| Reilly and the Police Procedural | Government: A Positive View
| Who Is McKee? | A Gay Detective
| Scientific Detection | Light
| Visionary Writing | Abstraction
| Artists | Reilly's Characters
Novels: The Thirty-First Bullfinch | Murder in the Mews
| The Doll's Trunk Murder | McKee of Centre Street
| The Line-Up | Mr. Smith's Hat
| Dead Man Control | Dead for a Ducat
| All Concerned Notified | Death Demands an Audience
| Murder in Shinbone Alley
| The Dead Can Tell | Mourned on Sunday
| Beyond the Dark | Murder on Angler's Island
| The Silver Leopard
| The Farmhouse | Staircase 4
| Murder at Arroways | Lament for the Bride
| The Double Man | The Velvet Hand
| Compartment K | The Canvas Dagger
| Ding Dong Bell
| Not Me, Inspector | Follow Me
| Certain Sleep | The Day She Died
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932) (Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 15, 16, 17, 22, 24)
McKee of Centre Street (1933)
The Line-Up (1934)
Mr. Smith's Hat (1936) (Chapters 1 - 4, 7, 8, 11)
Dead for a Ducat (1939) (Chapters 4, last part of 10, 13-17, 21)
All Concerned Notified (1939) (Chapters 1-16)
Death Demands an Audience (1940) (Chapters 1, 3-7)
The Dead Can Tell (1940) (Chapters 1-10, 15-21) (available on-line at
Mourned on Sunday (1941)
Beyond the Dark (1944) (Chapters 1-11)
Murder on Angler's Island (1945) (Chapters 2, 3, 4, 8, 10, first half of 11, second half of 14, 15)
The Farmhouse (1947) (Chapters 1-9, 12-15)
Compartment K (1955)
Not Me, Inspector (1959) (Chapters 1 - 6, 15)
Follow Me (1960)
Certain Sleep (1961) (Chapters 1, 5, 12)
The Day She Died (1962)
The above is not a complete list of the author's works.
Rather, it consists of my picks of her best tales, the ones I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others.
Helen Reilly was a prolific author of mystery novels, whose career
stretched from 1930 to 1962.
Commentary on Helen Reilly:
Helen Reilly began her career with a non-series mystery novel The Thirty-First Bullfinch (1930).
Two books followed featuring her policeman sleuth Inspector Christopher McKee of New York City Homicide:
The Diamond Feather (1930) and Murder in the Mews (1931).
Then came two non-series mysteries: The Man with the Painted Head (1931)
and The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932). From that point on, the books Reilly
published under her own name all featured McKee, with the exception of File on Rufus Ray (1937).
In the early 1940's she published three non-series novels under the pseudonym Kieran Abbey.
Reilly and the Police Procedural
Helen Reilly's books usually feature New York City police
Inspector Christopher McKee. They were among the first American
novels to stress police procedure.
To what school do Helen Reilly's novels belong? This is not an
easy question. Howard Haycraft in Murder for Pleasure (1941)
emphasized that she was not a Had I But Known (HIBK) writer.
This was true at the time; but later, she often included young
society women in her tales, who were in jeopardy - a sign of HIBK
influence on her later work. However such HIBK-like Reilly novels
as The Opening Door (1944) and The Silver Leopard
(1946) seem to me to be among Reilly's poorest works.
Reilly and Van Dine & Anthony Abbot
There is an discussion of Reilly in Jon L. Breen's
excellent article on the history of the police procedural, in
The Fine Art of Murder (1993). Breen argues that Reilly
comes out of the Van Dine school, and suggests that she is similar
to Van Dine school writer Anthony Abbot,
who also wrote about a New York City policeman, Thatcher Colt.
And Breen compares McKee and his erudition to that of
S.S. Van Dine's detective Philo Vance.
I agree with Breen: there is much to be said for Reilly being
influenced by Van Dine and his disciple Abbot.
Both Reilly and Anthony Abbot like to write about the same sort
of Manhattan locations: Greenwich Village back streets, nightclubs,
Differences: Abbot's hero Thatcher Colt comes from a moneyed background.
By contrast, Inspector McKee's origins are almost never discussed.
Reilly and Crofts
From 1920 Freeman Wills Crofts wrote
novels that described the realistic, routine sleuthing of British
policemen. They were immensely influential, both in Britain and
abroad. Reilly's works emphasize police procedure. Yet she seems
not to be a Crofts-influenced writer. Reilly's police procedurals
do not fall into easy categories. They seem very different from
the police stories of Freeman Wills Crofts. They focus in turn
on the operations of many different members of the police team,
for example, and intermix scenes where the police have the point
of view with those in which the POV is owned by civilians mixed
up in the crime. This is very different from the Croftsian tales
in which the viewpoint focuses steadily on Inspector French. Nor
is Reilly especially interested in such Croftsian features as
ingeniously faked alibis, detailed Backgrounds, the "breakdown
of identity", clever criminal money making schemes involving
smuggling or forgery, or mosaic-like investigations of past crimes.
