Johnson.
- Who Killed the Electric Carriage? (2012) is an episode of the TV series Murdoch Mysteries
written by Paul Aitken and Graham Clegg, and directed by Harvey Crossland.
Physics is invoked in detective stories:
One gets the impression that physics was part of the zeitgeist of the period,
something intellectuals as a whole were interested in.
Airplanes are a recurrent McCloy interest:
Negative views are taken of two men who are World War II paratroopers (both men also express enthusiasm for the word "airborne"):
- Basil Willing is part of a group that regularly charters a hydroplane from Long Island in The Deadly Truth.
Planes eventually play a small role in the mystery plot.
- The hero rides in a plane to Scotland at the start of The One That Got Away.
- UFO's are the center of the mystery, and a pilot is a key character in "The Singing Diamonds".
- An airplane is the setting of an impossible crime in "The Case of the Duplicate Door".
- A suspect has a background as a pilot, and later in the airplane business in The Long Body (Part 1, Chapter 2).
Academics get fired from their jobs for their alleged left-wing politics during the HUAC-McCarthy era in:
- A brief satire of an over-violent member of the Army air-borne engineers in The Goblin Market (start of Chapter 21).
- A character wants to be a pilot in World War II, doesn't qualify, and becomes a paratrooper instead in A Change of Heart.
Much more briefly, Communism is mentioned as a possible motive for firing a high-school teacher in Through a Glass, Darkly,
but is immediately dismissed as not the actual cause.
And McCarthyism is mentioned in a newspaper headline in Alias Basil Willing (end of Chapter 5).
- She Walks Alone (middle of Chapter 13),
- The Long Body (Part 1, Chapter 5, and end of Part 3, Chapter 2)
- A Change of Heart.
Blacklisting is mentioned in other countries than the USA. Police Captain Miguel Urizar is on a blacklist in Spain,
for his activities on the losing side in the Spanish Civil War in The Goblin Market (middle of Chapter 16).
I am impressed with McCloy's courage in discussing this controversial issue.
But I also have reservations about her treatment of it.
One might note that the real-life HUAC-McCarthy purges were complex, that McCloy's treatment is complex and sometimes ambivalent,
and that McCloy's accounts of this subject might not always be completely historically accurate or present
all the relevant issues. In addition to such issues of fact, reasonable people might agree or disagree
with McCloy's attitudes on blacklisting, and views on what public policy should have been.
Changes in modern kitchens are detailed Mr. Splitfoot: not technological, but how they are organized
and styled. This is not quite "cognitive psychology", but it does relate to how
people structure a working area like the kitchen. McCloy is typically observant,
offering one of the mini-essays that dot her books (start of Chapter 7).
Earlier Through a Glass, Darkly (Chapter 2) had a brief discussion about
changes in kitchens over time. This discussion also has organizational aspects.
In "Murphy's Law", we learn that impoverished people are cooking in their
stove-less rented rooms by using immersion heaters.
In Dance of Death, we learn that twilight is Dr. Willing's favorite time of day.
The city in "The Nameless Clue" is described vividly under low light - it is hard to tell if
this is twilight or a very overcast winter day.
The first murder in The Goblin Market occurs at twilight (Chapter 3).
In The One That Got Away (Chapter 2), our first view of the Scots setting
is during the long twilight of the Far North, known as the "forenicht".
In The One That Got Away (Chapter 11), the dim light in the Pict house is compared to twilight.
A brief but vivid description of a twilight in New York City is in Alias Basil Willing
(start of Chapter 7). Later, we get a look at dusk at a Long Island country club (start of Chapter 8).
The Long Body contains an unusual discussion about "perceiving" the edge of a cliff at twilight,
by the "feel of the wind" (Part 1, Chapter 3). In the twilight and mist, it is impossible to see anything.
In The Changeling Conspiracy (start of Chapter 9), there are vivid views of
Manhattan skyscrapers and old Brooklyn buildings in the dusk.
This is described as the "best" view of Manhattan.
In "Murphy's Law" (middle of the story), there is a brief description of
Cambridge seeming to shimmer in a mist,
as seen through the window of Dr. Willing's apartment.
This is not twilight - but it is a related idea.
McCloy is a graceful, literate writer. There are descriptive passages
of the rain and the ocean in The Deadly Truth, which are
really beautiful. McCloy also has the "readability"
of the best storytellers: you can read her books in a single sitting.
Dance of Death (1938) is Helen McCloy's first mystery novel.
In Britain, it is called Design for Dying.
Dance of Death opens with the body of an unknown woman
discovered on a New York Street. The first mystery is: who is she?
But when Dr. Willing's detective work results in a tentative identification,
it immediately opens another mystery. When this mystery in turn is solved,
it too leads to another puzzling, mysterious situation, and so on, with more mysteries posed and solved.
This "chain of mysteries" is maintained through the book's long and inventive opening sequence (Chapters 1-9).
It also can be compared to a "series of nested boxes": when you open one box,
another box is found inside.
By the end of Chapter 9, we know a lot about the situation, but not all.
More is revealed in a later section (Chapters 19-21). A pair of ingenious surprise ideas here
lead to a more detailed picture of goings on, on the night of the murder.
Just considered as a story, the excellent opening is full of startling, imaginative
and often surreal events.
SPOILER. Disappointingly, the actual murder turns out to have little connection,
with the bizarre events we have been reading about in much of the novel.
The actual murder mystery itself is not very creative. Only the motive aspects offer some ingenuity,
in regards to the timing of events in the novel.
Setting and Characters: Links to My Man Godfrey
The wealthy household bears some resemblance to
an earlier hit film of the era, My Man Godfrey (1936). My Man Godfrey takes place
in a huge New York City mansion of the wealthy, just like the later Dance of Death.
Two very wealthy young heiresses live in the mansion, a bit like the heiress in Dance of Death
and her poorer cousin. In both works, the older woman who runs the household is a chic
Society woman, who keeps a comically repulsive young male artist as a houseguest as her "protege".
My Man Godfrey opens with a scavenger hunt; a scavenger hunt is mentioned as being fun
by the heiress in Dance of Death.
Both works offer a contrast between these society people, and the Depression with its poor men
swirling around them. In Dance of Death, this is an opening chapter showing poor men
working for the WPA shoveling snow.
Dance of Death centers on a debutante ball. As shown in the book,
debutantes were huge media celebrities in this era, covered in the press,
and making celebrity endorsements in advertisements. Other American mysteries also
looked at debutantes, notably Our Second Murder (1941) by Torrey Chanslor.
Vera Caspary's "Murder at the Stork Club" (1945) has some interesting insights-in-passing into the debutante scene.
McCloy takes a fairly skeptical look at the "business" aspects of the debutante world,
including advertisements. Caspary moves into full scale deconstruction,
not just of debutantes, but other aspects of celebrity culture.
Earlier "Gulf Stream Green" (1929) by Frederick Irving Anderson
looked negatively at the financial aspects and commercial deals that underpin the cult of celebrity.
"Gulf Stream Green" does not discuss debutantes, however.
Death in a White Tie (1938) by Ngaio Marsh examines London debutantes.
It's a very good novel, but the English debutante system depicted is different from the American one,
and not immediately comparable to the above books.
It is tempting to point out that McCloy, Chanslor, Caspary and Marsh were all woman authors,
and that they were perhaps interested in a popular, prominent social system like the debutantes,
that was centered on women. However, this statement could have problems: for example,
there might easily be other mysteries of the period focussing on debutantes,
and some of them might be written by men.
Dance of Death has chapter titles based on kinds of paintings.
In McCloy's next book The Man in the Moonlight, all chapter titles are words that
begin with E. In Cue for Murder, all the chapter titles are theater terms.
These sort of arbitrary or highly stylized titles sometimes appear in
other Golden Age mystery writers, such as Ellery Queen and Ngaio Marsh.
They seem to disappear in McCloy after these early books.
The opening quotation in Dance of Death, from which the book's title derives,
is from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Golden Legend (1851).
The Man in the Moonlight (1940) is Helen McCloy's second mystery novel. It is less impressive than her first,
but it is elaborately constructed with many subplots and has some well-done material.
It also appeared in the magazine Cosmopolitan in 1940, apparently one of McCloy's few
novels to appear in the prestigious, high-paying "slick" magazines.
Mystery Plot: The Main Murders
The Man in the Moonlight is full of mystery subplots. They are frustratingly uneven, ranging from ingenious
to uncreative. The core murder mystery - who did the crime? - is unfortunately one of the book's
poorest mysteries. Also second-rate: the related puzzle of "who is the man in the moonlight, and why
are so many witnesses giving different descriptions of him?". Since both the mystery about the killer,
and the title puzzle about The Man in the Moonlight are unmemorable, it is easy to
disparage the novel.
Some of the clues to the killer's identity are psychological. They are detailed and carefully thought through.
But they also seem rest on ideas about the killer's mind that seem dubious: one could come up
with innocent explanations for the killer's attitudes and psychology.
Best puzzle about the main murder: how was it physically carried out? It doesn't look like a murder at all.
How did the killer do it? This puzzle is reasonably clever.
This kind of "howdunit" is a standard category of mystery puzzle.
One might note that this howdunit has nothing to do with the puzzle of who did the crime.
Mystery Sub-Plots: The Characters' Secrets
However, there is a series of impressive subplots: mainly mysteries about various characters.
These characters have secrets, and there are often clues to these in their behavior.
- What is the first victim concealing in his life and actions? This impressive puzzle is solved twice,
with two highly different solutions. Both solutions weave together many different clues
in the man's behavior, to discover hidden overall patterns. Such a "constructed concealed pattern"
is one of the joys of mystery fiction.
- The second victim also has hidden secrets. These are less clued, and less the subject
of a fair play mystery puzzle, than the life of the first victim. But: the second victim's
secrets are startlingly different and original. BIG SPOILER. They anticipate an idea in
The One That Got Away.
- The heroine is the subject of a small-but-nice puzzle: "How does a refugee afford such nice clothes?"
This is one of McCloy's "bizarre events, hard to explain" mysteries.
- Suspect Ian Halsey has secrets. Clues about his behavior are also woven into a hidden pattern.
And then given a second explanation later. This is the same kind of mystery puzzle and solution,
as is developed around the first victim. However, the puzzle and solutions about the first victim
are more ingenious. The Halsey puzzle also is dated in its treatment of issues in Halsey's life.
The psychology professor is doing highly unpleasant experiments on his
own baby, over the strenuous objections of his wife, the child's mother.
This anticipates McCloy's later worries about child rearing in The One That Got Away:
that it will be taken away from mothers, and performed instead by a Nazi-like government.
This is just one child in The Man in the Moonlight, and the government is not involved.
Still, it is frightening to read about, and stands as an eerie precursor to McCloy's later writings.
Universities in mystery fiction of the 1920-1955 era often get surprisingly negative treatment.
This psychology professor is a chilling human being. And other professors in
The Man in the Moonlight are murder suspects. They are a sinister bunch.
There is little sign of any attitude that universities exist to serve the public,
or that professors are lovable men who gently train students. Instead,
the university in The Man in the Moonlight seems like a remote place,
unaccountable to the public, and potentially full of sinister experiments and activities.
Yorkville University seems entirely fictitious. But Yorkville itself is a real neighborhood
of Manhattan, located roughly in the same East Side area depicted in the novel.
As best I can tell, it does not contain any real-life colleges that
might have served as a model for the book's school.
Architecture: Listening Posts
SPOILER. Basement rooms in Southerland Hall allow one to eavesdrop on laboratories above.
This anticipates Mr. Splitfoot (Chapter 3), in which similar listening can be done in an attic.
The scenes in both novels, in which the listening areas are discovered and explored,
are among the livelier episodes in both tales. The ventilator in She Walks Alone also
The campus is nicely depicted. It is one of the landscape architecture locales
that run through Golden Age mystery fiction. The campus is the subject of the back cover map
in the Dell "mapback" paperback edition.
The Deadly Truth (1941) is one of Helen McCloy's poorest mysteries.
The tone of the book is unpleasant, focusing on a decadent international socialite
and her mean-spirited activities.
Rare for the normally liberal McCloy, there is some bigotry about minority groups.
The quote from Balzac (Chapter 12.6) is racist. Dubious, negative generalizations are made about
the deaf (towards the end of Chapter 8). Even the "positive" comments on dark people (Chapter 11.2) are odd and over-generalized.
Another "positive" but dubious generalization: do black people have an "eye for color" in design (Chapter 9)?
Other problems with The Deadly Truth are discussed in the article below.
On the plus side, there is some good mystery plotting. The novel is richly detailed, with several absorbing parts.
Links to The Man in the Moonlight
The Deadly Truth resembles The Man in the Moonlight, McCloy's previous novel:
It is hard not to suspect that McCloy planned The Deadly Truth as a novel in the same style and approach as
The Man in the Moonlight.
- Both have a research scientist as a character, and much about science as a background to the stories.
- Both have a prosperous businessman as a character, too.
- The Southerland Foundation finances research and a laboratory building at the university in
The Man in the Moonlight; a biochemist works at the Southerland Foundation itself in
The Deadly Truth.
- A lie detector is used in The Man in the Moonlight, a new truth serum is at the core of The Deadly Truth.
- Both involve a vial of strange medical tablets among their clues and props.
- Both have refugees from the war in Europe among their characters, although this aspect
in much less prominent in The Deadly Truth.
- Both have spooky, dimly witnessed events at night.
- In The Deadly Truth sleuth Basil Willing continues in the romance with Gisela von Hohenems
started in The Man in the Moonlight. Otherwise, the two books do not share characters.
As discussed in detail below, both The Deadly Truth and The Man in the Moonlight
have numerous subplots, concerning mysterious secrets in the suspects' and victims' lives.
Much of the mystery in both novels revolves around the sleuth's attempts to reveal these secrets.
The Man in the Moonlight mainly takes place in a University setting, and scientific research
is depicted or discussed throughout. By contrast, only the opening of The Deadly Truth transpires
at a scientific research facility (the Southerland Foundation). Most of the book takes place at a fashionable country estate
and an upper crust house party there. The Deadly Truth is poorer for this: I would have preferred
more scenes of medical research, and less of the generic country house party.
Mystery Plot: The Main Murder
The identity of the murderer is indicated by a large number of clues (see the solution in Chapter 15).
This gives this plot a certain solid value, although one does not want to make grandiose claims for it.
A necklace is hidden in an out of the way place (Chapter 11.5). This anticipates in a mild way,
the better near-impossible-crime mystery puzzles about hidden objects in later McCloy books.
Mystery Sub-Plots: The Characters' Secrets
The Deadly Truth contains subplots. These mainly focus on characters' mysterious secrets,
which are eventually revealed. The Man in the Moonlight was also a book
focussing on mystery subplots about characters' secrets.
SPOILER. The big secret involving the central characters
is indeed fairly clever, considered as a surprising plot twist (Chapter 6).
But it is also a cruel hoax, and not really fun to think about.
SPOILER. The lack of notes for Michael's writing (Chapter 10.3) anticipates a similar lack of notes or working materials
in the author's home in Two-Thirds of a Ghost. Both have similar causes, too.
These ideas are developed more elaborately in Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
Mystery Sub-Plots: Secrets of Charles and the Butler
BIG SPOILERS in this section.
A mystery subplot about one of Charles's secrets (start of Chapter 15) recalls
the second twist about suspect Ian Halsey in The Man in the Moonlight.
Both of these puzzles involve cognitive psychology aspects.
The subplot about the butler's secret (solved at the end of Chapter 8)
also has some similarities of the Charles and Ian Halsey subplots.
The butler's secret, Charles' secret, the twist about Ian Halsey in The Man in the Moonlight.
all have some broad structural resemblances to the subplot about the purser in She Walks Alone (Chapter 10), and whether he can read.
There are also specific links between the butler's secret, and the intrigue in A Change of Heart
about the Russians and translation.
Politics: Labor and Management
SPOILER. The other mystery subplot about Charles (solved in Chapter 14) is politically
striking. It shows McCloy's left-of-center skepticism about the rich.
It also paints labor leaders in an extremely poor light. This plot shows a fair amount of ingenuity.
But is it fair in its depiction of labor leaders? Did any ever act this was in real life?
One villainous labor leader is described as a possible Communist (Chapter 13).
Direct references to Communism in McCloy are generally negative.
By contrast, Ted Currie is a sympathetic New Dealer who supports the rights of labor and unions (Chapter 11.3).
He is perhaps included to give some "balance" to the coverage of labor issues.
Poetry: James Elroy Flecker
McCloy once again shows her love of poetry. Verses by James Elroy Flecker are woven into the plot.
The page found in the fireplace quotes Flecker's "Epithalamion" (Chapter 10.3).
The quote at the end (Chapter 15) about "The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea"
is from Flecker's "The Gates of Damascus".
The poets quoted by McCloy tend to be Victorian or Edwardian, and write verse in a traditional, non-modernist style.
Flecker is a late example of this poetic approach.
Time: Present vs Future
An interest in Time runs through McCloy's fiction. The Deadly Truth (Chapter 12.3)
contrasts the present with the future. It says that to lead "the good life", humans must see possibilities
in some sort of future. By contrast, living only in the present dehumanizes people,
turning them into animals lacking human feelings or thoughts.
Like many ideas in McCloy, this above concept has links to cognitive psychology:
how humans think and perceive.
Who's Calling? (1942) is mainly a minor book, but with a few
interesting aspects. It is a formal mystery puzzle story, but it is better for
its colorful storytelling and odd plot developments, than for most of its mystery plot ideas.
Who's Calling? falls into the traditions of the
Had I But Known School of American mystery fiction
(often abbreviated HIBK). This is untypical of Helen McCloy's books.
It has such HIBK features as:
The amusing opening forms a sort of sly burlesque or parody of the romance fiction of the day
(Chapters 1,2). The cliches of romance fiction are explicitly evoked, and
contrasted with reality, in a self-referential or Pirandellian way.