There are similarities between Reilly and Crofts:
- Reilly does resemble Crofts in the purity of her approach. Her
McKee of Centre Street (1933) sticks to pure police procedure
throughout its length with the same single-mindedness Crofts displayed
in such books as The Box Office Murders (1929).
- Also Crofts-like: the way we share all of McKee's thoughts and discoveries throughout
the book, instead of waiting till the end of the novel to get
the detective's ideas.
- Reilly shares Crofts' internationalism:
McKee of Centre Street has frequent flashbacks to Columbia
in South America, in the same way that Crofts liked to explore
continental Europe. There are references to South America in The Dead Can Tell.
Compartment K goes to Canada.
- The boat and ocean finale of McKee of Centre Street recalls Crofts.
Reilly and Frederick Irving Anderson
Reilly seems closer to American writers of police detective tales,
such as Frederick Irving Anderson and William MacHarg.
Both of these authors wrote short stories that appeared in slick
magazines, such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post.
Anderson's tales flourished in the prosperous 1920's, and were full of extravagant
fantasies of elaborate police investigations. MacHarg's tales
were mainly published during the 1930's and early 1940's Depression
era, and featured a plain realism in their settings among New
Yorkers of all classes.
Reilly's seem closer to Anderson's, but
without the whimsy. Both Anderson and Reilly show a large team
of police that perform a remarkable variety of tasks, including
shadowing suspects, doing background checks, impersonation and
undercover work, crime scene investigation and lab work. Both
Reilly and Anderson highly relish the diverse personalities, skill
sets and social backgrounds of their varied cops. Both authors'
police manage to spread a very wide net around the villainy under
investigation, and both have enormous initiative and get up and
go. Inspector McKee has the role of chief in Reilly's world, just
as Deputy Parr in Anderson's.
Todhunter, the highly effective "little gray man" cop who works for McKee,
might have been inspired by Anderson's equally inconspicuous, effective and even more lower class cop Pelts,
a "shabby little man" who works for Parr in Anderson's tales.
Lonely city apartments in run down neighborhoods tend to be sites
of violence in Reilly's world. Reilly's stories are like MacHarg's
and Cornell Woolrich's in that they
sometimes are set among poor people. These writers all use police
detectives. Their poor people are not mobsters, unlike the hard-boiled
writers of the pulps. Instead they are ordinary people who live
in tenements and slums, have menial jobs, and cope with the Depression.
Government: A Positive View
Helen Reilly is not a political writer, in any traditional sense.
Her books rarely express political ideas, unlike say her contemporary Helen McCloy,
whose writings are full of political commentary. (There are exceptions in Reilly's work
that can be read politically, though, such as The Canvas Dagger,
and the negative comments on Madison Avenue in Follow Me and Certain Sleep.)
But one aspect of Reilly's books has political implications.
Reilly's policeman hero Inspector McKee is unquestionably a good cop.
He and his men are outstanding public servants, skilled and successful at their work.
McKee's homicide squad shows Government as effective and of public benefit.
Reilly's pro-Government works have nothing in common with today's right-wing libertarians,
who relentlessly depict government as evil and ineffectual.
Heroes who are US Government officials are common in entertainment of this era.
Matt Dillon, hero of the long-running radio and TV Western Gunsmoke (1952-1975),
was a US Marshal, as the series frequently emphasized. Federal employee Marshal Dillon
was shown as outstanding at his job. It is important to recognize the pro-Government political view
implicit in such works as Reilly's novels and Gunsmoke.
"I would much rather be an honorable public servant and known as such than to be the richest man in the world" -
President Harry Truman.
Also sympathetic to the Government: the depictions of the heroine's life as a WAC
(a soldier in the Women's Army Corps) in Reilly's Murder on Angler's Island.
The WAC's are shown in a uniformly positive light.
The novel also critiques what we would today call a male chauvinist:
a man who disproves of the WAC's and doesn't believe women should be soldiers.
Some McKee novels show women who are not primarily government employees assisting McKee with cases.
These episodes show women contributing their expert skills to the public good.
These include a continuing character, nurse Lucy Sturm.
See also the clothing expert in All Concerned Notified.
Who Is McKee?
Who is McKee?
Christopher McKee is head of the New York City Homicide Squad.
McKee is a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) - his nickname is "the Scotsman" - who devotes his life to Government service.
He recalls President Franklin D. Roosevelt, another figure who also was deeply devoted to public service.
And the "dollar a year" upper-middle class WASP men who worked for Roosevelt in the Government,
when they could have made big bucks in industry.
However, all the Reilly novels I've managed to track down say nothing about McKee's
early background. He could have been born poor or born rich: the books don't say.
McKee shares the devotion to Government service of Roosevelt's men.
But not necessarily their upper-middle class origins.
In addition to his main work with the police, we learn very briefly that:
- McKee did "special work" in World War I: see Murder in the Mews (Chapter 1).
- McKee goes to Rio de Janeiro, sent by the Mayor of New York City, at the official request of the Brazilian Government:
see The Dead Can Tell (1940) (Chapter 1). This was during the era of Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy.
- McKee was a Commander in Naval Intelligence in World War II, and served in post-war activities in the Far East:
see The Silver Leopard (Chapter 3).
- McKee is on loan to the Air Force in The Double Man (1952), during the Korean War,
but takes up the book's civilian mystery instead when a general twists his ankle, freeing McKee up for a period (Chapter 12).
McKee is highly educated, or perhaps simply well-read, with a vast array of facts in his memory:
see McKee of Centre Street (start of Chapter 11).
In The Double Man (Chapter 12)
a policeman views admiringly "McKee's striking personality, his breadth and vision,
his interest in his profession and the vast scope of it".
McKee is described as a "tall lean man in smoky tweeds": McKee of Centre Street (start of Chapter 1).
The same book calls him "big gaunt" (Chapter 11). He is "huge, angular": Murder in the Mews (Chapter 1),
"lean, towering": Death Demands an Audience (Chapter 1); has "long legs": All Concerned Notified (Chapter 1),
"lean and towering in loose gray flannel": The Dead Can Tell (Chapter 1). McKee clearly likes gray suits.
"There was a spark at the back of his deep-set brown eyes that hadn't been there before.": Murder on Angler's Island (Chapter 4).
A detailed description in The Silver Leopard (Chapter 3) says McKee is in his forties.
A more detailed description appears in Not Me, Inspector (second part of Chapter 5),
where we learn McKee has "thick, dark hair" and "deep-set, dark eyes in a long intelligent face".
Many books have no physical description of McKee at all.
McKee makes a memorable first impression:
- "A tall man, dark, authoritative, quiet, powerful, a personage. There was no doubt of that from the beginning.":
Murder at Arroways (end of Chapter 10).
- "She had seen this man before, on several occasions, somewhere in a crowd, at a theater or at one or another of the night clubs,
He was a man you noticed, remembered.": Not Me, Inspector (second part of Chapter 5),
McKee's first novel appeared in 1930. The comic book hero Superman debuted in 1938.
I doubt if there is a direct influence. But there are parallels:
- Both are hard-working men who devote themselves to careers of public service.
- Both are of high moral integrity.
- Both have dark hair.
- Both have vast intellects.
- McKee lives in New York City. Superman lives in Metropolis, an imaginary town closely based on New York City.
- Superman is a reporter; McKee is linked to high-tech communication devices and communication centers.
McKee's Orientation: A Gay Detective?
There are hints that McKee might not be heterosexual.
McKee is perhaps a gay man, who finds satisfaction in male bonding,
and who sublimates his gay urges in being a workaholic. As a gay man devoted to public service, he recalls
Lincoln Kirstein, a gay man from a wealthy Jewish family who worked as one of the Monuments Men in World War II,
helped found the Museum of Modern Art, and founded the New York City Ballet.
Hints that McKee is gay are found in: Murder in the Mews (1931) (Chapter 1),
The Line-Up (1934) (Chapters 1, 15),
Dead Man Control (1936) (Chapters 4, 6), Death Demands an Audience (1940) (Chapter 7),
The Dead Can Tell (1940) (start of Chapter 1), Certain Sleep (1961) (Chapter 5).
McKee is rarely described as having any interest in women in the novels,
aside from the brief finale of Mourned on Sunday.
See also the non-McKee novel The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932), and the male-bonding relationship that
develops between Sheriff Craven and Richard Brierly (Chapters 3, 15, 16, 24).
Murder in the Mews
Murder in the Mews suggests McKee is emotionally isolated from other people (Chapter 1):
The way that McKee seems to be close only to a male friend may, or may not, hint that McKee is gay.
- He is described as "forlorn".
- His friend Pete Hogarth is said to be the only other person who calls McKee by his first name.
The Hat. The victim has a fancy top hat, which contains a clue (Chapter 1).
Such top hats are distinctly phallic: something emphasized when McKee knocks the hat open.
They anticipate Liam Fogarty's phallic display in his costume in The Farmhouse.
McKee's skeleton key in this section is also a phallic symbol.
McKee's trying on the victim's hat, might simply be a piece of detective work.
But it also might have a homoerotic subtext: wearing another man's clothes.
In The Line-Up (Chapter 1), the heterosexual Fernandez goes out of his way
to look at a nude painting by Renoir; McKee does not.
McKee's apartment can be accessed from roofs of neighboring buildings (Chapter 15).
McKee uses this to sneak men into his apartment who do not want to be seen going there.
In The Line-Up, this is used to smuggle in a lawyer witness so that he can talk with
McKee's police colleagues unseen. The novel does not mention McKee using this set-up for his personal life.
But it would be easy for McKee to sneak in lovers to his home.
Dead Man Control
McKee has a longtime friendship with series character Assistant Medical Examiner Fernandez,
something that stretches across many novels.
Fernandez is an active heterosexual, with an eye for the ladies.