- A cast of socially prominent people from Old Money society,
- A look at their romantic problems and purely personal crises,
- A genteel setting near Washington DC: a favorite locale of the HIBK School.
The mystery plot is generally second-rate, especially
compared with McCloy's best fiction. The main mysteries are "who is committing the poltergeist pranks, and why?"
and "who committed the murder, and why?"
Sure enough, at the end we learn who is doing these things, and their motives.
There is nothing very creative about the answers. There is no ingenuity about
how the crimes are done, as there is in McCloy's impossible crime stories.
Furthermore, they stretch the plot of the book into implausibility.
As in many McCloy novels, some subplots are better than the main murder mystery.
However, even most of these subplots do not rise to the high levels of the subplots in
other McCloy mysteries.
The reconstruction of the prankster's movements around Eve's house shows some skill.
(The prankster's activities are shown in the end of Chapter 3 and Chapter 4,
and reconstructed by the sleuth in Chapter 9, section 2.)
This recalls the Golden Age interest in architecture.
A mysterious visitor (Maxim Lubov) shows up at the mansion, then departs.
Such mysterious visitors are a fairly common plot complication in detective fiction,
occurring in such HIBK works as Mary Roberts Rinehart's
"Episode of the Wandering Knife" (1943), and
Leslie Ford's The Woman in Black (1947).
The sleuth and the reader typically wonder who this visitor is, and what
relationship they have with the other characters.
The subplot about Chalkley's activities arrives at a two-part solution
(Chapter 9) SPOILERS:
The Chalkley subplot is another of McCloy's subplots focusing on a character's secrets.
Chalkley's activities also solve one of McCloy's "hard to explain situations":
the riddle of why anyone would want to kill a harmless man like Chalkley.
- The part about Chalkley's professional activities is an original idea.
This part of the solution includes a reference to the Trojan Horse.
There is also an original clue: the reducing glass, something I don't recall
being mentioned in any other detective novel. A reducing glass is linked to the ongoing McCloy theme
of "perception", although such cognitive psychology aspects are not stressed.
- The part about Chalkley's less legal activities is routine and conventional.
The main idea of this solution has been used in dozens, maybe hundreds of detective novels.
Best feature: a sound clue concerning Ernesto the servant.
Ernesto's characteristics, involved with the clue, also give him a pleasantly surrealist side.
The Strange Development
In Who's Calling?, McCloy comes up with a lollapalooza of a plot development (Chapters 9, 11).
It is startling, way out, and the most interesting plot aspect
of Who's Calling?. It anticipates later and better McCloy novels,
which also have audacious gambits as part of their premise or solution.
The idea in Who's Calling? is not as original or creative as the ideas
in these later works. And it is not as well integrated with an overall mystery puzzle,
as the ideas are in later McCloy works. Still, it shows McCloy moving in the right direction.
A courtroom battle over paternity and custody is discussed
(Chapter 8, section 2). The hoopla and media sensation over the book's fictitious case
of "Little Frieda", seems modeled on that surrounding the famous real life 1934 custody
courtroom battle over "Little Gloria" Vanderbilt. However, the facts of the two cases
are completely different. McCloy has introduced a dispute over paternity, something
that did not occur in the "Little Gloria" case. This gives a scientific aspect to
McCloy's story, with scientists testifying in court.
Cue for Murder (1942) is a theater mystery. It is set in New York City,
right after the USA's entry into World War II. Dr. Basil Willing begins his war-time role
of working in US Intelligence in this book: he is assigned to support the F.B.I.
However, spy activities play no role in the book.
The opening of Cue for Murder resembles in structure that of
Dance of Death. Both novels open with a dramatic event,
set among very poor working class people in New York City.
In both stories, these working class people are innocent witnesses to the event,
honest people who are not any sort of criminals.
In both novels, this opening forms a contrast with the rest of the book,
which is populated by well-to-do sophisticates.
A Literary Novel
The sophisticated characters introduced at an art show (Chapter 2) recall
Margery Allingham's The Fashion in Shrouds (1938).
Both novels feature a brainy young woman who is designing clothes
for a famous chic-but-superficial stage actress. Both works have an almost
suffocating emphasis on characterization of these two women, and "sophisticated" atmosphere.
This section seemed a bit dull on first reading - but a rereading shows
it establishes many character elements and situations that will play a role in the novel.
However, immediately after we get a long look at the theater itself (Chapter 3).
This is the first of three episodes in the novel that describe the play being acted on stage.
All three of these sections are remarkably vivid. They offer an in depth look at the theater
and its traditions. The later episodes repeat and vary the earlier ones,
in a surrealistic way. Such surrealist recurrence of events is a mystery story tradition,
found in writers like Ellery Queen and Craig Rice.
McCloy repeatedly makes negative comments in Cue for Murder
about amateurs, and their inability to contribute meaningfully to the arts.
A similar observation occurs in Two-Thirds of a Ghost, where it is also extended to politics.
In the years since, debates about the merits of amateurs have escalated, with the rise of the Internet.
McCloy would presumably side with social critics today, who suggest that amateurs and
their web sites are contributing little of value to the arts or journalism.
Mystery Plot: The Subplots
The subplot about Vladimir is another mysterious stranger
mystery in McCloy. Like the puzzle swirling about the unknown Maxim Lubov in
Who's Calling?, this stranger has a Russian name.
In neither book, does this Russian connection play any role in the plot.
The way Vladimir gets identified by the sleuth, shows good detective work and plotting.
Also good: the way the black coat worn by the figure on the fire escape seems to disappear,
despite an intensive search of the theater. This subplot is part of the Impossible Crime tradition.
The burglary at the start leads to two puzzles:
The mysteries that surround young actor Rod Tait's romantic entanglements also fall
into the category "bizarre events that are hard to explain". It begins with such an inexplicable
event: Rod concealing his engagement (Chapter 2). This subplot too is well done.
It is noteworthy as a formal mystery puzzle plot, that doesn't involve murder, theft
or any other form of crime: just personal relationships. This mystery has a more elaborate
construction than many of McCloy's "explain a bizarre event" mysteries. Typically such puzzles
in McCloy start out with a strange, hard to account for situation; then later on,
a logical explanation occurs. But Rod's situation is different. It keeps getting
apparently explained. Then new complications arise, which make it mysterious and baffling
all over again. This shows ingenuity, and skill at construction.
- The first, "why was nothing taken?",
get solved cleverly within a few pages. It is one of McCloy's puzzles about
"bizarre events that are hard to explain".
- The second puzzle about the burglary, "why was the canary set loose?", is more a psychological riddle,
rather than a bizarre event needing a logical explanation. It gets many proposed solutions throughout the novel.
Mystery Plot: The Main Murder Mystery
The mystery plotting in Cue for Murder has some limitations.
The main murder mystery is less developed as a puzzle, and has fewer plot surprises, than the
numerous well-done subplots. As a whole, this does not affect the overall quality of the novel,
which has a lot of interesting plotting. But it can be disappointing on a first reading of the book,
when one is expecting some big plot payoff from the murder mystery, and it doesn't come.
Also, some of the clues are suggestive, but not rigorously logical:
Consequently, the solution lacks the hard rigor of some Ellery Queen finales,
which logically establish that one and only one person could have committed the crime.
These ideas of the sleuth are ingenious - but they are suggestive rather than hard deductions.
- What the sleuth eventually concludes about the canary is a good guess, one that suggests
the identity of the killer. But many other ideas could also be true.
- Similarly, Basil Willing comes up with a clever idea about the line of dialogue
marked in the script. It's ingenious, and points to who the killer is.
But the book never establishes that this is the ONLY idea possible about the line.
SPOILER. The young man Basil sees in the bar (start of Chapter 3) is dressed just like him,
in similar evening clothes. Sociologically, this is not surprising:
men's evening wear in the 1940's was highly standardized by convention.
But it does allow McCloy to bring in one of her favorite themes: that of the Double.
The way Basil and the young man look just like each other plays a role twice later on in the mystery plot.
Both occurrences are small but interesting.
Interpretation of a Text
After interviewing the actress, Leo offers an
interpretation of her conversation. He points out that it conceals some hidden meanings,
and also that it reflects personal attitudes of the actress.
Similar passages occurs in She Walks Alone (start of Chapter 8, end of Chapter 17),
where the sleuth interprets a letter a woman has written,
showing hidden attitudes in it, and how they lead to distortions in her account.
In both cases, the woman's attitudes towards money, wealth and poverty are involved.
Such an interpretation has some links to McCloy subjects as Cognitive Psychology,
and "personal, private mental worlds". This is specially true of the analysis in
She Walks Alone.
The vivid description of the theater, the alley and the bar next door are in
the Golden Age tradition of creative architecture (Chapter 3). Height plays a role,
as it will with the office and street in her next novel The Goblin Market.
The stage set is also described in architectural terms.
The modernist glass-walled cube where the art exhibit is held comes in for some satire (Chapter 2).
Nightmarishly, McCloy suggests it is especially vulnerable in wartime.
The Goblin Market (1943) is one of several novels Helen McCloy
wrote with a spy background during World War II. Despite these
elements of international intrigue, the book is constructed as
a classic puzzle plot mystery. McCloy opens with a murder, and
the rest of the novel shows her hero detecting the solution to
the crime. Along the way, there are a whole series of subsidiary
mysteries; the hero solves these one at a time, in a succession
of chapters lasting throughout the book. In some of McCloy's novels,
the biggest surprise is not at the finale, but comes half way
through the book, usually in the form of a carefully planned plot
revelation sprung on the reader. Here, however, there is a steady
stream of ingenious twists and revelations throughout the entire
There is a tiny flaw in the logic of this otherwise ingenious
mystery novel. McCloy does not close her circle of suspects. That
is, later in the story McCloy shows that only one of the principal
characters in the book could have committed the murder, and there
are abundant, well planned clues demonstrating this. However,
McCloy never establishes that no outsider could have committed
the crime. It seems perfectly possible that some person we had
never seen or heard of could have committed these crimes; there
is no clue in the story indicating otherwise. Other than this
small nit, the book shows an excellent sense of logic, with deduction
used to reconstruct the crime, the circumstances leading up to
the murder, and the killer.
This is one of several works McCloy wrote centering on codes and ciphers.
In The Goblin Market, the "code" is cablese,
the shorthand jargon newspaper correspondents use for sending
journalistic cables to the home office.
McCloy includes what amounts to a detailed tutorial on
how to read and write cables and "cablese" (Chapters 3, 4). Similarly,
in Panic there will be a systematic introduction on how various kinds of ciphers work.
The Goblin Market offers many subplot mysteries involving the code.
Some, like the "fyi" and "capacity" puzzles, involve the code itself.
Others, like "max" and "NPH", are like the Dying Messages that are a standard gambit in mystery fiction.
Like Dying Messages, these are cryptic clues from a murder victim, that need to be interpreted.
They differ in that they are not statements from the victim while he is actually dying,
but things written by the victim shortly before his death.
A Background: Foreign Correspondents
McCloy had been a newspaper correspondent herself, in Paris,
so she was familiar with the profession from the inside.
There is a whole Background in The Goblin Market
depicting the lives of foreign correspondents. It contains
a wealth of intriguing detail, most of which is used to develop
ingenious mysteries in the puzzle plot.
The woman reporter gives a strong feminist overview (Chapter 4) about the need
for women journalists to break out of the box male editors put them in:
writing real journalism instead of the "women's point of view" ghetto
male editors want to restrict them to.
There is only a little about cognitive psychology in this tale:
Chapter 8 of The Goblin Market, "Missing Answers",
contains a clever self-parody of psychiatry, and of McCloy's previous
works with a psychiatrist-detective. It is good to see McCloy
being able to poke fun of herself. It also might indicate a change
in direction of her work: Willing would appear less frequently
in McCloy's books from this point forward.
An interesting discussion suggests people only notice what is below eye-level on the street,
but not above (middle of Chapter 6). (McCloy previously mentioned this in Cue for Murder (Chapter 3).)
- There is a brief mention of dreaming in foreign languages (end of Chapter 8).
The chapter also contains a reference, although not by name,
to the "Trojan Horse" episode in McCloy's earlier Who's Calling? (1942).
Warning: it gives away the only good mystery plot twist in that novel.
Links to Through a Glass, Darkly
Some elements in The Goblin Market (1943) anticipate McCloy's
later novel, Through a Glass, Darkly. Both books:
However, there is little of the earlier book's political commentary in
Through a Glass, Darkly. Instead, its place is taken structurally by much
analysis of psychical research: to me a much less significant subject.
- Explore the world of superstition, and use it as a background for some
ingenious mystery plot twists.
- Use a 19th Century Victorian poem dealing with supernatural events
to create atmosphere and add meaning to the tale.
- Look sympathetically at the world of demimondaines, with the feminist McCloy arguing
that such women are often unjustly undervalued by society.
(The Ancient Greek courtesans Phryne and Aspasia are mentioned in
The Goblin Market (start of Chapter 4).)
The office boy Vicente imitates and dresses like his boss (opening of Chapter 7):
perhaps a simple example of the double imagery that plays such a role
in Through a Glass, Darkly and other McCloy works.
The character Clarence Emmett offers a case study in the
ugly right-wing attitudes and behavior of the American rich (Chapters 11, 20).
McCloy offers a left-wing critique of the wealthy Right.
Her comments are trenchant and quite detailed, looking at many different
right-wing policies of which she disapproves.
This critique will get extended in her spy thriller Do Not Disturb.
McCloy also criticizes US support for anti-democratic regimes in Latin America (Chapters 9, 11).
There are discussions of the role wealthy American bankers allegedly played
in the rise to power of Mussolini, and the creation of Fascism (Chapter 14).
The United States is also critiqued for blockading the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (Chapter 14).
The novel asserts that broad powerful interests in the US are sympathetic to Fascism.
The oil tankers and their role in providing energy for World War II, show that Energy was
very much on people's minds in this era. McCloy's She Walks Alone will look at
the proposed construction of a power system in the Western US.
Santa Teresa, the book's setting, is an imaginary island in the Caribbean.
There are repeated hints that it is near Venezuela. In real life, there are numerous
small islands off the coast of Venezuela, some of which are independent countries,
like Santa Teresa in The Goblin Market.
I read this book in the Dell "mapback paperback". The back cover of this edition
include both a map of the island of Santa Teresa, and a floor plan of the news office where much
of the action is set. Both were big helps to me.
The title and quotations in the novel, come from Christina Rossetti's poem
"Goblin Market" (1859). SPOILER. McCloy's interpretation of Rossetti's "Goblin Market"
sees the poem as about commercial trade in illegal and/or immoral goods (Chapter 20).
She concentrates in her quotes and commentary on the goblins and what they sell,
which symbolize merchants involved with evil selling. McCloy's book might be seen as a look
at one of the darkest sides of capitalism.
According to the Wikipedia,
much post-1970 academic commentary on Rossetti's "Goblin Market" emphasizes feminist aspects of the poem:
something that McCloy does not discus.
The quotation beginning "Sun-girt city!" (Chapter 6) is Percy Bysshe Shelley's
description of Venice, from "Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills" (1818).
McCloy's lush, intense, lyrical descriptions of the island in The Goblin Market,
do recall Shelley's equally burning descriptions in his poem.
Mitch's quotation beginning "Eternal spring" (Chapter 20) is from Andrew Marvell's
"Bermudas", which appropriately enough, praises an Atlantic island.
The quote "Queens never make bargains" (Chapter 8) is from Lewis Carroll,
Through the Looking-Glass (1871) (Chapter 9, "Queen Alice").
The poem quoted on the newspaper world (Chapter 8) is Rudyard Kipling's "The Press",
This poem discusses the Press as an institution, and the positive role it plays in the world.
This is consistent with the generally positive view of the free press and its social consequences,
underscored by McCloy in her novel.
Do Not Disturb (1943) is a suspense tale set in New York
City and environs. It is much less of a pure mystery than are
Helen McCloy's other early novels, and suffers for it; it seems to be
the first of many novels of suspense that McCloy eventually wrote.
It is the first McCloy book without her series sleuth Dr. Basil Willing.
The book has a spy background linked to World War II, like The Goblin Market (1943)
and The One That Got Away (1945).
Like both of those novels, Do Not Disturb
is full of political commentary and analysis. Here
McCloy zeroes in first on police brutality, in her early chapters,
then on right-wing Fascist sympathizers in the US and their campaigns
of hatred against racial minorities. As in The Goblin Market,
there is more political commentary in the second half of the novel
than in the first half; and in both stories, the solution has
political significance as well.
In both Van Dine and Crofts school writers, the police are an
over-arching source of social authority. They arrive and take
charge of everything after a crime. All the different police units
of a nation work together as a single large team. By contrast,
the handling of the police is very different in McCloy. Each policeman
tends to work as an individual agent. His work is largely hidden
from the scrutiny of other police units, and he and his subordinates
are a law unto themselves. Some of McCloy's policemen are sympathetic,
and some are not, but they all tend to have their own personal
agendas. Each policeman has his own character and personality,
too. He is a functioning character in the tale, not an anonymous
official. The police are so individualized that they seem more
like suspects in the case, than detectives. The reader studies
their motives, and often suspects them of actually committing
the crime themselves.
McCloy tends to analyze and judge each policeman's agenda, by
a set of criteria that includes whether the policeman's approach
makes society more democratic or more dictator like. This is true
whether the policeman is a New York City cop engaged in police
brutality, or an officer in a third world dictatorship, like that
of The Goblin Market.
Politics: Wealthy Americans as Nazi Supporters
SPOILERS. Helen McCloy's Do Not Disturb (1943) was one of a number of books and films,
that suggested rich Americans might be Nazi sympathizers and traitors. See the list at the start of this article.
The last chapter of Do Not Disturb sets forth these rich men's far right philosophy.
Their conservative politics is directly linked to their support for the Nazis.
Do Not Disturb extends similar portraits of wealthy Americans as Nazi supporters in
McCloy's previous book The Goblin Market. The One That Got Away also talks about the wealthy
as including Fascists (Chapter 8).
Do Not Disturb looks at the dangers of rich right-wingers controlling media empires.
Related concerns appear in Eleven Came Back (1943) by Mabel Seeley.
SPOILERS. The heroine hears disembodied sounds of sobbing, something she cannot link to a person she sees.
It is a disturbing piece of imagery. It returns outdoors in The One That Got Away (Chapter 10).
The opening gives two different solutions to the mystery,
of "what is going on in the hotel?". Both solutions are fairly ingenious.
They are offered right away in the opening, thus clearing up the initial mystery.
Neither solution is figured out by the heroine - instead, various people just
offer the solutions to the heroine as explanations. The heroine is not really a detective,
and does not do actual sleuthing in the hotel, or deduce any conclusions on her own.
Panic (1944) is a non-series novel mixing suspense with mystery.
It is one of Helen McCloy's less successful books.
Mystery subplots in Panic are better than the main core murder-mystery.
The code subplot is decently done (Chapters 2, 5, 8). Panic embeds two clues early on,
to the secret of how the cipher works. This gives the subplot a solid mystery-with-a-clued-soiution
construction. In addition, the Background material on codes in interesting.
The subplot about Matt Griggs is pleasant. It anticipates a somewhat related mystery subplot
about Jim Sherwood in She Walks Alone. Both of these subplots embody a core mystery idea
that is very old and much used. Still, the subplot in Panic is dressed up
with a pleasant mystery about the man's voice. SPOILER. The Matt Griggs mystery also eventually links up
with another, seemingly unrelated event, to form an overall pattern:
something which is always nice in a mystery. The unrelated event has its own small mini-mystery, too.
The main murder plot is uncreative. SPOILER. Much is made of possible spy complications,
with the victim involved in US Government Intelligence work during World War II.
But these turn out to have nothing to do with the murder. The Intelligence work
is just a coincidence: one that stretches coincidence to the point of cheating.
Setting: A Remote Area in the Country
Panic is mainly set in a remote rural area, one with just a few farms and a small village.
This anticipates The One That Got Away, that is set in a similarly isolated
rural area in Scotland. The country area in Panic is much less colorful,
being a generic locale maybe somewhere in upstate New York.
Both novels have as protagonist a sophisticated visitor from the big city, who has
come to the country region for an extended stay. Both protagonists are helped by a friendly
local farm family, who maintain the dwelling where the protagonist stays.
Some architectural aspects of the victim's New York City home are mildly interesting,
even if they play no role in the mystery plot:
The mountain house is so open with windows and doors, that it hardly seems to draw a
distinction between indoors and outside.
- To get from one bedroom to another on the same floor, one has to go down stairs
to a landing, then back up (Chapter 1). This anticipates a building in the film The Night Walker
(William Castle, 1964).
- The back yards of all the houses on a block have been merged into a common garden (start of Chapter 2).
This perhaps is an example of an economic cooperative, although such business aspects are not mentioned.
The garden is described as "communal", and is a result of a joint decision by the home owners.
The sinister League of Super-Americans organization forms McCloy's negative commentary on
right wing pro-Hitler groups in the US before World War II.
The negative depiction of disabled character Ronnie is a big failing of Panic.
All his moral failings are shown as being caused by his disability:
a stereotyped approach.
Panic contains some brief but interesting passages, dealing with cognitive psychology.
A section discusses hearing, sleep and their connection (middle of Chapter 4).
The sensory world of a blind dog is evoked (middle of Chapter 5). The dog does everything through memories
of where furniture is. Motor memory lies behind this. The dog has one of the unusual,
"private cognitive worlds" so often the realm of humans in McCloy. The dog's
cognitive world also plays a role in the mystery plot.
McCloy discusses the mental attitudes behind mathematics (middle of Chapter 5).
While not quite cognitive psychology, it does evoke how unusual thinking
can interface with the world of mathematics. I'm not sure everything McCloy says
about mathematics is entirely accurate, but the passage as a whole is mentally stimulating.
A passage dealing with the sociology of people being declared mentally ill
is also striking (middle of Chapter 6). It is not "cognitive", but it does accord
with all the more elaborate descriptions of various kinds of mental illness
in other McCloy novels.
The Greek myth about the god Pan runs through Panic. In mythology,
the presence of Pan could lead to "panics": feelings of fear and dread.
E. M. Forster wrote a famous fantasy short story about Pan and panics: "The Story of a Panic".
It is possible that McCloy knew about and was influenced by Forster's tale.
The material on Pan in Panic is extensive, and well-developed in detail.
It affects both the mystery plot, and the literary side of the novel.
However, it is also distasteful in its social implications. This whole aspect
of the book has to be considered as a failed attempt.
One of the better parts of the Pan theme is the discussion of the "recognition scene",
and its treatment as part of the earliest Greek drama (Chapter 7).
Mystery Plot: The Child's Behavior
The One That Got Away (1945) contains a series of mystery puzzle plots.
The opening mystery puzzle is of an unusual type: it asks why a child
would engage in an unusual behavior. H.C. Bailey
had posed the riddle of a child's strange behavior in "The Old Bible",
in his collection Mr. Fortune Wonders (collected 1933).
Bailey's specific puzzle and solution are quite different from McCloy's.
Both stories treat the riddle of the child's inexplicable behavior as a full mystery,
one eventually given a logical but surprising solution.
The opening has other features recalling Bailey:
The solution of the child's behavior mystery is a complex variation on a mystery idea
that was fairly widely used in the 1940's. McCloy's version is more elaborate, and has
some original features, though. It is also supported by good cluing. SPOILERS. Other examples occur in
The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars (1940) by Anthony Boucher.
- A child in danger.
- A sense of sinister evil and conspiracy hidden in the background.
- A setting in a traditional rural part of the British Isles.
- A castle in this countryside.
- Ruins of historic buildings.
Mystery Plot: Impossible Crimes
The book also includes an "impossible disappearance".
The mystery involving the child's behavior, and this impossible disappearance,
are more central to the story and more inventive as mystery puzzles than the book's two subsequent murders.
SPOILER. The disappearance and its solution are variants of one used by
Carolyn Wells in The Man who Fell Through the Earth (1919) -
although McCloy might well have dreamed this up on her own.
The second murder at first looks like a locked room puzzle: strictly speaking,
a locked house. But soon, the sleuths discover that they have simply overlooked an exit from the house.
It will apparently not be till The Further Side of Fear (1967) that McCloy
will create a true locked room puzzle.
Mystery Plot: Dying Message
The first murder involves a dying message. This message is in French.
Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Entertaining Episode of The Article in Question" (1925)
is another mystery puzzle involving French, as is Boucher's The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars.
Hero Peter Dunbar performs some textual analysis: looking for hidden, meaningful patterns in things people say.
First he analyzes the speech of Lord Ness and Margaret (end of Chapter 2).
Then he finds an Americanism in Johnny's speech (Chapter 3).
Later, more text is examined (start of Chapter 6, middle of Chapter 10).
At the mystery's solution at the end, these texts are analyzed by Dr. Willing (end of Chapter 11).
Textual analysis is a kind of detective work. It sometimes is used by McCloy.
The One That Got Away has some good descriptive writing about Scotland.
It has a lyrical quality, and is full of poetical description of landscape.
Later, Dorothy Gardiner will be another American mystery writer
to bring her American detective to the Scots Highlands, in The Seventh Mourner (1958).
The hero makes a night journey on foot across the countryside (Chapter 3). Along the way,
both landscape and buildings are vividly described. Such night journeys recall mystery writer
Helen Reilly, and such Reilly books as Mourned on Sunday (1941).
Perhaps coincidentally, both Mourned on Sunday and The One That Got Away have
their protagonists encountering ruined buildings along the way.
The farmhouse is two homes, connected together (Chapter 2).
In this, it anticipates the two houses in A Question of Time.
The large, gracious home Craddoch House is full of French windows.
These seemingly join the inside and outside into a common region.
This inside-outside joining recalls the more modest country home in Panic.
In Murder's Little Helper (1963) (middle of Chapter 7) by George Bagby,
a patio is constructed so that the outside seems to be coming indoors.
The deserted village is a fascinating place (Chapter 3). It has a geometric quality.
A brief discussion explores how mathematicians think (Chapter 10).
Mathematical thinking previously was examined in Panic.
Link to The Long Body
McCloy's The Long Body (1955) will share a plot element with The One That Got Away:
A fourteen-year-old boy who runs away from home.
Despite this key link in subjects, the two books are very different:
These differences help make The One That Got Away a better book than The Long Body.
The mystery plot of why the boy is running away is a big asset in The One That Got Away.
And the treatment of male bonding and male sexuality in The Long Body is unimpressive.
- Why the boy is running away in The One That Got Away is a big mystery;
the boy's motive in The Long Body is no mystery at all - he wants to join the Army.
- Unlike The Long Body, the boy in The One That Got Away does not have a teenage best friend.
He's a solitary figure.
And the issues of male bonding and male sexuality that thus arise and are so prominent in The Long Body
simply do not occur in The One That Got Away.
Social Commentary: Anti-Fascism
The One That Got Away has some very sophisticated writing
about Fascism in it, which by 1945 was a subject of deep horror to the author (Chapter 8).
McCloy's take on Fascism is that it is rooted in woman hatred, and rejection
of a mother's tender care of children. She cites the Hitler Youth
as examples of how the Nazis wanted to replace the female headed
home by public macho-oriented programs of child rearing. This
political theme of the book is mirrored in the puzzle plot of
the story, which is about a young man who keeps running away from
home. In contrast to these Nazi ideas, McCloy includes two female
headed households in her work: one run by a widowed Scots farm
woman, the other a marriage of two writers where it is the wife
who earns the big bucks, and is the financial support of the family.
There is also much discussion of the Picts, an ancient Scottish
ethnic group wherein descent and property passed matrilineally.
I am not sure that this is a complete analysis of Fascism, but
it is certainly an interesting set of ideas. McCloy's take on
Fascism is oddly similar to Borges'
in "Deutsches Requiem", wherein Borges sees the essence
of Fascism in the celebration of brutality. McCloy completes Borges'
analysis by showing how this brutality is going to be inculcated
in children through the destruction of motherhood as an institution.
Both McCloy and Borges are also deeply worried that although the
Nazis have been defeated militarily, the ideas of Fascism will
live on and be incorporated into Western Civilization.
McCloy seems much more interested in current affairs than many of her
mystery writing contemporaries, both here and in "The Singing Diamonds".
"The Singing Diamonds" succeeds brilliantly as a mystery tale.
Much later McCloy would write a short look at the hippie era college scene,
"The Pleasant Assassin" (1970), that is full of detailed observation.
Read today, it seems like a time capsule of the period. Like all
of McCloy's political writings, it contains disturbing undertones.
Here a sinister behaviorist psychology professor is proposing
a new society based on conditioning and drugs to control child
rearing. Like the viscous Nazi apologist in The One That Got Away,
he has surface respectability as he undermines the basic
principles of Western society. As in the earlier novel, the story
shows his devastating impact on impressionable young people.
A later section of The One That Got Away also offers a critique of Fascism,
an analysis rooted in both science and feminism. (Chapter 11).
It says that in Nature, differences between men and women are small. But that the Nazis
are obsessed with "exaggerating social differences between the sexes".
It suggests that this lie might have led to Nazi mental aberrations and cruelties.
The Nazis are perhaps the principal target of this section.
But McCloy also bluntly states that human societies in general, exaggerate the difference between men and women, for economic reasons.
This is a broad feminist critique of society.
Social Commentary: Communism
The same discussion of Fascism contains brief but negative comments on Communism (Chapter 8).
McCloy mocks the "parlor pinks" of the 1920's and 1930's, Western intellectuals
who supported Communist ideas, but who in public distanced themselves from a Communist label.
She suggests such people were sinister propagandists, lying about their affiliations
to promote Communism.
McCloy depicts Fascism and Communism as parallel, evil movements.
She does not use the word "totalitarianism", or offer an in-depth look at the parallels between the two movements.
Still, her simple critique is consistent with the idea that became prominent in the 1950's,
that Fascism and Communism are linked instances of a totalitarian menace.
The One That Got Away does not analyze Communism is any detail.
But its brief discussion of Communism is emphatically negative.
Social Commentary: Socialism
The psychiatrist hero wrote a thesis, during his academic days, on the psychology of socialism.
When World War II breaks out, he tries to enlist, but is afraid this thesis
might keep him out of the US Armed Services. Fortunately, Dr. Basil Willing helps the hero enlist successfully (Chapter 10).
These comments are all-too-brief. One would like to hear more of McCloy's opinions on these subjects.
A thesis about socialism is not necessarily a thesis for or against socialism.
Still, unless the thesis had contained some advocacy of socialistic ideas, it seems unlikely that the hero
would have worried that it might affect his attempt to enlist.
Soon we meet another sympathetic character, who reveals he stands for Labor in Parliament (Chapter 10).
The British Labor Party was supported democratic socialism in this era.
Metaphysical and/or paranormal ideas about Time play a major role in such later McCloy books as
The Long Body, A Question of Time and The Smoking Mirror.
There is a brief forerunner of this in The One That Got Away: when the hero
is left alone with the murdered body in the deserted countryside, he begins to get strange feelings.
He links this to a feeling that he is about to get an expanded, metaphysical perception of time,
beyond today's alleged limited human knowledge of the subject (Chapter 10).
In my opinion, McCloy's treatment of Time is in general a bunch of paranormal hooey.
I'm not enthused about this passage in The One That Got Away. However, one has to note that McCloy is hedging her bets here.
The One That Got Away is careful not to go beyond the scientific worldview, in its depiction of Time: a good thing in my judgment.
It suggests possible future discoveries about Time - rather than the actual paranormal events depicted in
A Question of Time and The Smoking Mirror.
The comments on Time in The One That Got Away are linked to that favorite McCloy subject,
cognitive psychology (the study of how people perceive and think). She looks at humans' limited perceptions of Time.
The distinguished film critic and "impossible crime" mystery writer Bill Krohn
once told me how much he admired Helen McCloy in general, and The One That Got Away
She Walks Alone (1948) is a non-series mystery, mainly set
on a sinister Caribbean cruise. Dr Basil Willing does not appear,
but Helen McCloy brings back Police Captain Miguel Urizar of the fictitious Caribbean island of Santa Teresa,
who first appeared in The Goblin Market. However,
Santa Teresa itself barely makes any sort of re-appearance.
She Walks Alone has some good features. But the book as a whole
is not one of McCloy's better novels. The story telling lacks appeal,
and many characters are unsympathetic. There are some good mystery subplots -
but the novel's main mystery plot is one of McCloy's less successful ideas.
Like many Golden Age mystery novels, She Walks Alone
has a series of mystery subplots, some better than others.
Best subplot: Where has the murderer hidden the money? This is a good
"hidden object" puzzle. As is typical of such problems, the location of the money
defies an intensive search by the authorities. "Hidden object" puzzles are related
to "impossible crimes": it seems impossible for a villain to conceal an object
so that it will not be found by a really good search. McCloy also has hidden objects puzzles
in Unfinished Crime.
Also good: Why is such a bizarre approach behind the first death on ship,
and how did it happen? It doesn't seem plausible that the killer would use such
a method, and it also seems unlikely that the killer would be able to control it,
or use it effectively. McCloy comes up with a logical explanation (Chapter 17).
This is a sort-of "How-done-it" puzzle.
SPOILER. The subplot about Jim Sherwood is an old gambit, much used by mystery writers (Chapter 17).
Still, it is effective and fooled me.
SPOILER. While these subplots are well done, the main puzzle-and-solution of She Walks Alone
is problematic. It seems gimmicky. It avoids really explaining
what the reader has been led to believe is a real puzzle, "Why was the letter written?".
I confess I found this solution to be a stunt and an annoying one.
The discussion of the problems faced by racial minorities in the United States
is interesting (middle of Chapter 10). She Walks Alone shows McCloy as a progressive liberal
on the subject of race, and sympathetic to minorities. She Walks Alone appeared at the same time
as the earliest stages of the real-life Civil Rights movement, a movement that is not mentioned in the novel.
She Walks Alone has a subplot, a political battle in Washington DC,
over the proposed construction of a power system somewhere in the Western US.
Some characters want the US government to construct the system;
others are opposed to government projects, and want a private corporation to do it (middle of Chapter 4).
While She Walks Alone does not mention it, in the 1930's and 1940's
such issues involved major fights between liberals and conservatives. Liberals were strong champions
of government public works such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA),
conservatives bitterly opposed them. Arguments about the economics and politics
of the project in She Walks Alone directly echo real-life political comments on the TVA.
These debates seem like ancestors of today's battle between liberals who favor government projects,
and conservatives who hate government and want to dismantle it.
SPOILER. McCloy eventually implicitly comes down in favor of the pro-government forces,
mainly by depicting the private enterprise people in such a negative light.
She gives this an elaborate treatment (the paragraph on the newspaper towards the end of Chapter 15,
a detailed account in Chapter 17).
SPOILER. The subplot about Tony might be considered as giving a negative view of the upper classes
(Chapter 15). Tony is relentless in describing himself and his sordid activities as typical.
This tale exists in two versions: a short story "Through a Glass, Darkly" (1948),
and a novel with the same name Through a Glass, Darkly (1949 - 1950).
Both versions are very close in terms of plot and character.
According to Helen McCloy's autobiographical comments in the introduction to the short version,
"Glass" started out as a long work; McCloy then condensed it down to a short version,
for publication in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
The short version shows artistic economy: it is very rich in plot and imagination for its length.