In Dead Man Control (start of Chapter 6) both men stare at a crime scene photo showing the fainted heroine.
All Fernandez notices is that she is beautiful. By contrast, McKee is not interested in this.
Instead, he finds a clue embedded in the photo. This might simply suggest that McKee is all business,
obsessed with detective work. But it also might suggest that McKee does not respond to women's looks.
There are somewhat similar passages in Agatha Christie, focusing on
maybe-he's-gay detective Poirot, and his heterosexual friend Captain Hastings:
see Murder on the Links (1923) (Chapter 2) and "Double Sin" (1928).
In reconstructing the crime, McKee takes on the role of the heroine. His identification with her
is remarkably strong (end of Chapter 6). This suggests a female component to McKee's gender identity.
There are other ways of interpreting these events with McKee. They might have a feminist dimension.
McKee is able to look at photos of the heroine, or reconstruct her actions during the crime,
and see a person caught up in a crime scene. He sees her not as a sex object, but as a human being
with a life and who is involved in events (the crime). This feminist point of view - seeing women as people -
might coexist with the McKee-as-gay interpretation. They are not mutually exclusive.
Both might be true.
McKee is introduced in Dead Man Control (start of Chapter 4) idly staring at Philip Bray,
the novel's Romantic Hero. There are reasons McKee might be watching the tall, 32-year-old Bray:
Bray is clearly in some sort of trouble. But the scene also perhaps shows McKee cruising an attractive man.
It also perhaps gives clues that McKee is sexually attracted to adult, nice-guy "leading man" types.
This is consistent with McKee's friendships with journalist Pete Hogarth in Murder in the Mews
and cartoonist Jimmy Telfair in McKee of Centre Street.
Death Demands an Audience
Death Demands an Audience has McKee and District Attorney Dwyer interrogating a beautiful woman suspect.
Dwyer is soon bowled over by the suspect's beauty and manipulativeness, and is convinced she's innocent.
McKee is unaffected (start of Chapter 7). This simply could mean that McKee is tougher-minded,
and less influenced by emotion on his job. But it also might hint that McKee is not responding to this woman's beauty.
This is another episode contrasting McKee's responses with those of an explicitly heterosexual man (Fernandez, Dwyer).
The Dead Can Tell
The Dead Can Tell (start of Chapter 1) contrasts Fernandez staring at a beautiful woman in a restaurant,
while McKee has no interest in even looking, despite his friend's urging.
Certain Sleep (1961) is the penultimate Reilly and McKee novel.
It shows the friendship between McKee and Lieutenant Bill Sullivan of the Connecticut State Police (Chapter 5).
Friendship between two cops is not unusual, and in-and-of-itself is hardly necessarily gay.
Still, the friendship is an example of the male-bonding that is important to McKee.
Helen Reilly does use scientific detection. She analyses physical clues,
and uses scientific techniques to identify material found at crime
scenes, using the results to reconstruct the crime. The effect
is closer to R. Austin Freeman than
it is to Crofts, although Crofts did his own tour de force of
this type at the opening of The Sea Mystery (1928). We
also know that Reilly used the great real life German criminologist
Hans Gross as a source, and perhaps the scientific detection in
her books derives far more from such real life examples than it
does from detective writers such as Freeman and Crofts.
Reilly's interest in science and technology is consistent with her background
in the American School, such as Frederick Irving Anderson and
William MacHarg. These mystery writers
either were directly involved in the Scientific Detective Story
of the era, or were allied, in the sense that their work often
reflected the approaches of the Scientific school.
Key episodes of Scientific Detection in Reilly include:
Scientific Detection involving reasoning about water currents is found in The Dead Can Tell
and The Double Man.
- The report from Branch, the young police surgeon in The Thirty-First Bullfinch (first half of Chapter 13).
- The investigation into the victim's hair and appearance in Murder in the Mews (start of Chapter 5).
- The recovery of writing on a burned letter in McKee of Centre Street (second half of Chapter 11).
- The forgery investigation in The Line-Up (middle of Chapter 3).
- The investigation of Alfred Haines in The Line-Up (Chapter 10).
- The study of the plant in Mr. Smith's Hat (Chapters 1, 3).
- The appearance of the body in All Concerned Notified (Chapter 1).
- The "Hoffman operation" in The Dead Can Tell (end of Chapter 23).
- Searching the ground in Mourned on Sunday (end of Chapter 22).
- The forensics and use of crime scene photography in Murder on Angler's Island.
One of the best uses of scientific detection in Reilly occurs
in the opening of Mr. Smith's Hat. As in McKee of Centre Street,
the science here is botany: McKee follows up clues
involving plant fragments. Similar botany oriented detection occurred
in Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931).
Reilly does indeed share with Abbot an interest in New
York City police procedure, and scientific detective techniques.
However, the tone and technique of Reilly seem very different
from those of Abbot and the other Van Dine school writers. McKee
is not a social aristocrat, unlike the Van School's sleuths.