The novel includes Basil Willing's romance with Austrian refugee Gisela von Hohenems, a pleasing addition.
Gisela had been introduced previously in The Man in the Moonlight.
It also includes an extra murder mystery centered around the school.
Alias Basil Willing (1951) is a mystery novel. It has major flaws: its mystery plot
lacks adequate explanations; its solution is grim and depressing.
Also, it is not one of McCloy's more creative or imaginative books.
On the positive side, its first half is quite readable, and there is a decent subplot about a blind woman.
Mystery Plot: The Impersonation
SPOILERS. The book opens with a dramatic impersonation - which gives the novel its title.
Why the impersonation is happening is mysterious. The reader expects a detailed solution
that will logically explain this impersonation, and why it is taking place. Unfortunately,
all we get is a single line on the last page of the book, as an explanation.
This explanation makes little sense, and is painfully simple to boot.
All of this leaves the book's main non-murder mystery as a mess.
The intricate plotting that surrounds the impersonation in the opening (Chapters 1-4)
is solidly done. It raises all sorts of possibilities, as it moves through a series of stages.
Mystery Plot: The Murder
On the murder mystery. SPOILERS. It looks as if it is impossible,
for one of the characters to have committed the murder. At the end, we learn how this character did it.
The explanation is possible - but also far-fetched and none too workable, in practice.
It would require another person to constantly monitor this character, waiting to pick up signals:
something that would be hard to do in real life.
It also serves to put the killer in another person's power:
something most killers strive to avoid.
There is a series of related events, which are linked clues to how the crime was done.
Recognizing them as clues, requires the sleuth and the reader to adjust their cognitive categories.
The motive behind the mysteries is depressing and upsetting to read about.
The book's introductory blurb says it is "shocking". However, the solution does
have political significance.
Mystery Plot: A Sort of Dying Message
The dying murder victim becomes delirious, and babbles about birds. This is a "dying message" of sorts.
It resembles more conventional dying messages, in that it is a hard-to-interpret statement about the crime,
that gets a full explanation at the end of the book. However, it is unlike a normal dying message,
in that it offers no clue to who committed the crime. The interpretation at the end
does not offer any sort of plot revelation, either.
The victim's statement is more a poetic addition to the novel. It adds a bit of mystification to the storytelling.
But it hardly corresponds to the sort of full-scale dying message found in Ellery Queen.
The Blind Woman: Plot Ingenuity
SPOILERS. A character is blind, has difficulty walking, but still needs to start activity without any
of the people around her noticing. Alias Basil Willing treats this as a problem
that the women needs to solve. The book comes up with mildly ingenious ways for her to
initiate such activities. This forms a sound subplot. It is not a "mystery and solution";
instead, it is a "problem and clever remedy": a kind of plot that sometimes occurs in mysteries.
For another example, see "Campaign Fever" (1964) by Patricia McGerr.
Despite McCloy's longtime interest in cognitive psychology, McCloy does not really
explore aspects of blindness that are essentially psychological or cognitive. Instead,
Alias Basil Willing explores practical ways a blind person might solve a problem.
McCloy treats this disabled woman with great dignity and respect.
The Opening: Links to Other McCloy Mysteries
Alias Basil Willing opens in a small shop. It provides a bit of working class atmosphere,
as a contrast to the upper middle class sophisticates who populate the rest of the book.
McCloy used a similar working class beginning in two other mysteries also set
among Manhattan elites: Dance of Death, Cue for Murder.
However, the opening events in both of those novels were more dramatic and mystery-filled
than the simple shop scene which starts Alias Basil Willing.
As in Cue for Murder, Basil Willing begins the main events in evening clothes,
like a man he meets. This plays an enabling role in both plots, although in different ways.
The opening, with Basil Willing explicitly having an "adventure" on the mysterious streets
of a city, recalls New Arabian Nights (1878) by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The opening chapters of Alias Basil Willing have a structure rather like Burn This.
Early in both books, we learn that a startling, mysterious scheme is afoot.
We learn a few clues to the scheme - but we are far from getting any sort of clear picture.
The details of the scheme, and even its basic nature, are only filled in later.
These revealed details function as plot developments.
The Upper Classes
Alias Basil Willing is mainly set among upper class characters.
Unlike Cue for Murder, which is set in the theater, and Burn This set in the literary world,
the well-heeled gentry in Alias Basil Willing either come from wealth or have
somewhat dubious careers. Few do anything socially productive.
Only the poet seems like a person of accomplishment.
Without ever doing anything overtly sinister, they come to seem like an ominous bunch.
McCloy is expert at creating a threatening atmosphere around these people.
Despite their well-mannered remarks, they seem eerie and disturbing.
The more she describes their perfect clothes, perfect furniture and perfect homes,
they somehow sound more menacing than a mob of Mafia thugs encountered in a dark alley.
Their social correctness can seem very cold and inhuman.
The dress made out of unique material created for a cloak (Chapter 2) recalls a bit
the title cloak in "The Mantle That Laughed" (1935) by Vincent Cornier.
Two non-rich characters who work for a living are perhaps intended to form a contrast.
Newspaper reporter Frank Lloyd and paid companion Charlotte Dean are sympathetic, seemingly honest people,
who represent the middle classes. They certainly don't have the ominous, death's-head atmosphere
that surrounds the upper class suspects in Alias Basil Willing.
Unfortunately, neither of these working people really shows much force of character, individuality
or heroic goodness. They are nice enough people. But not forceful enough to counter the
main, nightmarish atmosphere generated by the evil rich.
Politics: The McCarthy Era, Neo-Nazis
A newspaper headline makes a brief reference to the McCarthy era and its accusations
of Communism, in full swing in 1951 (end of Chapter 5).
McCloy reminds us once again that the Nazis were anti-Communist (middle of Chapter 14, section 1).
McCloy's long-time anti-Nazi concerns resurface (end of Chapter 5, middle of Chapter 14, section 1).
This relates to McCloy's concerns about the survival of Nazi ideas after the war. SPOILERS.
The villain tells us that the crime in Alias Basil Willing is a product of Nazi ideology.
While McCloy despises the villain, I think this is intended to be an accurate statement,
expressing a theme of the book.
Newspaper leg-man Frank Lloyd uses a radio car provided by his paper, something briefly noted (start of Chapter 9).
This is an interesting glance at new technology. One wishes McCloy had expanded it to something bigger.
I don't recall newspaper radio cars in many other novels.
The opening has brief flashes of cognitive psychology (Chapter 1). The "little man"
is depicted as the kind of person easily swayed by mass propaganda or advertising.
He is contrasted with the main patrons of the shop, all of whom buy a custom-made,
individualized product there.
A poem Basil Willing quotes (end Chapter 8) is Rudyard Kipling's "Late Came the God".
Kipling was quoted before in The Goblin Market.
In both novels, Kipling is referred to, to help define a situation and its meaning.
The suspense novel known as Unfinished Crime (1954) in the USA
is titled He Never Came Back in Britain. Its events are wild and implausible -
but they are also imaginative and make absorbing reading. Helen McCloy helps make them
more persuasive, by setting them against a realistically detailed view
of every day life in modern New York City. She makes her heroine be a nice, "normal",
conventional young woman. And the police that sometimes show up are as low key and
ordinary as possible.
Much of the enjoyment of a book like Unfinished Crime is in its odd situations themselves -
not just in their solutions. It is hard to write about a novel without revealing its
basic plot premises. Readers would do well to read Unfinished Crime first,
before reading the following discussion, which contains SPOILERS.
The theft subplot involves a standard kind of puzzle, one on the borderline
of the "impossible crime": the disappearance / hiding of an object, so that it eludes
an intensive search (Chapter 7). McCloy does this well. McCloy is most interested in the clever
avoidance of the object being found during the searches of suspects' persons.
She is less concerned with a clever "hiding place" for the object, the focus of many
Ellery Queen mysteries on this topic.
SPOILER. The impostor plot is another treatment of the "double", the subject of McCloy's
Through a Glass, Darkly. This is clearly a favorite subject of McCloy's,
and both novels develop it with exuberance. The treatment in Unfinished Crime
is completely different in detail from that of Through a Glass, Darkly,
both in the story telling events, and their solution as a mystery puzzle.
The solution in Unfinished Crime is not really plausible, but its
imagination is good. So is its use of a logical alternative approach
to generate a more parsimonious solution (end of Chapter 13).
McCloy's calls this "inverting" the situation.
SPOILER. Part of the "double" solution in Unfinished Crime involves the heroine's
private perceptual world, also a McCloy theme (start of Chapter 14).
Once again in McCloy, perception can be considered part of cognitive science.
The revelation of the villains' identity at the end is not too creative.
McCloy shows professionalism and some skill in constructing this solution, but no inspiration
or real ingenuity. SPOILER. The involvement of more than one character in villainy,
leading to a succession of unmaskings at the end, recalls a previous suspense novel
by McCloy, Do Not Disturb.
Unfinished Crime draws on situations found in previous authors. It some ways
it seems like a compendium or encyclopedia of "standard situations" from
previous writers. Some of these situations were then employed by still other writers,
becoming much-used plot premises in mystery fiction.
McCloy in Unfinished Crime gives them her own personal treatment.
The basic mystery situations in Unfinished Crime recall all these authors.
But McCloy's mystery plots and solutions related to these situations are her own,
different from those of earlier authors. So is much of her story telling detail.
- A man in trouble on a city street, in a busy shopping district. McCloy uses
this as her opening; it recalls the opening of The Wrong Murder (1940)
by Craig Rice.
- The stolen priceless gem from South Asia, with a decent, honest Asian avenger on its trail,
trying to return it to its rightful owners. This is from
Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868).
- The priceless small object that is stolen in a midst of an upper class party,
leading to immediate suspicion of the guests.
Early versions include Anna Katherine Green's
"The Thief" in the collection known as Masterpieces of Mystery or Room Number 3 (collected 1913),
and Owen Johnson's "One Hundred in the Dark" in Murder in Any Degree (collected 1913).
- The disappearance of a woman's romantic partner. This recalls
John Dickson Carr's famed radio play "Cabin B-13" (1943).
A later encounter by the heroine (end of Chapter 11) also echoes a plot development in Carr's drama.
- The Hollywood "double": a man found who looks just like a Hollywood star,
and the mystery plots that can come from this. This plot device is most associated with
Ellery Queen. This Guide also has a detailed look at
doubles in fiction.
The opening is shown from the Point of View of the man-in-trouble;
most of the rest of the book is seen from the heroine's perspective.
He is fairly "tough"; the heroine and her friends in the rest of the novel are fairly sophisticated.
This is a bit like the construction of Dance of Death and Cue for Murder,
which open with vignettes showing working class New Yorkers, then move on to
Manhattan sophisticates for the rest of their stories. The contrast is perhaps
not as extreme in Unfinished Crime.
A rich woman contributes much money to "volunteer hospitals".
At first this looks like pure charity. But we eventually learn that the wealthy woman
regards them as a safeguard against socialized medicine! McCloy has her satiric claws sharp
in this observation (Chapter 11).
Eras of Time
In "The Case of the Duplicate Door", Dr. Willing sees the oldest part of Manhattan at its southern tip as the Past,
and ultra-modern LaGuardia Airport as the Future. Something similar occurs in Unfinished Crime:
The heroine visits high-tech environments in the course of the novel: an Automat, a radio broadcast studio.
- The heroine is afraid of riding her apartment building's elevator - and she is similarly afraid of flying.
Her fear is described as a fear that these machines might fail. This fear of machinery is seen as "modern" (Chapter 3).
It recalls the view of an Airport as the Future in "The Case of the Duplicate Door".
High tech machinery is widely viewed a Modern, by many other writers in addition to McCloy.
- The heroine feels safe in her aunt's very old-fashioned house. The house is said to have "resisted time itself"
(start of Chapter 6). It preserves the Past, in an almost science-fictional image.
The house, like the ancient southern tip of Manhattan standing for the Past in "The Case of the Duplicate Door",
is part of Old New York.
The Long Body (1955) mixes mystery, suspense and espionage.
I've never enjoyed The Long Body very much. The heroine is often gripped by grim thoughts, anxiety
or suspense. She also seems unpleasantly cut off from those around her.
Her mind is racing with thoughts she does not share with others.
Such feelings make the book not much fun to read.
Settings, Characters and McCloy Traditions
The Long Body is set in the genteel country homes of well-to-do urban sophisticates.
In this it recalls Who's Calling?. It also has that book's characters:
The characters are given different personalities and professions in the two novels,
despite their basic similarities.
- A widowed mother, very sophisticated,
- Her grown son in college,
- His "unsuitable" gold-digging girlfriend,
- The long suffering genteel young woman from a "good" neighboring family who also hopes to marry him.
The Long Body also recalls the university-set books McCloy wrote.
Several of the characters are attending or work at fictitious Blake College.
The university and events there are much discussed, but not actually shown "on-stage".
Like the heroine of The Smoking Mirror, and McCloy herself, the heroine of The Long Body
lived for a while in Pre-war France (Part 1, Chapter 1).
Unlike The Smoking Mirror, France plays only a minor, in-passing role in The Long Body.
Teenagers: Male Sexuality and Male Bonding
SPOILER. The heroine's late husband John, and their macho man neighbor Byrd, had been best friends starting as teenagers
(start of Part 1, Chapter 2). Such an intense male friendship between young teenagers,
will play a major role in A Change of Heart. Both The Long Body and A Change of Heart
have some parallel plotting and attitude towards this pairing. Both works portray a pair of male teenagers
with a burningly intense friendship. Both also have what can easily be interpreted as a gay subtext -
although A Change of Heart opens with a firm, explicit denial that anything gay is transpiring between the pair.
The Long Body also looks at puberty and the development of male sexuality.
Ultimately, these books see their characters' male sexuality and male bonding in very negative terms.
I confess that I am unimpressed with McCloy's ideas on all of these subjects.
Her treatment seems unreal, and missing many aspects of these enormously complex topics.
The Army: A Flashback to the 1910's
The Long Body contains a detailed look at what US Army life was like during the World War I era, especially the Cavalry.
It is humorously contrasted with the much-changed modern Army (Part 2, Chapter 7, with more information in Part 3, Chapter 2).
This section shows McCloy's flair for research, and educational passages that inform readers about key points on some subject.
She tries to bring out ideas on a topic, bits of information that will help readers think.
The Army is unusual as a McCloy subject, though. McCloy has an affinity with "sophisticated" subjects:
intellectuals, psychologists, the arts. A macho topic like the 1918 Army is off her stomping grounds.
McCloy's World War II era books had been sympathetic to the Armed Forces: both the handsome young hero of
The One That Got Away, and his boss Dr. Basil Willing, were uniformed members of Naval Intelligence.
Still, such books showed little in concrete terms of Army life, instead having their heroes investigate a case on location,
away from Armed Forces bases or troops.
One suspects that McCloy got most of her Army information from her husband, mystery writer
Brett Halliday. In real life, Halliday had run away from home and joined
the US Army Cavalry as a young teenager, being stationed first in Fort Bliss, Texas, then with the US Border Patrol
on the Mexican Border. This is exactly like the teenage hero of The Long Body.
Military conscription was universal in the 1950's USA, and most men served in the Armed Forces.
This helped fuel the popularity of novels and films set in the peacetime Army,
such as James Jones' From Here to Eternity (1951), the 1951 novel with the biggest sales.
McCloy was perhaps reflecting this popular interest by writing about the Army in The Long Body.
She might also have regarded it as a "relevant" topic.
Politics: The McCarthy Era
The Long Body includes one of the most contentious social issues of its era:
men fired from their jobs, because they are perceived to be Communist security risks (Part 1, Chapter 5, and end of Part 3, Chapter 2).
Senator Joseph McCarthy, who rode such firings to political power, had just fallen in
public esteem and been censured in 1954.
The Long Body has its cake and eats it too, in the issue of such firings:
A woman who became a Communist in the 1930's is portrayed unfavorably.
She and other woman converts to Communism are dismissed as "pseudo-intellectuals" (end of Part 3, Chapter 2).
- It condemns the firing, calling it a "lynching", and states that it has been
done on the flimsiest of evidence (end of Part 3, Chapter 2). This seems to attack McCarthyism.
- But the book also explores spy plot possibilities,
suggesting that the man might be working with Soviet agents.
The firing of the professor is done to placate rich alumni (end of Part 3, Chapter 2).
This recalls McCloy's previous novel Unfinished Crime, and its wealthy woman's opposition
to socialized medicine. The rich are seen as a source of right wing politics in the US.
References to the McCarthy era will return in A Change of Heart.
Like The Long Body, A Change of Heart has a University professor fired for
alleged Communist ties during the McCarthy period.
SPOILER. The hiding place of the stolen document about "Miss Lash" recalls the disappearing object
puzzle in Unfinished Crime (end of Part 2, Chapter 7).
SPOILER. The Long Body anticipates The Changeling Conspiracy,
with speculation that an impostor has substituted for a character's daughter.
Both daughters are grown but still very young women.
A psychological state of the heroine reflects McCloy's interest in Cognitive Psychology
(the last section of Part 1, Chapter 6). Dr. Willing later offers some reassuring psychological observations
on this (end of Part 2, Chapter 6).
John believes he can "perceive" the edge of a cliff at twilight, by the "feel of the wind".
Such an ability is ascribed by The Long Body to members of the Coast Guard (Part 1, Chapter 3).
Such a kind of "perception" falls under the rubric of Cognitive Psychology.
It also shows McCloy's interest in twilight.
The Long Body
The title phrase, "The Long Body" refers to a concept apparently derived from Eastern thought.
It is explained in detail by Dr. Basil Willing (Part 2, Chapter 6).
The concept involves thinking of Time as a Fourth Dimension.
This anticipates the extensive look at metaphysical aspects of Time in
A Question of Time.
The title concept in The Long Body is simply evoked.
It is treated as a piece of imagery, or something that is philosophically suggestive.
It does not play a large role in the novel. Nor does it affect the plot in any way.
By contrast, the ideas about Time in A Question of Time are extensive.
They are also used to justify some hooey about the alleged reality of precognition (seeing the future).
The simpler The Long Body has (thankfully) no precognition, or anything else paranormal.
The Long Body sticks strictly to scientific reality.
McCloy's account of the Long Body in this novel makes OK reading.
But it does not convince me that the concept is accurate, truthful, or has real-life validity.
Good and Bad in Helen McCloy's Fiction: Running Topics
Helen McCloy has topics that run through several of her works.
Some of these running topics I find consistently enjoyable in McCloy's fiction,
finding her treatment interesting and good reading: cognitive psychology, social anthropology, the Ancient World,
codes, New York City buildings, popular fiction, twilight.
Her treatment of some other topics I consistently don't like: the metaphysical and/or paranormal treatment of Time
in The Long Body, A Question of Time and The Smoking Mirror,
the view of male sexuality and teenage male bonding in The Long Body and A Change of Heart.
It is time for a "reality check". I am not an expert on most of the above subjects.
I am not qualified to evaluate the accuracy of McCloy's ideas on cognitive psychology, codes,
time or sexuality. My enjoyment or non-enjoyment of McCloy's ideas is unfortunately not grounded in expert knowledge.
This article offers my responses to McCloy's treatment of these subjects - for what my responses are worth.
My ideas might be just plain wrong.
Complicating this discussion:
I think that The Long Body, A Question of Time, A Change of Heart and The Smoking Mirror
are four of Helen McCloy's poorest books. The Long Body is a bit better than the other three.
These four novels seem to be among her least discussed by critics.
Instead, McCloy's most critically admired works are her classical detective stories,
with Dance of Death, The Man in the Moonlight, Cue for Murder, The One That Got Away,
Through a Glass, Darkly, Mr. Splitfoot and The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing
often singled out by critics as among her best works.
I mainly agree with this point of view. My own favorite of her novels is The Goblin Market,
and I'm also impressed with such late books as The Sleepwalker and Burn This.
Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956) is a mystery, starring Dr. Basil Willing.
The title is misleading: there are no ghosts or supernatural aspects to the story, which is strictly realistic.
Instead, the title refers to an old real-life parlor game, "Two-thirds of a ghost", which involves questions and answers.
Two-Thirds of a Ghost takes place among sophisticated literary New Yorkers, like McCloy's Cue for Murder.
It has differences in approach:
Two-Thirds of a Ghost centers on a specific kind of fiction: mainstream, realistic novels that are "popular" in that they
sell well well among the general public. Such books get prestigious reviews, and are treated as "serious" fiction.
Still, they are contrasted with what the book calls "artistic writers": intellectuals who write highly serious novels for other intellectuals,
mainly have small sales, and who are part of a literary vanguard (Chapter 9).
- It mainly transpires in their country homes in Connecticut, rather than Manhattan like Cue for Murder.
- It deals with novels and book reviewing, while Cue for Murder centered on the theater.
- While Cue for Murder took place in an elaborately described theatre, architecture or buildings play little role in
Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
- Perhaps most important, Cue for Murder shows a love for and celebration of the theater,
while Two-Thirds of a Ghost takes a negative, satirical attitude towards 1950's American mainstream fiction.
The author in Two-Thirds of a Ghost begins his career with a best-selling novel of World War II.
In this, he resembles such real-life writers of World War II books as Norman Mailer, James Jones, James Michener,
Herman Wouk and many others of the 1946-1955 era. Some of these writers today have literary prestige, some are considered more middle-brow.
Two-Thirds of a Ghost doesn't make such distinctions. It looks at "popular" writers of fiction
as a unified category.
What Is the Truth about the Author's Work?
Two-Thirds of a Ghost includes several book reviews of the author's work.
Some of the reviews are good, others bad. One suspects the negative reviews have some accuracy.
However, Two-Thirds of a Ghost never explicitly commits itself to a definitive view of the writer's work.
We do not learn "officially" whether his novels are good or bad. Or exactly what they are like.
Instead, we get a bewildering diversity of comments pro and con on his fiction, and Rashomon-like,
we have to keep them all in mind as possible "truths" about his books.
Such unresolved issues are unusual in mystery fiction, which usually clears up all mysteries in its final chapter.
I have mixed feelings about this lack of resolution. I enjoyed the rich detail in which the books are discussed.
And think the Rashomon-like effect is interesting, and a pleasant change of approach.
But ultimately, I wish McCloy had made some definitive, consistent summation of her ideas
on the books, and "popular" literary fiction in general.
Even at the end of Two-Thirds of a Ghost, we get a debate among the characters about the relative importance and quality
of the plots of the author's books versus their literary prose style (Chapter 14).
This debate is as unresolved as everything else concerning the books.
The debate is conducted in much pleasing detail, with interesting sidelights drawn from the history of literature.
McCloy's books are full of fascinating ideas and facts, often derived from history, which she sets forth is an educational manner.
The many tidbits about literature and the literary life in Two-Thirds of a Ghost are examples of such McCloy ideas.
Form in Fiction
Young Sidney Pusey's comments about the importance of Form in literature are especially interesting (Chapter 6).
I admire Form, too. And wish these comments had been further developed.
I wholeheartedly agree about the importance of Form in literature. However, when we get to the specific role
Form might play in the author's novels, Two-Thirds of a Ghost is as ambiguous as it is on every other aspect
of the author's books. Are Sidney's comments the truth about the author's books - do the books really show outstanding Form?
Who knows? Two-Thirds of a Ghost never commits itself on this point, or even explores it further.
The discussion of the writing of the author's books (Chapter 14), does not mention Form,
and makes it seem unlikely that Form was much thought about during the book's creation.
The Publishing Business
Two-Thirds of a Ghost gives a detailed look of the publishing business, especially the publishing of
realistic novels. Key characters include a publisher, literary agents and book reviewers.
Two-Thirds of a Ghost makes an unusual point, one I have rarely seen in other books.
It describes the publishing business as full of people who are in it, because their parents were in it before them.
They are described as "inheriting" their positions in the publishing industry (Chapter ).
There are likely autobiographical elements. McCloy's father was a well known New York newspaper editor,
William McCloy of the New York Evening Sun. Helen McCloy's entry into the world of journalism,
the first part of her literary career, was likely aided by this.
Later, McCloy and her husband Brett Halliday opened both a literary agency, and a small publishing firm of their own.
Biographical details are sketchy, but it is likely that both the agency and publishing firm were
either in business while Two-Thirds of a Ghost was being written, or were soon to emerge.
The depiction of publishing and literary agents in Two-Thirds of a Ghost is thus likely
to draw on an insider's point of view.
Hollywood is mainly treated satirically. Hollywood is seen as adding formulaic sex-and-religion to adaptations of novels.
This is quite funny. It is also accurate, to a degree: the 1950's and early 1960's were indeed a period of
big budget adventures (loosely) based on the Bible or the life of Early Christians in Ancient Rome,
in which piety was mixed with sexpot villainesses. This formula was pioneered by Cecil B. DeMille in earlier decades.
However, while partly accurate, this treatment also leaves out a lot. Two-Thirds of a Ghost
does not recognize in the slightest that there might be any artistry in Hollywood films.
Two-Thirds of a Ghost makes an interesting point, on the way Hollywood seemed to regard
writers as interchangeable (Chapter 10).
The author has a hit television show, on which he interviews and promotes other authors.
This subplot seems implausible. Were "author interview shows" really a big deal on TV in 1956?
Whether they were or not, the author in Two-Thirds of a Ghost is not shown to have
either the intellectual or public speaking skills necessary to make such a show a success.
Before I Die (1963) is a thriller, with elements of mystery.
The milieu of Before I Die recalls that of Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
Both look at well-to-do men who work in New York City, live in the suburbs with their wives,
and who have successful jobs that associate them with the business end of the media.
Both books take a jaundiced, mainly negative look at this world.
However, the characters in Before I Die are much less intellectual than those in Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
Before I Die equates public relations with advertising - something that seems dubious to me.
The hero works for a New York public relations firm, which the novel also calls an
"advertising agency" (start of Chapter 1). The firm is known by it initials K., K., D. and V.,
recalling the way many real-life ad agencies were referred to by initials.
However, my impression is that in real-life, public relations and advertising are separate professions.
Ad agencies create ads. They did not typically try to get clients good publicity,
which was the job of public relations men.
The Evils of Adultery
Before I Die centers bitterly on a no-good middle-aged man who dumps his loyal wife and family
for an opportunistic, cheap young woman. This was the subject of Clare Boothe Luce's
play The Women (1936), and before that the film A Fool There Was (Frank Powell, 1915).
The husband in Before I Die not only dumps his wife.
He also first ignores and then abandons his teen-age son, who is struggling desperately to recover from polio.
A sick child with a serious illness will return in McCloy's "That Bug That's Going Around".
Hollywood: Real Life Parallels
The movie actress Louise "Lou" Symington is a thinly disguised version of the real-life movie star
Elizabeth "Liz" Taylor. In real life Liz had just stolen her best friend Debbie Reynolds' husband Eddie Fisher, in 1959;
in Before I Die Lou has just stolen her best friend Gloria Wayne's husband Dick Grant.
Lou is depicted bitterly as Evil Incarnate. There is little "inside" information about
Taylor, Reynolds or others in Before I Die; McCloy is likely basing her portrayals on newspaper articles.
People keep saying in Before I Die that these actions will ruin Lou's career at the box office.
McCloy is ignoring real-life history: that Liz' scandals seemingly helped make her films huge hits.
A glass skyscraper in New York is seen as especially vulnerable to a nuclear attack (last part of Chapter 12).
This echoes Cue for Murder (Chapter 2), and its modernist glass-walled cube
that the novel suggests is vulnerable to Nazi bombing.
A character works as a translator. This anticipates the translators in A Change of Heart.
The Further Side of Fear (1967) combines suspense, mystery and espionage,
a combination familiar from earlier Helen McCloy books.
The best part of The Further Side of Fear is a locked room puzzle
(set forth in Chapters 1, 2, solved in Chapter 10).
In The Further Side of Fear, a criminal mysteriously disappears from a small apartment,
leaving it locked and bolted behind him.
While several McCloy tales involve impossible crimes, this seems to be
the first actual locked room in McCloy. It would soon be followed by another
locked room novel, Mr. Splitfoot (1968). The late 1960's is an atypical era in mystery history for
a writer to develop an interest in locked room puzzles.
SPOILER. A small subplot involves how color is seen differently at night, under artificial illumination.
This recalls a similar development in Cue for Murder.
Both of these episodes are based in color perception,
and show McCloy's interest in cognitive psychology.
SPOILER. The subplot about Josie Smith and her "double bluff" cover in "vice" (Chapters 6, 7),
recalls the way being a humorous fool covered Chalkley's activities in Who's Calling? (Chapter 9).
Locked room problem aside, The Further Side of Fear is mainly
an unpleasant suspense novel. The heroine is in constant jeopardy.
And she is suspicious of everyone she meets, strangers who might actually
be bad-guys-in-disguise. The only sure-not-to-be-criminal allies of the heroine,
her two teenage daughters, are rude fools who offer the heroine no support in her crisis.
This gives the tale a nightmarish quality,
as the heroine is totally cut off from any reassuring human contact.
This grimly alienated atmosphere is likely deliberately manufactured to create suspense -
but it is thoroughly unpleasant all the same.
The heroine is another of McCloy's professional woman writers. She writes
articles on antique furniture. This perhaps echoes McCloy's own professional start as an art critic.
The Further Side of Fear extends McCloy's critique of scientists with sinister
political agendas and a dehumanized lack of values. The heroine asserts that
most of the world's problems are created by intellectuals trying to have an impact
on society. She cites Communism and the atom bomb as two products of such intellectuals
Critique aside, The Further Side of Fear seems out-of-touch in its portrait of society.
Anyone who expresses the slightest opposition to the Vietnam War,
is immediately tagged as a possible Communist spy. By 1967,
opposition to the war was widespread among "respectable" people.
Out of Touch with Young People
The depiction of teenagers (Chapter 4) also seems out of touch with reality.
The rich, blandly conformist schoolgirls are obsessed with having the right shade of lipstick
and the "right" expensive shoes. Meanwhile, although The Further Side of Fear
is set in London, the wild fashions of Swinging Britain and Carnaby Street
simply don't seem to exist! Swinging Britain was underway in a big way by 1965,
and attracting world wide attention.
These teens seem like 1950's Junior Leaguers in training,
not teenagers of the late 1960's.
The ultra-square middle-aged heroine is also relieved
that the two young male teens wear neckties. In real life, US male teens
typically dressed in, say, sweaters and trousers without neckties,
at least since the 1940's. Everyone found such sweaters utterly respectable.
Anyone who ever visited a high school, or watched a TV show about teenagers like Mr. Novak,
would know this.
She also depicts the alleged fact that European teens
are wearing their hair "an inch longer" than US teens, as a sinister political protest.
This in the middle of the hippie era,
three years after the long-haired Beatles made a triumphal US tour.
Teens were wearing their hair at all lengths by this time. The whole thing is very strange.
McCloy's excellent later novel The Sleepwalker (1974) shows an author
far more in touch with young people. That's a Good Thing.
Mr. Splitfoot (1968) is a formal detective novel, starring series sleuth
Dr. Basil Willing. Unlike some of Helen McCloy's books, there are no spy or international intrigue aspects.
Links to Panic
Mr. Splitfoot shares subject matter with McCloy's earlier Panic:
- A setting in a remote, isolated mountainous region upstate from New York City.
- A valuable old house full of strange eerie goings-on.
- The house was owned at one time by an old woman, who meets a similar fate
(Miss Darrell in Panic, Atropos in Mr. Splitfoot).
- Imagery from Greek Mythology, developed into a modern day story.
- A mythological human with hoofed feet (Pan in Panic, Mr. Splitfoot in Mr. Splitfoot).
The novel itself points out the connection between the myth of Pan and the legend
of Mr. Splitfoot. (A character will have a hoof-shaped cast on their arm
in "That Bug That's Going Around".)
Links to Two-Thirds of a Ghost
Mr. Splitfoot, like McCloy's earlier Two-Thirds of a Ghost, deals with
an author, his publisher and other workers in the literary and book publishing business.
Both novels take place during country house parties at the author's home.
However, there is much less detail about the literary world in Mr. Splitfoot,
than in Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
Mystery Plot: Impossible Crimes
Mr. Splitfoot has an impossible crime puzzle plot.
As sleuth Basil Willing points out (Chapter 18), it is essentially a locked room problem,
although technically the room is not actually locked.
The murder puzzle - who did the impossible crime and how -
is none too original. McCloy uses an approach straight out of
John Dickson Carr's "Locked Room Lecture" in
The Three Coffins (1935). Because this is a standard, much-used gambit,
it is easy to figure out.
Better are two mysteries surrounding the main crime: the raps and the bell.
Both of these show mild but solid ingenuity. Both mysteries involve the "production of sound".
The impossible crime aspects of Mr. Splitfoot do not take up many pages.
The murder is set forth (Chapters 6, 7) and much later solved (Chapter 18).
This is essentially a short story embedded in the novel. Even when adding in the
mystery of the raps (end of Chapter 5), it is just a small percent of the book.
The impossible crimes in Mr. Splitfoot are surrounded by a "fake supernatural"
atmosphere: in other words, the crimes are seemingly done by supernatural forces,
but are given a rational scientific explanation at the end of the book.
This is a common approach in impossible crime tales, in authors like
John Dickson Carr and his follower
Hake Talbot. McCloy lays on the fake "supernatural" material
with a trowel, including both poltergeists AND a haunted room.
Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy McCloy's "supernatural" material.
It wasn't fun to read or think about.
McCloy's earlier impossible crime puzzles generally did not employ
such a "fake supernatural" approach. However, Through a Glass, Darkly
concerns the legend of the Doppelganger, which is perhaps close to the "supernatural".
Mr. Splitfoot has a big reputation among some critics, who like it more than I do.
One can speculate that "fake supernaturalism" is a favorite among some readers,
and that these elements of Mr. Splitfoot have enhanced the book's reputation.
What Is It?
A strange, hard to identify object is found in the fireplace (Chapter 8).
Sleuth Willing and the reader have to figure out what the object is, and how it relates to the crimes.
McCloy had earlier developed a puzzle of the same kind in "The Nameless Clue",
with the strange disk found in that story.
There is a dying message puzzle, that doesn't seem very creative.
It involves a foreign language, like the dying message puzzle in The One That Got Away,
and the quasi-dying-message puzzle of NPH in The Goblin Market.
More interesting is a non-mystery aspect of the dying message: the personage who speaks it.
This is witty and clever. It plays no role in the puzzle, though.
The Crimes in the Past
There is a detailed account of a series of crimes in the past (Chapter 5).
McCloy immediately offers a tentative guess at who did the crimes and why.
I thought at first we might learn more about these killings later in the book,
and that there would be surprise twists about who committed them, or how.
But this is not the case, and the crimes are rarely referred to again.
They form what is essentially a short story within the novel.
The account in this section is well-detailed, and logically constructed.
The choice of killer is mildly surprising. On the whole though, while I respect
this subplot's craftsmanship, I think it is a fairly modest achievement.
This account is a mystery set in a historical period. Historical mysteries are common today.
But they were still quite rare in 1968 when Mr. Splitfoot was published,
when most mysteries were set in contemporary times.
There is a detailed look at unusual architectural aspects of the old house
(Chapter 3). This is in the Golden Age mystery tradition of an interest in architecture.
I enjoyed this section. But the architectural aspects in this chapter actually play
little role in the mystery puzzle.