Reilly also sticks closely to pure police procedure in a fashion
that seems utterly different from the Van Dine writers' more eclectic
McKee has a fondness for high tech phone and radio equipment:
There are communication and transportation centers, usually technology-based:
- The radio room at police headquarters in McKee of Centre Street (Chapter 1).
- Phone calls from a ship in the Atlantic to shore, in Dead Man Control (Chapter 4).
- The police teletype, in Dead Man Control (Chapter 22).
- Transatlantic cables (end of Chapter 21) and long distance phone calls (end of Chapter 4) in Dead for a Ducat.
- McKee buys a 2-way radio-telephone for his police car in The Dead Can Tell (start of Chapter 7).
- The transcontinental telephone calls in Compartment K (second half of Chapter 9).
The games room in Dead for a Ducat (end of Chapter 6) resembles such centers,
but it differs in housing sports equipment rather than communication and transportation.
- The boathouse in The Thirty-First Bullfinch.
- The radio room at police headquarters in McKee of Centre Street (Chapter 1).
- The very different "radio rooms" of the cruise ship,
allowing passengers to listen to radio from loudspeakers in Dead Man Control (Chapter 4).
- The telephone switchboard at the club in Dead Man Control (first part of Chapter 12).
- The boathouse in Dead Man Control (Chapters 26, 27).
- The store windows in Death Demands an Audience (Chapter 1).
- The recording technology in The Dead Can Tell (Chapters 2, 8).
- The storage warehouse in The Dead Can Tell (Chapter 10).
- The ferry terminal in Beyond the Dark (Chapters 3, 4).
- The Planetarium in Beyond the Dark (end of Chapter 17, start of Chapter 18).
- The Army base with its WAC's in Murder on Angler's Island.
- Madison Avenue in Certain Sleep.
Light is elaborately described:
- The small town's lights by night in The Thirty-First Bullfinch (Chapter 17).
- The dawn in The Thirty-First Bullfinch (start of Chapter 24).
- The speakeasy and its lighting effects in McKee of Centre Street (Chapter 2).
- The light at the doctor's front door in Dead for a Ducat (middle of Chapter 4).
- The police, wet clothes and flares at night in Dead for a Ducat (middle of Chapter 4).
- Police flashlights in the yard followed by lights on in the house in Dead for a Ducat (Chapter 8).
- The lights on Fifth Avenue in Death Demands an Audience (start of Chapter 1).
- The lights leading to the swimming pool in Murder on Angler's Island (Chapters 2-4).
- The grave lights in The Farmhouse.
Clues in Reilly often take the form of objects. See:
Using objects as clues is widespread in mystery fiction.
Reilly is using a conventional sort of clue, in employing objects. Still she does it soundly in terms of detective reasoning.
She also often uses such clues with storytelling vigor, with the appearance of such an object as a storytelling surprise.
- The key and cigarettes in The Line-Up.
- The broken glass bottle, the bottles in the medicine chest, and the maroon threads in Dead for a Ducat.
- The bonds and the leopard statue in The Silver Leopard.
- The blanket and hat in The Canvas Dagger.
These can be objects that go missing.
Or they can be objects that are surprisingly found, often in unexpected places.
An object can do both: it can go missing mysteriously, then suddenly turn up much later.
Reilly's powers of description are her strong suit. She has a remarkable visual sense.
Film historians - but not mystery fans - have long been interested in films that seem like "visions".
These offer intense visual experiences, strange, remote from daily life, eerie, loaded with feeling, and with compelling imagery.
Such films are praised by saying they resemble dreams, visions, hallucinations, reveries,
or even that they are "delirious": always a term of praise in film history.
Reilly is a prose writer that has this visionary quality.
Her best books are full of long passages that have this sort of hallucinatory intensity in their description.
I've never seen a mystery lover show the slightest interest in visionary fiction.
By contrast, it is a deep interest of film experts. P. Adams Sitney called his famed history of experimental films Visionary Film.
In Reilly, this visionary quality is not always linked to pretentious or prestigious subject matter.
Late in The Farmhouse, the characters take a night-time trip into
the warehouse district of the un-glamorous industrial city of Poughkeepsie. Reilly's descriptive powers soar.
Their are brief moments of abstraction in some Reilly books, usually around a paragraph long.
The moments are full of abstract, fantastic, almost science fictional imagery.
They can representing a character's extreme emotion, or perhaps an altered state of consciousness.
Although short, these passages are fascinating. They are different from the long "visionary" episodes in Reilly.
But perhaps ultimately they stem from the same artistic sources.
During a tense stakeout in Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930) (Chapter 22),
Freeman Wills Crofts' sleuth Inspector French has a brief moment of abstraction:
"Time itself seemed to be standing still", "he seemed to be absolutely alone in the universe".
- Murder in the Mews (Chapter 1).
- The Doll's Trunk Murder (middle of Chapter 3).
- McKee of Centre Street (Chapter 15).
- The Line-Up (end of Chapter 18).
- Dead Man Control (end of Chapter 27).