SPOILER. One of the impossible crimes has a solution that does involve architecture,
different from that in Chapter 3. This is also appealing.
An odd optical illusion is discussed, with the chimes (middle of Chapter 7).
Problems: A Paranormal Novel
A Question of Time (1971) is my least favorite of all of McCloy's novels.
It has two central problems. One problem concerns a deja vu or precognition experience
that is central to the book. A Question of Time is billed as a "novel of suspense",
and one expects the precognition episode to be given a logical explanation and solution
at the book's end. Instead, at the end we are simply told that the precognition is genuine.
The book thus turns into a paranormal thriller. There is no warning this is going to occur:
one thinks one is reading a mystery story in which everything will be explained logically
by real science. Instead, the book simply offers us a lot of hooey.
The other problem is how depressing the story is. Much of it turns on kids having nightmarish,
tragic experiences. This is unpleasant and depressing to read about.
Links to "Silence Burning"
"Silence Burning" (1957) is a science fiction short story McCloy wrote. It has links in subject matter
to A Question of Time. "Silence Burning" includes time travel among its subjects;
A Question of Time has much metaphysical and paranormal material about time.
The purely scientific approach in "Silence Burning" seems preferable to me.
In general, science is vastly superior to paranormal claptrap.
Both "Silence Burning" and A Question of Time look at family life and loss.
Both stories are structured to take place over a long series of years.
Family members we meet in early sections in both works, are dead by the time later sections open.
Both stories explore the sense of loss this brings.
"Silence Burning" is more idealistic, in urging us to treasure relationships while loved ones are alive.
A Question of Time is more morbid in looking at the angst involved.
A Question of Time also has more of a sense of betrayal,
with relatives and parents failing the people depending on them.
"Silence Burning" is far from a classic science fiction tale: its ideas are routine and much used by other sf authors.
But it is generally superior as a treatment of time and its effects to A Question of Time.
Mystery Plot: What Causes the Victim's Terror?
Since most of what we are reading is just paranormal events, there is not as much actual mystery
in A Question of Time as in most McCloy books. The murder doesn't occur till the second half
of the novel. It has a bit of a puzzle: why is the murder victim so terrified?
McCloy eventually comes up with a solution. This is not a great puzzle, but it is least an
actual mystery-puzzle-with-solution. And it does have a fair play clue.
I didn't find the solution to be psychologically plausible, unfortunately.
This puzzle about a cause-of-terror relates to McCloy's long term subject of cognitive psychology.
The victim is scared in a room that is locked. This can be seen as tangentially related to
the "locked room mystery". Although this is a stretch, and A Question of Time
is hardly a conventional locked room puzzle.
Mystery Plot: The Disappearance
SPOILERS. A second mystery puzzle involves a man who disappears on a public street (Chapter 6).
It is mainly solved right away. This too is not-classic-but-at-least-it's-real-mystery.
Other McCloy novels have scenes of the heroine stalked, only to have her stalker
suddenly disappear: see Panic,
or the apartment intruder in the opening of The Further Side of Fear.
In terms of storytelling and atmosphere, the disappearing stalker in
A Question of Time is similar. But its mystery puzzle is different.
A character vanishing while walking out in the open, recalls a puzzle in
The One That Got Away. The solutions of the two puzzles have a
bit of similarity, although they are different.
There are "vanishing on the street" puzzles by
Carolyn Wells in The Man who Fell Through the Earth (1919)
and Richard Ellington in Exit for a Dame (1951).
A different but related kind of impossible crime is in "The Theft of the Faded Flag" (1988)
by Edward D. Hoch.
Mystery Plot: Deja Vu
The deja vu / precognition episode is given an attempted rational explanation
by the children (Chapter 2). As the book points out, this solution might explain
some of the deja vu aspects, but not the sense or terror or the precognition aspects.
It is not bad as an attempted explanation, though.
SPOILERS. There is speculation (Chapter 1) that young Lisa is not actually a man's daughter.
The plot issues are elaborate, and involve that McCloy favorite, extensive
life histories. Unfortunately, nothing more is done about this in the novel,
and this plot thread peters out.
This relates a bit to the speculation in The Long Body and The Changeling Conspiracy,
that an impostor daughter has been substituted for a real one. The situation in
A Question of Time is different, however: there is no question of an impostor
or two different girls, rather simply the issue of whether the sole girl in A Question of Time
is indeed a man's real daughter or a phony candidate.
A Question of Time recalls Panic, in that events are related to Greek mythology.
Unlike Panic, in A Question of Time this is not extended to any puzzle plot mysteries.
A Change of Heart (1973) is mainly a suspense novel. It has some mystery: the villains
behind the events are revealed only at the end, although they are none too surprising.
A Change of Heart is not structured as a "mystery solved by detection":
the good characters spend more time reacting to events and threats, than they do on any sort
of detective work or investigation into the book's mysteries.
A Change of Heart is quite readable. It displays McCloy's storytelling skill.
It discusses several interesting subjects.
However, A Change of Heart has many problems that sink the novel. It is one of McCloy's lesser books.
A Change of Heart takes us inside a business world phenomenon of the era: the conglomerate.
McCloy was always interested in trends in society. The later sections show us life in the corporate business world,
and analyze the conglomerate as a new development in Capitalism.
McCloy deserves some polite applause for trying to explore business and society. Unfortunately,
A Change of Heart doesn't have much new or insightful to say about conglomerates
or business in general. Conglomerates were much discussed in the popular press of the era:
Newsweek had a major cover article on them in October 9, 1967, concentrating on a famous conglomerate
of the time, Ling-Temco-Vought. McCloy doesn't go much beyond such press accounts.
McCloy makes some interesting points, about big shots' need to see themselves glorified by followers.
These relate to her long term interest in psychology. This idea seems related to the brief-but-incisive remark
in The One That Got Away (Chapter 10), that Dr. Basil Willing was "the only successful man I ever knew who was not conceited."
A Change of Heart returns to the subject of the anti-Communist purges of the 1950's,
which McCloy previously examined in The Long Body (1955). The book's hero lost his professorship
for defending a student of his charged with Communism. Eventually, the student is shown to be innocent of
Communist involvement. But by then, it is too late for the professor's ruined career:
he is permanently barred from the academic world, and stuck in a miserable business job.
The Long Body was ambiguous in its treatment of the McCarthy era anti-Communist crusade.
A Change of Heart shows complexities:
- The professor and his student are the victims of false charges. The book implies that
false accusations ruined innocent people during this era.
- But the book is only opposed to McCarthyism when it falsely attacks people who are non-Communists.
It seems to imply that purging actual Communists from their jobs and society is a good thing.
A Soviet Trade Delegation is visiting the US corporation in A Change of Heart.
The delegation members are slick, intelligent, highly trained and skilled, and are possible suspects,
possibly engaged in espionage or trade secret theft - or possibly not.
The heroine is a professional linguist, and the presence of Soviet characters
gives McCloy a chance to explore situations involving communicating in more than one language.
McCloy gets some pleasant plot mileage out of such scenes. They relate perhaps to McCloy's
long time interest in codes.
Less successful is the depiction of the Soviets in political terms. The serious problems of
Communism and the Soviet Union are skipped over. This is badly inadequate, as any sort of account
of the Soviet Union as a political system.
The ending, like most mystery novels, reveals who is guilty and who is innocent.
SPOILERS. A wealthy US businessman turns out to be evil; the Soviets turn out to be innocent.
Possibly this is a just a mystery solution, with no political commentary intended.
Still, A Change of Heart leaves the impression that the US business world is a bad
or at least a highly flawed place. And as I noted above, the novel's treatment of Communism is
incomplete and inadequate.
The suspense-mystery novel The Sleepwalker (1974) is one of McCloy's best later books.
The Sleepwalker can be recognized right away as about a standard sort of plot
in suspense fiction: a woman in jeopardy. One can tell immediately that the heroine is a
"nice woman who through no fault of her own is in big trouble". While this plot subject is a cliche,
and cliches are supposed to be bad - in The Sleepwalker it helps to root the novel.
Whatever happens, we know in very broad terms what is going on: an innocent heroine
who is menaced by dark forces. This core situation helps give direction to the story.
Neither the reader nor the heroine has any idea what lays behind the book's happenings,
or who is causing them. We don't know who is menacing the heroine, or why. We only learn more through the course of the novel,
with everything being fully explained at the end. This gives The Sleepwalker the structure of
"a mysterious situation which is eventually solved": in other words, The Sleepwalker
is a mystery as well as a suspense novel.
MILD SPOILER. A mysterious murder eventually occurs. But as in many other McCloy books,
the mystery of the murder is much less creative than the mysteries involving non-murder events
in the novel. Learning about what is causing the heroine's problems and why,
is far more interesting than who did the murder.
The Sleepwalker is enough of a formal mystery, that the solutions point out fair play clues
that have been concealed in the narrative. There are clues to the mystery of the heroine's situation (middle of Chapter 7),
and to the identity of the murderer (Chapter 10).
The Doctor: A Series Detective
Sympathetic Boston medical doctor Dr. Alfred Neroni returns from A Question of Time (1971),
where he also had a supporting role. His work often involves a cross between medicine and psychology.
He has a deep knowledge of unusual psychological phenomena.
Dr. Neroni is intelligent, perceptive, and kind. He goes a long way
towards unraveling the mysterious events in The Sleepwalker. In some ways he is the story's "detective".
However, he concentrates on medicine and psychiatry. He is not quite as full-fledged a detective as
Dr. Basil Willing.
And we do not see him "on stage" throughout The Sleepwalker,
the way investigator Dr. Basil Willing is in many of his cases.
Dr. Neroni is more of a supporting character, than the star of The Sleepwalker.
The Sleepwalker looks at social groups and institutions that tend to be ignored
in books and films. Many of the characters are involved with a non-profit institution.
It's a small, "unimportant" non-profit, but one full of colorful detail.
While the United States has always had a mixed economy, with businesses, cooperatives,
non-profits and the government all playing economic roles, much mystery fiction has
only spotlighted businesses. This is especially true of contemporary mysteries,
especially "cozies", which are almost obsessively set in small businesses.
The Sleepwalker thus has a fresh and fairly new background to work with.
Poor Young People and the Counter-Culture
Also novel is the social class into which many of the book's young characters fall.
They tend to be young people just getting by, not well established in careers or society,
and without much money. Many have some counter-cultural manners or attitudes.
But they are far from the radical political activists or committed social innovators
one associates with the term "counter-culture", strictly speaking.
Instead, they are a section of society without money or good jobs,
that has drifted vaguely into the fringes of the counter-culture simply
"because it is there" and widespread in 1974. The novel looks at more how
"ordinary" people without money were affected by the counter-culture and other social trends,
rather than directly depicting the counter-culture itself.
McCloy is largely sympathetic to these young people. She doesn't endorse them as an ideal.
But she suggests they are just a mainly harmless class of people without money or advantages.
She neither strongly advocates for nor demonizes the counter-culture.
She merely depicts it as an aspect of this social class' lives.
Sometimes she is sympathetic to aspects of the characters' idealism;
other times she is satirical of their attitudes. Sometimes, she sees young people's experiences as sad.
The Sleepwalker does not rush to extremes, or attempt to endorse everything Mod.
It often suggests modern life is troubled and full of difficulties.
In The Further Side of Fear (1967), McCloy came across as a writer who understood little
if any of the counter-cultural attitudes of the 60's, and who was becoming out of touch with contemporary life.
By contrast, The Sleepwalker (1974) shows a writer cognizant of current life and society,
and who can write in detail about people's experiences.
Links to Previous McCloy Works
BIG SPOILERS in this section. Please read The Sleepwalker first!
The dreams in The Sleepwalker draw on imagery used earlier for McCloy's short story
"The Other Side of the Curtain". However, the imagery in The Sleepwalker is better developed
and more interesting.
The Sleepwalker also has some broad similarity to the plot of "The Other Side of the Curtain",
in that both involve the cognitive psychology of the heroine.
The plot of The Sleepwalker is much better than the plot of "The Other Side of the Curtain".
It is more plausible scientifically, as psychology. It is much more complex and more imaginative
as a mystery plot.
The mystery in The Sleepwalker relates to material McCloy included as a subplot
in Who's Calling?. The treatment is better in The Sleepwalker,
especially in its use to create mystery plots.
Minotaur Country (1975) is a combination political thriller and mystery novel.
Minotaur Country is a readable book. Among its assets: It deals with interesting subjects; has lots of detailed
story and characters; and vivid atmosphere. However, its mystery elements are middling.
And there are objections, outlined in detail below, to its treatment of politics.
As I whole, I do not recommend Minotaur Country. It does not achieve outstanding virtues.
The Title: A Metaphor for Politics
The title Minotaur Country is designed to suggest that the political world is a fantastic place,
where anything bizarre or outre can happen. The Minotaur was a fantastic beast in Greek mythology;
the title suggests that modern-day politics is almost as fantastic as Greek mythology.
However Minotaur Country is a "realistic novel", with no fantasy elements.
The Minotaur of the title is just a metaphor.
Real World Analogues
Minotaur Country describes a Governor of a US State in 1975. But its characters and situations
keep recalling US national politics around 1960:
The whole effect is odd. It gives Minotaur Country a dream-like feel, of replaying a national myth.
- The glamorous Governor recalls handsome US President John F. Kennedy.
- The politically shrewd but unglamorous Lieutenant Governor recalls Kennedy's Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
- A controversial Caribbean island and its possibly Communist government recalls Cuba and the Castro government.
The transfer from real life national politics to the state level action of Minotaur Country
produces some odd effects. It is normal for US Presidents like Kennedy to deal with other countries, such as Cuba.
It is much rarer for state governors to be concerned with foreign relations, such as with the island in Minotaur Country.
At first, this just seems odd in Minotaur Country; but eventually one realizes that one is dealing with
a reflection of the Kennedy era and his conflicts over Cuba.
I might simply be showing my personal prejudices: but I have never been fascinated by the mystique of the Kennedys.
Nor am I interested in charismatic politicians in general. I vote according to the issues and political agendas
of parties, rather than looking for a charismatic or sexy or glamorous Leader. Consequently, I might not be an ideal audience
for Minotaur Country, having little interest in its Kennedy subject matter.
Please see the discussion of Is There a Traitor in the House? (1964)
in the article on its author Patricia McGerr,
for a detailed analysis of the broad similarity of some of its characters to those in Minotaur Country.
Is There a Traitor in the House? is a political thriller with a Kennedy-like congressman.
Links to Previous McCloy Works
Minotaur Country shares imagery with Cue for Murder:
Minotaur Country shares even more imagery with The Goblin Market:
- A canary linked to the mystery.
- Men in white tie and tails (Chapter 6).
- A Caribbean island Barlovento involved in political turmoil, and governments of the left and right.
- Another island Cayo Siesta that is crescent-shaped (Chapter 16), like the island in The Goblin Market.
- The islands have Hispanic backgrounds and characters.
- A young woman reporter, ambitious, and opposed to the sexist barriers that restrict women
to reporting on the "woman's point of view on the news".
The fictitious island in Minotaur Country has a history and politics recalling Cuba in 1960.
Different political factions in Minotaur Country debate whether the island's new government is Communist, or simply a liberal reform movement.
The question plays a key role: how the Governor should behave towards the island depends on whether it is
actually Communist or not.
Unfortunately, Minotaur Country fails to answer the question. The reader never learns if the island
is actually Communist. This is an artistic failure of Minotaur Country, on two levels:
In real life, there was indeed some ambiguity for a few months after Castro seized control of Cuba in 1959.
It was unclear to the world at large whether Castro was some sort of liberal reformer, or was a Communist.
These are exactly the alternatives about the island in Minotaur Country.
- A political novel should answer serious political questions raised in a book.
- A mystery story should reveal the truth about mysterious situations, including this specific
question about the true nature of the island government.
However, after a year in 1960 it became abundantly clear to everyone that Castro's government was Communist,
and a close public ally of the Soviet Union. In general, there has rarely been any real world, long term ambiguities
about any government's Communist ties. Most governments are either clearly Communist, or clearly non-Communist.
Therefore, the situation in Minotaur Country is not realistic, and has little relevance to
real world politics. This limits the value of Minotaur Country as a political novel.
Two villains in the book are gay. These are not the main villain of the mystery, whose identity is hidden
until the solution at the book's end. Instead, the gay pair are lower-down henchmen, clearly marked as bad guys
upon their entrance into the story.
I can't see any artistically worthwhile aspects to these characters, or ways in which they benefit the novel.
They simply seem like an expression of anti-gay bigotry.
The book jacket says "Helen McCloy was a member of a speech-writing committee of a Vice-Presidential candidate
a few years ago and so has had a backstage view of political campaigning".
Technical aspects of speech writing are discussed in Minotaur Country (Chapter 9).
These presumably give us some of McCloy's views on speech writing. Minotaur Country thus becomes
one of several McCloy works which offer an inside look at the world of professional writing.
I would have welcomed more of this kind of material in Minotaur Country.
We see the young heroine quit the highly successful career she has built up as a newspaper columnist,
and take a job as a speechwriter. This seems implausible. Any sort of newspaper columnist job is a plum assignment,
one most newspaper writers struggle for years to achieve, often unsuccessfully. Few columnists voluntarily give it up.
Columnists often augment their careers by writing books or articles on the side, in addition to their column.
But they rarely relinquish their columnist career. Unfortunately, the treatment of column writing and newspaper work
in Minotaur Country is superficial.
Mystery Subplot: The Governor's Wife
In the first chapter, a mystery is set-up: politicians at the Governor's mansion are pushing for the
Governor's wife to give an interview, even though she has generally avoided this in the past.
The reporter heroine, her editor boss, and the reader know this change is occurring, but have no idea why.
Much is made of this mystery. The reporter and the reader keep their eyes peeled, looking for clues
as to why the interview is occurring. Unfortunately, after the opening, this mystery is simply forgotten.
We never get any explanation as to why the interview takes place. And there are no hidden intrigues
among the politicians that are causing the interview, or hidden relationships between the
politicians and the Governor's wife.
This mystery and its non-solution are simply a botch. They form a rare failure of mystery craftsmanship
on McCloy's part.
Minotaur Country has a second mystery about the Governor's wife, also set forth in the first chapter.
SPOILER. The Governor's wife is behaving oddly, and frequently disappears from view.
This is not obviously criminal, but it is a mystery.
The mystery of the strange behavior of Governor's wife is solved half-way through the book (Chapter 11).
The solution is none-too-creative. It is also simpler than the intrigue in the novel's first half might suggest.
The intrigue at the mansion in the book's first half hints at a complex political conspiracy:
something that unfortunately never materializes.
The intrigue is often fascinating as a story - but the solution is disappointing.
SPOILER. This solution has Scientific aspects. Even at this late date, McCloy is sticking to the approach
of the Scientific Detective novel.
Mystery Plot: The First Crime
The dramatic crime events (Chapter 12) have a mildly interesting how-done-it mystery and explanation
(clue in Chapter 13, solution in Chapter 16).
SPOILER. The explanation has some family resemblance to that in "Murder Stops the Music", although differing in detail.
The explanation in "Murder Stops the Music" is a bit more creative; the explanation
of this subplot in Minotaur Country is a bit more conventional.
SPOILER. This solution has Scientific aspects.
Mystery Plot: The Second Crime
The choice of killer at the end is based on motives, legitimately disguised until the end (solution in Chapter 18).
There are two motives, one for the henchmen and their employers, one for the main criminal who is the brains behind the crime.
The motives are clever. And they are well-disguised, but still fairly and logically present in the novel.
They are one of the better parts of Minotaur Country as a mystery.
The alibi aspects are not bad, but far from classic (solution in Chapter 18).
The suspense novel known as The Changeling Conspiracy (1976) in the USA
is titled Cruel as the Grave in Britain (after a quote from The Song of Solomon, Chapter 8, verse 6).
It deals with a kidnapping, one with political dimensions and a radical group, in the 1970's manner.
It is not very good. It has only a few mystery features, being mainly a thriller.
The C.I.A. and The Mob
Although they have no connection to the plot, McCloy manages to bring in the C.I.A.
(known as "the Agency" in the novel), and the Mob (known as "the Family").
They seem to be there because they are staples of thriller novels.
They relate to the life history of the hero, and an informant:
life histories being a McCloy tradition.
The Mob informant (Chapter 10) lives a lavish lifestyle, is overweight
and has an addiction to fancy candy, recalling Chalkley in Who's Calling?.
The main mystery puzzle aspect is a hidden villain. SPOILER.
It manages to bring the crime home to a person I for one did not suspect (Chapter 17).
Unfortunately, the choice of villain is simply, if fairly, clued, and does not
involve more than some simple plotting. This choice of villain also relates to
the hidden motive of the killing, which had seemed fairly arbitrary up to that point.
The other most important subplot is another mystery of identity:
who is the Old Man of the Mountain, the villainous group's leader?
This mystery mainly involves the structure of the group, unlike
the who-done-it puzzle of the murder. which centers on clues to a concrete character.
McCloy flirts with suggesting that the kidnapped victim has been replaced by an impostor:
the victim now has a new personality, which might be caused either by brain washing,
or by substitution of an impostor. Unfortunately, the book never does anything clever
with this. In a simple way, this echoes the perennial McCloy theme of the Double.
It also gives the book its title, a changeling being an impostor substituted for a young person.
The Hero's Mysterious Past
One problem in general with the novel's mystery puzzles. Both the heroine's family history
and the hero's mysterious past are complex and sometimes mysterious.
SPOILER. They turn out to have nothing to do with any of the book's mysteries.
Their presence is simply an unrelated coincidence.
SPOILER. The way the hero got a new identity through his Intelligence work,
recalls similar events for the hero of McCloy's novella "Better Off Dead" (1949).
The heroes evade a man tailing them, by cutting through
some New York City buildings (opening of Chapter 10). This pleasant sequence involves
a bit of the Golden Age interest in architecture. At the end of the same chapter,
a description of a deserted subway station explicitly invokes surrealism.
This chapter is one of the best parts of the book.
More walking through odd backways of New York buildings occurs, in the strange passage
in the Hotel Moxon (end of Chapter 15).
There are some vivid descriptions of Manhattan and the Brooklyn buildings in the dusk (start of Chapter 9).
An author's note at the start states that the Hotel Moxon and the Brooklyn buildings
at Jefferson Place are based on real New York locations, although given new fictitious names.
McCloy has a long time interest in psychology.
There is much about the abnormal psychology of hostages (Chapter 6).
I didn't feel this was adequate to explain the strange behavior of the hostage in the novel.
Or that of the famous real life case that is clearly the model for the book.
She also covers interrogation techniques (Chapter 2),
human attitudes to the Moon and "jamais vu" (last part of Chapter 4),
and the psychology of domination by leaders (middle of Chapter 12).
The psychology of the Moon seemed especially interesting.
This section has a poetic quality, later apparent in her description of the subway station (Chapter 10).
It also recalls nocturnal passages in other McCloy novels, and
their descriptions of the effect of low light.
The hero condemns the use of violence by revolutionaries.
He says it leads states after revolution down paths to unforeseen and really bad ends (Chapter 15).
Based on Real Life
The core kidnapping premise is clearly based on a famous real-life case.
I don't name this case here, so I won't get sued! But most readers will recognize
this 1970's real-life case right away. It was ultra-famous in the 1970's,
and The Changeling Conspiracy is a novel "ripped from the headlines", as the saying goes.
However, the details of The Changeling Conspiracy are developed quite differently
from those of the real-life events.
Elements of Who's Calling? are clearly based on the famous real-life 1934 custody courtroom battle over "Little Gloria" Vanderbilt.
McCloy sometimes used famous real-life events as source material for her books.
The Impostor (1977) is a suspense novel.
The Impostor has mystery elements: the heroine does not know or understand what is going on,
and discovers the answers in the last third of the end of the novel.
However, the book is more of a suspense tale than a fair play mystery.
Once again, while a murder-by-an-unknown-person occurs midway through The Impostor,
it is not especially important in terms of the book's plot.
The non-murder elements are more important, and more interesting as mysteries.
Society: A Conglomerate
The social background of The Impostor recalls A Change of Heart (1973). In both books:
Helen McCloy is less interested in the financial aspects of conglomerates in The Impostor
than in A Change of Heart. She presumably said what she had to say about conglomerates in A Change of Heart,
and the treatment in The Impostor is less detailed.
- A wealthy family owns a conglomerate.
- The conglomerate is involved in international trade, and may or may not be
involved in international intrigue or espionage related to the books' mystery plots.
- The man who owns the conglomerate is wealthy,
powerful, arrogant and intimidating and forceful in his behavior.
- The hero is a poorer and much less powerful man working as a subordinate employee of the conglomerate.
The conglomerate and its business rival in The Impostor are both painted as evil places,
that have a negative impact on society. While McCloy doesn't say so, a logical implication
is that capitalism has negative possibilities within it.
The events involving Thereon are based in Cognitive Psychology (Chapter 14).
The discussion of alienation is on the borders of Cognitive Psychology (Chapter 14).
There is much about codes, a long term McCloy interest, in The Impostor. Her Postscript explicitly links
The Impostor to Panic, the earlier McCloy novel with her most detailed treatment of secret codes.
SPOILER. The Goblin Market linked "cablese", the jargon newsmen use to write telegrams, with hard-to-interpret messages.
The Impostor briefly invokes scientific technical jargon and acronyms, to add baffling material
to a code message (Chapter 12). This is one of the more ingenious mystery plot ideas in The Impostor.
Sinister Modern Weapons
SPOILERS. The Impostor eventually looks at frightening new weapons of mass destruction (Chapter 12).
In this it anticipates McCloy's short story "That Bug That's Going Around" (1979),
which looks at a different group of such weapons.
Both tales shows McCloy's interest in science.
Both paint alarming pictures of new developments in weaponry.
McCloy earlier published a science fictional, or at least futuristic novel The Last Day (1959),
which warns about the consequences of nuclear war. These late stories continue such warnings,
linked to weapons other than the atomic bomb.
Problems: A Paranormal Novel
The Smoking Mirror (1979) is a suspense novel, with mystery aspects.
It is a terrible novel, one of McCloy's poorest.
SPOILER. The Smoking Mirror returns to the material of A Question of Time (1971).
Both novels involve paranormal material about time, and people being able to foresee the future. Both novels have a similar problem.
The books each propound a mystery, then "solve" that mystery by pseudoscientific paranormal "explanations".
This is a complete cheat. Neither novel unfortunately gives any warning that one is NOT reading
a conventional mystery, until they move towards their pseudo-solutions.
A Question of Time is my least favorite of McCloy's work, and The Smoking Mirror is almost as bad.
But aside from their paranormal subject matter, the two books are drastically different:
Why McCloy wanted to spend her time writing bad novels about pseudoscience is beyond me.
By contrast, her genuine mystery novels from this era such as The Sleepwalker (1974)
and her last book Burn This (1980) are much, much better.
- A Question of Time is more depressing; The Smoking Mirror is lighter in tone, but poor in its story telling.
- The two novels differ in setting:
The Smoking Mirror is a historical set against the fall of France to the invading Nazis in 1940.
- There is much more thriller material in The Smoking Mirror, while A Question of Time is structured more like a mystery.
Other aspects of The Smoking Mirror annoy me too:
- The gambling scenes made me nervous. Kept expecting terrible disaster to overcome the heroine.
- The heroine acts so irresponsibly. She seems incapable of prudent behavior - and this at a time when the Nazis are invading France!
- The cliche depiction of people from the Eastern Mediterranean, as dressed in old-fashioned frock coats (end of Chapter 2).
The Goblin Market (1943) was a contemporary mystery, published during World War II.
The Smoking Mirror has a little of the same feel, also being set in the World War II era.
As the book jacket points out, McCloy had actually worked as an art critic in 1930's France,
so the book reflects first hand knowledge of its time and place.
The Smoking Mirror is a historical novel by any definition. But doesn't much recall today's "historical mysteries",
heavily researched books that are often set in Ancient Rome, the Middle Ages or Victorian England,
places authors and readers have never actually seen.
Instead, it is a novel set in a era and locale from the author's own life.
The heroine in The Smoking Mirror is trying to get a job at the fictitious Occidental News Service.
She fails, and the Occidental makes only a brief appearance in the novel (Chapter 3).
This does link the book to The Goblin Market, in which the Occidental News Service plays a central role.
The discussion of American Consuls (Chapter 3) is an interesting historical sidelight.
It has a few Cognitive Psychology aspects, discussing how "withdrawn" they are.
(In general, Chapter 3 has some of the best historical sidelights in the book.)
The "Nansen passport" is also a good touch (Chapters 1, 3). Its inventor Fridtjof Nansen is referred to admiringly in
The Case of the Solid Key (1941) by Anthony Boucher.
A clue involves the scent of a character, recalling Through a Glass, Darkly.
The little mystery subplot about the missing ring is decently done.
It is not a "hidden object" mystery, but the account of its vanishing has a bit of a similar feel,
at least in terms of story telling. The solution is based on on of the "informative facts"
that run through McCloy novels. This particular fact has a bit of Cognitive Psychology feel.
The Smoking Mirror has a Dying Message subplot. The solution to this mystery involves
a different approach from the majority of the Dying Messages in mystery fiction.
SPOILER. The message refers to an obscure historical fact, which gives the message its meaning (see the last pages of the novel).
Dying Message puzzles in other authors more often depend on some twist of interpretation,
such as a homonym or ambiguous visual pattern.
BIG SPOILER. Some of the characters turn out to have hidden backgrounds and roles, linked to the plot.
This recalls the solution of The Sleepwalker. Unfortunately, I didn't notice
fair play clues in The Smoking Mirror to this aspect of the solution.
Since this aspect includes the mystery of "who committed the murder",
this lack of fair play cluing is a limiting factor for the book as a murder mystery.
Burn This (1980) is a detective novel, and McCloy's last published novel.
It is a pure detective story, with no espionage, and only mild and occasional elements of suspense.
It is a recommended book, and entertaining to read.
Burn This takes place among the world of writers and publishing.
In this it recalls Two-Thirds of a Ghost. The writers in Burn This
seem less successful and affluent than those in Two-Thirds of a Ghost.
The authors in Burn This are mainly experiencing career difficulties.
The book allows McCloy to examine some of the tougher problems facing professional authors.
McCloy's fiction as a whole is full of self-reflexive commentary on mystery fiction.
There is a little of this in Burn This: one of the characters is a mystery writer.
But Burn This concentrates far more on writers of other kinds: war novels,
historical fiction, poetry and translations, book reviewing.
All of the writers in Burn This are living in modest apartments. They are all commercially published
and reviewed; all are known in literary circles. But clearly none of them are making big money.
Just how financially successful writer Tristram Purdy is, is the subject of conflicting indicators in Burn This.
When first introduced (Chapter 2), we learn that Tristram Purdy is regularly interviewed on television:
the mark of a well-known, successful author. (Back in 1980, TV talk shows still regularly promoted famous writers.)
But later information reveals that Tristram Purdy is in need of money.
The Return of Basil Willing
Burn This marked the return of McCloy's series sleuth Dr. Basil Willing. His last book appearance was
Mr. Splitfoot (1968); he was seen in the short story "The Pleasant Assassin" (1970).
In 1979, McCloy had brought Willing back in a pair of short stories,
"Murphy's Law" and "That Bug That's Going Around".
These had established that Willing had moved to Boston from New York; that his adult daughter and her husband
lived nearby and had a close relationship with Willing; and that he was now a widower.
The tales show that Willing is now a psychiatric consultant with the Boston Police.
Burn This continues this life situation for Basil Willing. We see his new Boston office and apartment,
and briefly meet the staff of his psychiatric office (start of Chapter 11). Burn This and the short stories suggest
that McCloy might have been planning a new series of Dr. Willing books, set in Boston.
Burn This and the short stories are so good that one regrets that McCloy apparently never published fiction after them.
Links to the Boston Novels
McCloy had published two earlier books set in Boston, A Question of Time and The Sleepwalker.
These had starred her series doctor-detective Dr. Alfred Neroni, rather than Basil Willing.
Both have similarities in feel to Burn This.
A Question of Time and Burn This are set in Beacon Hill, an upscale, historic neighborhood in the heart of Boston.
The book jacket of Burn This states that McCloy lived in Beacon Hill. There is much Beacon Hill
atmosphere in both books.
Both The Sleepwalker and Burn This are set in small Boston apartment buildings. The feel of these places
is more like a 1930's rooming house, than an anonymous modern-day apartment complex.
The buildings are small, essentially converted homes. Everyone who lives there knows the other tenants,
and often socializes with them. They have been personally picked as tenants by the landlady-owner.
All the tenants promptly become the chief suspects when the mysteries ensue.
SPOILER. Both The Sleepwalker and Burn This have mothers who are concerned over missing grown children.
Both vanished children's problems are related to current social situations:
the counterculture in The Sleepwalker, the Vietnam War in Burn This.
Burn This involves that McCloy favorite, cognitive psychology. SPOILERS:
- Subplots about two of the writers look at the psychology that lies behind their writing process.
In both subplots, the revelations that eventually occur clear up mysteries about these characters (Chapters 12 - 14).
The psychology also helps define them as writers, strengthening their characterization.
I found the psychology of these writers to be a bit glib, unfortunately, and perhaps not up
to the psychological ideas in McCloy's best novels. But it still makes interesting reading.
- The psychology of the dog Ajax is developed in detail. This recalls Panic and "Murder Stops the Music",
which looked at the psychology of very different dogs.
A Gay Character?
The writer of historical fiction Tristram Purdy is depicted as a super-elegant sophisticate,
with courtly speech patterns and elaborate styles of dress.
It is unclear whether McCloy is trying to signal that Tristram Purdy is gay, or not.
Nothing explicit is ever said stating that he is gay. And his elegant, elaborate style
might just indicate that he is living in the past, like the characters in his novels.
The name "Tristram Purdy" recalls a bit Truman Capote, the most famous real life gay writer of his era.
However, Capote's fiction is mainly set in the present day (or occasionally the world of his childhood),
while Tristram Purdy writes historical novels.
SPOILER. Tristram Purdy is involved in some lurid writing activities, we eventually learn.
McCloy gives vague hints as to the nature of this writing, but she never spells it out in detail.
Presumably, she (or her publishers) are trying to be tasteful and restrained. But she is so darned coy in her hints,
that I for one failed to understand exactly what sort of material is in Purdy's writing.
Helen McCloy's long short story "The Nameless Clue" (1941) was republished as "The Black Disk"
(EQMM April 1961). I read it in this reprint.
"The Nameless Clue" was originally published in a pulp magazine, Five-Novels Monthly
(Volume 57 #2, November 1941). It seems to be one of Helen McCloy's few pulp publications.
"The Nameless Clue" shows some features common to pulps, such as:
While women writers were rare in the pulps, McCloy's name and story were on the cover of
the issue containing "The Nameless Clue", one of two writers featured on the cover that month.
- A critical look at urban and civic corruption in a city run by a racketeer.
- The newsman hero has to cope with a tough boss, typical for working stiffs in the pulps.
- Scenes of fist fighting action, pitting a rugged hero against a mob henchman villain.
- Gory violence.
- A longer-than-average story length, typical of the pulps.
Cover paintings in Five-Novels Monthly concentrated on scenes of men in tough action.
The issue with "The Nameless Clue" showed a football tackle: something not from McCloy's story.
Other tough sports scenes, or men in military action, were on other covers of Five-Novels Monthly in 1941.