- Follow Me (Chapter 4).
In Dead for a Ducat first the butler then the heroine are drugged by the killer.
We see the heroine's hallucinatory, surrealistic dreams (Chapter 15).
This is different from the "abstract" passages, but perhaps related.
Architecture involving glass in Reilly:
- Glass doors lead into the victim's living room in Murder in the Mews (Chapter 1).
- The sun-room with glass walls and doors in The Doll's Trunk Murder (Chapter 29).
- The glass doors in the suspects' apartment, and the north wall of all windows in McKee's apartment (Chapter 15), in The Line-Up.
- The cold frames and the greenhouse (start of Chapter 9) in Dead for a Ducat.
- Store windows, and the "display" work area with glass windows in its ceiling, in Death Demands an Audience.
- The hotel lounge with a glass roof (end of Chapter 1), and the abandoned greenhouse (Chapter 3), in Mourned on Sunday.
- Store windows in Follow Me.
Ingenious underground hiding places, used to conceal disappeared characters who are the subject of manhunts. BIG SPOILERS:
- The abandoned well in The Doll's Trunk Murder (end of Chapter 22).
- Torn-down buildings in Greenwich Village, in Dead Man Control (start of Chapter 11).
- Rural landscapes, including the abandoned greenhouse (Chapter 3), in Mourned on Sunday.
- The dilapidated farmhouse and abandoned train tracks in The Farmhouse.
- The run-down (although hardly ruined) country house in Certain Sleep (Chapter 1).
- The decaying (but nor ruined) ranch in The Day She Died.
- The well in The Doll's Trunk Murder (end of Chapter 22).
- The saloon basement in The Line-Up (Chapter 10).
- The pit with the spring in Dead for a Ducat (last part of Chapter 10).
- The tomb in the disused cemetery in Certain Sleep (end of Chapter 12).
Reilly regularly includes artist characters in her novels:
Quite a few of these are commercial artists, such as designers or cartoonists, rather than fine artists.
- The cartoonist friend of McKee's, Jimmy Telfair, in McKee of Centre Street.
- The commercial artist Pell in Mr. Smith's Hat.
- The Hunt Club photographer in Dead for a Ducat.
- The head of a department store's window display division has a background as an artist and art teacher in Death Demands an Audience.
- The art school in Murder in Shinbone Alley.
- The heroine of The Dead Can Tell, whose drawings appear in magazines, and who used to paint murals.
- The murder victim in The Silver Leopard is a "painter of distinction".
- The artist colony in The Double Man.
- The artists in The Canvas Dagger.
- The commercial artist heroine of Certain Sleep.
Reilly's husband Paul Reilly was a cartoonist.
Presumably this helped Helen Reilly get first hand knowledge of artists in the New York City area.
Note: McKee's apartment includes a studio, with a north wall all of windows: see The Line-Up (middle of Chapter 15).
This sounds like an artist's studio, with the "north light" many artists like for painting.
But why McKee would be living in an apartment with an artist's studio is not explained.
Reilly is interested in formerly well to do New Yorkers who are
downwardly mobile. Sometimes these people are very open about
their sea change. One thinks of the victim in Mr. Smith's Hat
(1936), who has abandoned his snooty relatives to life a life
of drinking and bohemianism, or the penniless young society woman
in The Opening Door (1944) who leaves home and starts a
book store and glove shop to support herself, over her snobbish
family's fierce objection - they think she should have tried to
marry for money instead. This young woman is clearly admirable,
while the drunk is probably reprehensible. However, one has a
distinct suspicion that Reilly is highly sympathetic to both.
The treatment of the young woman has a feminist strand - her going
to work is seen as admirable by the author, despite society's
objection. Similarly, the young widow in Follow Me plans
to get a job, despite her friend's protests. All of these open
characters tend to be non-suspects. They are either victims, like
the drunk, or viewpoint characters, like the heroine of The
Opening Door and the young widow in Follow Me. They
are marked "innocent" in the mystery puzzle plot, and
morally sympathetic in the author's world view.
A second kind of downwardly mobile character in Reilly is far
less open about it. These are suspects who keep up a big front,
and who live the lives of upper class New Yorkers, but who are
actually quite strapped for money. These characters tend to be
suspects in Reilly's books. At first glance, they seem to be quite
polished. They tend to be men, well dressed, sophisticated, and
with upper middle class jobs. However, they are spending way above
any income they have, and the reader discovers that these initially
upper crust looking people will do anything for money. These characters
include the father and the brother in The Opening Door,
and most of the heroine's circle of "friends" in Follow
Me. Reilly's treatment of these people as suspects in the
puzzle plot is also mirrored in her negative moral and social
view of them. They are always introduced in the plot as "typical"
upper middle class people, and only later do we learn their flaws.
This tends to suggest that most upper middle class people are
essentially fakes. Polished on the surface with their upper class
clothes and status symbols, but far less solid underneath.
All the downwardly mobile characters fit in with Reilly's themes
of ambiguity and hidden truth. They look one way socially, but
in fact their real lives and status could be quite different.
They have a double role. They are as ambiguous as are both the
relationships and the mystery plot developments in Reilly's work.
The Thirty-First Bullfinch
The Thirty-First Bullfinch (1930) is a mildly pleasant but undistinguished early novel
by Helen Reilly. It is apparently her first book. It is a decent enough work by a young writer,
but not as good as her later novels. It does have some good description.
A Country House Mystery and its Suspects
The Thirty-First Bullfinch
is an attempt to write a traditional country house mystery: an isolated mansion
filled with a mystery cliche cast of elderly millionaire about to change his will,
suspicious looking young heirs, the family doctor, and a starchy but mysterious butler.
Unfortunately, most of these characters and situations are standard issue and never
display any creativity. This sort of country house mystery was not Reilly's forte,
and she rarely returned to it in such a pure state in later books.
The butler is the best of these characters, a man who gets to play an unusually
active role in the finale. This is unexpected: most butlers in fiction
are stately, sedentary and sedate. By contrast, the butler in
The Thirty-First Bullfinch is physically active. He also shows
personal initiative, also atypical of many fictional butlers.
The Thirty-First Bullfinch serves as a dry run for
a later and better book The Day She Died,
both being set in isolated buildings cut off from the outside world by huge rain storms.
There are also links to The Doll's Trunk Murder, in which a country house
is isolated by a snow storm.
We never learn exactly where in New England the mansion is set, but it is
on a small coastal island in the ocean somewhere north of Boston.
There is some traditional New England atmosphere,
especially in the description of the small town (Chapter 17).
The contrast between the mansion and the town will return in
The Day She Died, where the isolated New Mexico ranch house gets contrasted
at the book's end with city life.
While The Thirty-First Bullfinch is a who-done-it murder mystery,
nothing in the crime or solution is at all ingenious. There are few clues to the guilty.
And no clever plot surprises.
SPOILER: While the bullfinch of the title is an appealingly described bird,
the alleged plot "surprise" about his involvement with the mystery plot
is both minor and obvious from the start (end of Chapter 15).
Description: The Boats and Light
The Thirty-First Bullfinch has some decent scene painting,
not surprising given Reilly's skills as a descriptive writer.
Once again, the best of Reilly's later books surpass it.
Scenes in The Thirty-First Bullfinch with
the detectives wandering around outdoors in the rain
are pleasantly done (the second part of Chapter 11, starting with the luncheon, and the
opening of Chapter 14). These scenes also discuss the boats available to the mansion,
culminating in a trip to the boathouse. This material is quite atmospheric.
These sections build on the opening journey by train and boat to the mansion
(second part of Chapter 1), also nicely described. The boathouse and its boats
are the transportation center of the island mansion, just as the radio room in McKee of Centre Street
will be the communication center of the police.
There are later boating sections, filled with adventure (Chapter 17).
This includes a description of a small town's lights by night.
A suspense finale returns to the water. Best part:
the description of dawn breaking with the light helping to revive the hero
(start of Chapter 24). Light is seen as a powerful, redemptive and life-giving force.
A young lawyer is sent in to work on the will. Cliff Shaver is an outsider,
and the Point of View character through whose eyes we see the story.
The lawyer is the best drawn person in the book. His high level of
professional competence reflects an age when American entertainment,
including mystery fiction, valued intellectual skill. Shaver, as he is always referred to,
does not get personally involved with any of the book's characters, and has no romance.
Instead he is a professional man and unofficial assistant to the police in their investigation.
Shaver brings a portable typewriter with him, so that he can create legal documents.
This portrays the lawyer as a user of technology. He also makes extensive long distance calls.
The Thirty-First Bullfinch is not a series book.
Instead of Reilly's series sleuth Inspector McKee, we get a local New England Sheriff.
Sheriff Tilden turns out to be an ex-New York City cop, and highly professional (end of Chapter 6).
The "former big city cop turned local law enforcer" is a standard character in today's
police procedurals. Reilly was using it as far back as 1930.
While there is less emphasis on police procedure than in her McKee novels,
The Thirty-First Bullfinch is still a detective story centering on police investigation.
The report from Branch, the young police surgeon (first half of Chapter 13) brings some
Scientific Detection into the plot, including some forensics.
The discussion of how poisons affect animals is fairly unique in mystery fiction.
Murder in the Mews
Murder in the Mews (1931) is an early book starring Inspector McKee.
It is weaker in both imagination and description than many later Reilly novels.
It is best in its long opening investigation (Chapters 1-6).
Architecture: The Apartment
Locales in Murder in the Mews anticipate those in later Reilly books.
These buildings are simple in Murder in the Mews, and more rudimentary
than the more elaborate buildings in later books.
The victim's Park Avenue apartment in Murder in the Mews (Chapter 1) anticipates the apartment in The Line-Up,
and to a lesser degree the apartment in McKee of Centre Street:
Park Avenue in this era was considered the residential home of wealthy, financially elite New Yorkers.