Links to The Goblin Market
"The Nameless Clue" has features that look like a rough sketch for her soon-to-be-written novel
The Goblin Market:
- Both have a traveling newspaperman hero, who works for a press service that creates stories.
- Both have inside looks at details of the news business, such as the teletype flimsies,
the hero's press card and the newspaper morgue in "The Nameless Clue".
- Both take place in a small area run by bosses linked to Fascism. In "The Nameless Clue" this is symbolical:
dialogue compares the racketeer boss of this corrupt American city to Hitler.
- Prominent rich people turn out to be supporters of the evil regime.
- Bad guys keep searching for a valuable missing object, menacing the good guys.
- An industrial chemist is consulted to analyze a mysterious object found at the crime scene.
- A woman notes critically in "The Nameless Clue" that no women detectives or reporters
investigated the case; in The Goblin Market a woman reporter gives a full feminist critique
of discrimination against women in the news business.
- Both have scenes of tough fighting between the hero and villains.
Links to Do Not Disturb
"The Nameless Clue" also seems like an early rough draft for ideas in Do Not Disturb.
SPOILER. Both The Goblin Market and Do Not Disturb
show wealthy Americans as secret supporters of Fascism;
both tales are anticipated in this aspect by "The Nameless Clue", which shows the wealthy as
secret supporters of corrupt regimes analogous to Fascism.
"The Nameless Clue" and Do Not Disturb both criticize police brutality.
The hero goes to a hotel and gets involved with eerie goings-on there,
at the start of both "The Nameless Clue" and Do Not Disturb.
Clues and Cognitive Psychology
The clue of the title is an object that the hero can see and hold, but not identify.
This is an unusual concept. It relates to cognitive psychology: the hero's attempt to
understand the world around him, classifying and naming objects.
Dialogue suggests that the object might be hard to identify, because it is might be only a
part of some larger configuration. This is a good idea, also rooted in cognitive psychology.
However, this does not actually have anything to do with the actual solution of what the object is.
McCloy uses strict, sound detective work at all stages, showing the hero run down
what the object is, and then trying to link it to the killer.
One eye-witness testimony has an object look a little different in low light at night:
a common McCloy trope.
Helen McCloy's short story "Chinoiserie" was reportedly written in 1935,
but not published till 1946.
"Chinoiserie" is set in traditional China, circa 1900. As a mystery set in a richly described
third world country, but full of characters from Europe and the United States, it resembles
The Goblin Market.
Descriptions of the Manchu aristocrats of the era are none too flattering.
They are shown as haughty and obsessed with ritual status symbols.
However, villainy in "Chinoiserie" is mostly concentrated among the white characters.
McCloy is a political liberal, and "Chinoiserie" is emphatically not created to defame
its Chinese or Tartar characters.
There is much about Chinese painting in "Chinoiserie". The young McCloy was working as an art critic
when this tale was apparently written. The descriptions of Chinese paintings are in full
art criticism mode.
Painting themes occasionally return in later McCloy: the art teacher heroine of Through a Glass, Darkly,
the Goya painting in A Question of Time. The chapter titles in Dance of Death
are based on genres of paintings.
The central mystery recalls in general terms McCloy's first novel, Dance of Death.
However, the details of the solution are quite different.
SPOILERS. Some common features of "Chinoiserie" and Dance of Death:
"Chinoiserie" has many interlocking puzzles and riddles. Unlike most of McCloy's later works,
these puzzles are all interconnected, instead of being separate subplots.
In this "Chinoiserie" resembles Dance of Death, whose numerous mysteries also interlock.
- A very young woman who mysteriously disappears during an upper class party.
- A cold mid-winter time frame.
- City streets with poor people form a contrasting setting to the opulent upper class social event.
- Poison plays a role in both works.
- A strong contrast between rich and poor occurs in both stories.
However, the plot structure of Dance of Death has a "nested" quality, with each new mystery
being contained "inside" the previous one. "Chinoiserie" does not have such a "nested" construction.
The short story "Dead Man's Code" (1954) was republished as "Not-Tonight-Danger"
(EQMM Sept 1957). I read it in this reprint.
This piece is signed by McCloy's husband at the time, mystery writer
Brett Halliday, and stars his famed series detective,
Miami private eye Michael Shayne. However, Halliday's 1955 introduction to the
tale states that it was largely ghost-written by McCloy while
he was busy with a novel.
A publisher from Boston is a main character. This is an early example in McCloy of Boston,
which would be prominent in her later fiction.
The middle-aged publisher is in McCloy's version of New England businessman-intellectual gear:
thinly polished shoes and a bow tie. McCloy has indeed caught the uniform of upper middle class WASPs
of the era. But these clothes also suggest a lack of exciting sexuality,
compared to a more phallic conventional tie and highly polished shoes.
The publisher, a highly proper and honest man, suddenly gets involved in a theft.
This anticipates later McCloy works about honest men who get lured into theft:
A Change of Heart and "Murphy's Law".
SPOILER. The codes depend on a system developed for a specialized
communication profession, as in The Goblin Market.
The meaning of the coded message also reflects, in a simple way, some specialized approaches.
Helen McCloy's short story "The Singing Diamonds" (1949) is one of her best works.
Like much of McCloy's fiction, it mixes mystery with spy fiction.
The story is richly detailed, and incorporates many kinds of disparate material.
Much of the mystery plot is science-related, as is common in McCloy. Cognitive psychology plays a big role.
SPOILER. A small aspect of the richly complex plot seems inspired by "The Avenging Chance" (1929)
by Anthony Berkeley.
SPOILER. "The Singing Diamonds" anticipates mystery plot aspects of
Agatha Christie's The Pale Horse (1961).
The solution uses "textual analysis", a technique that runs through McCloy: Willing analyzes some text
(in this story, newspaper articles) and finds hidden patterns.
SPOILER. The tale's first half ingeniously employs what might be called "textual analysis in reverse".
Naval Intelligence adds some hidden patterns to text. These are later explained.
Most textual analysis involves the sleuth discovering hidden patterns that have been put there accidentally,
caused by underlying mental processes or attitudes of the person writing or speaking the text.
By contrast, these patterns are deliberate, a conscious shaping of the text.
Still, when they are explained to the reader, they also have the effect of
"hidden patterns concealed in a text, finally revealed", just like a standard piece of textual analysis.
The look at how Naval Intelligence is modifying news reports is detailed, and full of concrete examples.
It thus resembles a bit the concrete tips on speechwriting in Minotaur Country (Chapter 9).
McCloy was sometimes interested in jargon. There is a statement by a psychologist,
filled with abstruse technical terms.
A relative who has been adopted as a son, recalls The One That Got Away.
Dialogue between Willing and Tamara, and events at the end, look at complex relationships in the family, and the family circle.
Tamara discusses both relationships that are well-established facts, and possible connections between people she only suspects might be occuring.
This is a plot technique that also appears in The One That Got Away. Both works explore different potential relationships
within a family and its friends, considered as possibilities, speculated on, or suspected.
The riddle of why superficial society sophisticate Clare Albany wants to be friends with this academic family,
recalls the mystery in The Deadly Truth, of "why do wholesome young woman Peggy and decadent rich socialite Claudia Bethune associate?"
Both are examples of a kind of mystery McCloy likes: "bizarre events that are hard to explain".
"The Singing Diamonds" is set at fictitious Manhattan University.
This recalls The Man in the Moonlight, which is also set at a
(different) imaginary New York college.
Both stories have an international cast of characters, with people with origins
both in Europe and Asia, especially Austria and China.
McCloy's treatment of Asians is dignified and non-stereotyped.
The tale's second half takes place at a perennial McCloy setting,
a sophisticated dinner party, as in Who's Calling?, Two-Thirds of a Ghost, "That Bug That's Going Around".
Oddly, several of these dinner party tales have scientific subjects and/or guests:
"The Singing Diamonds", Who's Calling?, "That Bug That's Going Around".
The garden is geometric, unusual in that it is rounded.
Politics and Society
The political situation centers around the US-Soviet rivalry.
The goals of the US agents are entirely directed at containing and beating the Soviet Union.
However, Communism as a political system is not discussed.
US Naval Intelligence feels that it is completely justified in manipulating and distorting the press.
This makes for some entertaining, clever plot twists. But its political ramifications are disturbing.
Is this really responsible behavior? Isn't it an attack on democracy?
McCloy rarely if ever returned to this approach in subsequent fiction: a good thing, in my judgment.
It's a fun one-time stunt, and I can live with that. But I'm glad it's not a standard feature of her work.
SPOILER. Part of the solution draws on a marketing innovation that was becoming popular in 1949:
mailing lists for direct mail advertising. McCloy liked to look at new features of business and economic life.
"The Case of the Duplicate Door" (1949) is an "impossible crime" mystery short story.
"The Case of the Duplicate Door" was originally written to accompany a jigsaw puzzle. Reportedly,
when the puzzle was assembled, the complete picture contained a clue to the mystery.
This is hardly the only example of such a puzzle. Such jigsaw mysteries were still being sold in the 1990's.
Links to The One That Got Away
Subjects in The One That Got Away (1945) return in "The Case of the Duplicate Door":
- Both mysteries include an impossible crime, about a mysterious, seemingly impossible disappearance.
- "The Case of the Duplicate Door" has an airplane setting, recalling the air trip opening of The One That Got Away.
- The One That Got Away has a moment where the hero is conscious of the past and future (Chapter 10).
He realizes the area of Scotland he is in is steeped in the past. In "The Case of the Duplicate Door",
Dr. Willing sees the narrow streets of oldest part of Manhattan at its southern tip as the Past,
and ultra-modern LaGuardia Airport as the Future.
- The One That Got Away features US soldiers in Europe right after the end of World War II.
"The Case of the Duplicate Door" has a now-civilian pilot who has a long distinguished record of air missions in World War II.
"Murder Stops the Music" (1957) is a short but plot-rich mystery short story.
The beach cabin setting, with Dr. Basil Willing one of the residents, recalls The Deadly Truth.
This beach seems to be in or near Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It is an early example of a Massachusetts
locale in McCloy, who would later set books in Boston.
A look inside the cognitive world of a dog, recalls Panic.
SPOILER. The sending of messages, and a mystery sub-plot related to this, recalls The Goblin Market.
Links to The One That Got Away
A mystery puzzle subplot recalls The One That Got Away. SPOILERS:
Both tales take place in pretty countryside areas.
- In both works, a bad guy has adopted a new identity,
and infiltrated a social group under this innocuous new guise. The sleuths discover this,
but do not know which apparently innocent looking person is really the bad guy: there is more than one
possible suspect. The sleuth's job is to figure out which suspect is the disguised bad guy.
- In both tales, the bad guy is a foreigner: German in The One That Got Away,
French in "Murder Stops the Music". But his disguise conceals this fact.
In both works, the sleuths discover a clue about this foreign origin using "textual analysis".
- The clue about French reflects a bit the Dying Message puzzles in The One That Got Away and Mr. Splitfoot
that involve foreign languages, although the puzzle in "Murder Stops the Music" is not a Dying Message.
"Murder Ad Lib" (1964) is a little mystery story. Its mystery puzzle is not so much "Who done it",
as "how was information communicated?" This is a kind of puzzle with long roots in mystery fiction.
McCloy comes up with a simple but solid answer.
More complex is the alibi situation. This is not presented as a puzzle to the reader.
Instead, we know all the sleuths' thinking as they explore the ramifications of the possible alibi.
But the alibi is complex, and leads to a clever trap. McCloy spent a lot of work,
setting up this situation. Alibi problems are rare in McCloy.
"Murder Ad Lib" is another McCloy work in which subplots (the alibi) are more complex than
what seems to be the central mystery (the communication puzzle).
The performing duo combine features of two popular stage and TV acts of the era, without
being an exact match for either:
- Like the Smothers Brothers, their act involves folk music and comedy. Folk music in 1964 was
at its peak of popularity in the USA, and McCloy is recognizing a phenomenon of the era.
- Like Nichols and May, the duo contains a man and a woman, and is skilled in improvisation.
Nichols and May had nothing to do with folk music though, being glamorous sophisticates instead.
Basil Willing is back at a beach cottage, just as in The Deadly Truth and "Murder Stops the Music".
Only this one is in Malibu near Los Angeles, far away from his usual East Coast stomping grounds.
The is perhaps set in Los Angeles to make the show business professions of the characters plausible.
Most of McCloy's American-set books are in the Boston-to-New York-to-Washington corridor,
the region known to geographers as BosWash or the "Northeast megalopolis". "Murder Ad Lib" is a rare exception.
Helen McCloy's short story "Murphy's Law" (1979) starts out as a "big heist" tale,
but eventually turns into a puzzle plot murder mystery. This is a sort of plot structure familiar from
the Nick Velvet tales of Edward D. Hoch, which typically start with a planned theft,
which unexpectedly triggers a murder mystery.
This unpretentious short story is surprisingly rich in mystery.
In addition to the whodunit murder mystery, there are three subplots with mystery elements.
McCloy's novels are full of such subplots: here they are in a short story too.
As in many McCloy works, the subplots are more ingenious than the riddle of whodunit,
which is not especially clever or well-clued. SPOILERS:
The subplots about the Government letter and the archaeological aspects of the coin,
are not presented to the reader as mysteries. during the body of the story.
Instead, the reader only learns during the solution that these subjects have hidden, surprising aspects.
These surprises show mystery plotting ingenuity. However, it might be inaccurate to call them
"puzzles". "Who committed the murder?" and "Where is the missing coin?" are puzzles presented
to the reader, which the reader is invited to solve. By contrast, the reader only learns at the tale's end
that there is anything mysterious about the Government letter or archaeology.
- The subplot about the missing coin, is one of the hidden object puzzles in McCloy.
- The Government letters Murphy receives, recalls a bit the news service office in The Goblin Market,
and the numerous cables it receives from the home office. The mystery is different though
from anything in The Goblin Market. In both works the messages are non-standard documents:
cables in The Goblin Market, a computer print-out in "Murphy's Law".
- Another subplot about the early coin draws on archaeological information.
It is one of several McCloy works that build on facts about Ancient Greece.
The crooks use a simple code to communicate, a long-time McCloy subject.
This is not used to develop any mystery puzzle plots, though.
The "incuse marks" on the old coin, are something I've never heard of before.
They form a visual pattern that needs to be identified, and which turns out to be something obscure.
McCloy sometimes built mysteries around "hard-to-identify-objects".
However, the incuse marks are not treated as a mystery.
Rather, they are an odd sidelight that get explained throughout the story.
"Murphy's Law" starts with a look at Murphy's reading, and how some phrases "stand out".
This examines reading as a cognitive process.
Two women are characterized in terms of their cognitive psychology, an interest of McCloy.
However, this characterization plays little role in the mystery plot:
A man wears what the story calls a "psychedelic" tie. He is far from being any sort of hippie himself, however.
This shows the "fringes of the counter-culture" perspective found in The Sleepwalker,
in which counter-cultural ideas affect people who are otherwise marginal to the counter-culture.
- Opera singer Emilia Deluca's background in theater, has led to her knowing how to "hold herself", move, etc.
- A drug-addled woman is so confused that her nickname is Amnesia!
Emilia has a canary, recalling Minotaur Country and Cue for Murder.
However, unlike those books the canary plays no role in a mystery plot.
Setting: Lower Middle Class Rental
The three non-affluent main characters rent cheap rooms at the top of a run-down hotel.
This recalls the financially marginal young people who rent rooms in the converted house in The Sleepwalker.
However, the characters in "Murphy's Law" are retirees, not young people.
"That Bug That's Going Around" (1979) is a pure scientific detective story.
It weaves five different scientific situations into a coherent plot: an achievement.
As McCloy states repeatedly in the story, this scientific information comes straight out
of newspaper articles. Then McCloy has developed fictional variations on the core situations.
McCloy has long included educational passages in her work,
that inform readers about some intellectual subject. These scientific situations and their real-life background
data reflect her practiced skill at incorporating such knowledge-based patches into her work.
Some earlier McCloy works offered feminist critiques of journalism and discrimination against woman reporters.
"That Bug That's Going Around" takes a feminist look at bad treatment of woman scientists.
This is clearly based on a famous real life case: Rosalind Franklin getting cheated out of
recognition for her work on DNA.
"That Bug That's Going Around" will never be a favorite story of mine. As Willing points out, it is unnerving,
and something the doctor wants to forget. Still, ignoring this will not make it go away.
Mystery Plot: Identifying an Object
The actual mystery elements are simple.
Basil Willing explores doodling and what it reveals again, as in Who's Calling?.
Whatever the doodle represents, it does not look like any real object most people are familiar with.
This recalls the mysterious object in "The Nameless Clue", which the hero can hold and look at -
but not identify. However, the solution identifying the object in "That Bug That's Going Around"
is drastically different from the solution in "The Nameless Clue". The two solutions use
fundamentally different approaches.
Mystery Plot: Life Histories
After the doodle is identified, the mystery puzzle turns to attempts to link
the subject of the doodle, with various characters' life histories.
McCloy often bases mystery plots on characters' life histories. In "That Bug That's Going Around",
one of the characters Philip Keene is a biographer writing about the other suspects. He is always supplying
information about their past lives. This is a clever way to work such life history detail into the story.
Willing's first book is mentioned: Time and Mentality.
Since Willing is a psychologist, this is presumably a book about how time intersects with human thinking.
This is consistent with the interest in time that runs through McCloy's fiction.
The character with a hoof-shaped cast on an arm, recalls the "humans with hoofs" imagery
in Panic and Mr. Splitfoot.
Young science writer Philip Keene is dressed in what would soon be called the "preppy" look -
although McCloy does not use that term.
Preppy fashions emerged in the late 1970's, so McCloy is picking up on a trend that is red hot.
McCloy associates this look with New York City, and the way its inhabitants are highly fashionable.