- It is in a luxury residential hotel in Manhattan.
- Glass doors lead into the living room.
- Back service stairs form a second way of leaving the apartment.
Architecture: Greenwich Village
The house in Murder in the Mews, and the mews leading to it (Chapter 2), anticipate
the hidden Greenwich Village streets Clove Court in All Concerned Notified
and Ninetta Place in Murder in Shinbone Alley. All three are tiny, nearly concealed back streets
leading to out-of-way houses. The mews in Murder in the Mews is the most conventional
of the three, and the least concealed, however.
The tiny house in the mews in Murder in the Mews (Chapter 2),
anticipates the very small Greenwich Village houses where the women live in Murder in Shinbone Alley.
Some of the best architectural descriptions come in an early section (Chapter 4),
which has the detectives going to three locations:
Hero Pete Hogarth lives on Twelfth Street and his girlfriend Joan on Tenth Street.
Both apartments are likely in Greenwich Village, or close by.
Greenwich Village was a major locale for Reilly in this era.
In real life, Greenwich Village had long been considered the home of intellectuals, at least since the 1850's.
The speakeasy is described as containing the "intelligentsia" (Chapter 4).
- The roof of the house: the most interesting architecture in the novel.
- A speakeasy called The Golden Eagle. This anticipates the far more elaborate nightclub the Sanctuary
in McKee of Centre Street. Both nightclubs seem to be in Greenwich Village or near it.
- Joan's apartment house. It has a green door, anticipating the green door in the wall
leading to Ninetta Place in Murder in Shinbone Alley.
McKee has a young sidekick in Murder in the Mews: political writer and journalist Pete Hogarth (Chapter 1).
Hogarth anticipates McKee's cartoonist friend Jimmy Telfair in McKee of Centre Street,
and Pete's girlfriend Joan anticipates Jimmy's friend Judith.
Both are nice respectable young men with careers in the arts in Manhattan,
both are moderately successful at their work, without being super-stars.
Both are heterosexual, with girlfriends who are partly involved in the crimes and mysteries.
This gives these young men a personal stake in the mystery.
Both are "masculine", without being aggressively macho or athletic.
Hogarth is shown selling an article to a magazine called Era, which pays well
(start of Chapter 1). One wonders if Era is a thinly disguised version of the real-life magazine Time,
one of the most famous news magazines of the period. Characters in later Reilly books
like The Dead Can Tell will also sell to leading New York magazines.
Magazines were hugely glamorous, prestigious and popular in the 1930's and 1940's.
Working for such magazines would be a ideal fantasy existence for Reilly's readers.
McKee is given a brief biography on the first page, outlining his career.
This background will be absent in most later novels, which will tell nothing of his past life.
Elaborate character biographies of protagonists are almost mandatory in contemporary crime novels -
but much less common in Golden Age mysteries, which instead stress their hero's
detective work in the present. Even this look at McKee's past in Murder in the Mews
sticks exclusively to his career, telling us nothing about his personal life.
The Machine Age
Hogarth briefly expresses dissatisfaction with the Machine Age, feeling it has standardized life
(Chapter 1). Specifically, he feels it has standardized and stripped the interest from crime.
This idea does not seem to be developed in the rest of Murder in the Mews.
Hogarth specifically mentions business as a source of life standardization.
This alleged standardization includes the way business and life are organized to maximize efficiency.
It is not restricted to the use of technology.
This critique contrasts with the admiring look at the use of statistics, machines and efficiency
to run the New York City police in McKee of Centre Street (1933).
Decades later in Reilly's penultimate novel Certain Sleep (1961),
a young writer will offer a more trenchant critique of Madison Avenue, and its effect on the world.
This writer Charles Dunn bears some resemblance to Hogath. Dunn's a former political reporter;
Hogarth is currently a journalist who writes political articles.
SPOILERS. There is a brief bit of Scientific Detection, in which the victim's hair is investigated (start of Chapter 5).
This anticipates the much more elaborate investigation in All Concerned Notified (Chapter 1).
Both studies reveal new, surprising ideas about how the victim looked in real life.
Hogarth has a brief moment of abstraction, when he hears the victim's name (Chapter 1).
The moment is full of abstract, fantastic, almost science fictional imagery.
Other moments of abstract imagery, representing a character's extreme emotion,
will appear in later Reilly novels: McKee of Centre Street (Chapter 15), The Line-Up (end of Chapter 18)
and Follow Me (Chapter 4). However, these later episodes will be longer than the one
Murder in the Mews, which is described in a single sentence:
"It was then that the night changed for Hogarth, became definitely a space outside of time,
colored entirely by emotion and immeasurable."
Thriller & Melodrama
An episode eventually introduces some thriller material (Chapters 5, 6). This is a welcome change of pace.
Up to this point, the mystery looks as if it is entirely about Adultery Among the Upper Crust:
not the liveliest of subjects. Such thriller subject matter is a bit unusual in Reilly, however.
SPOILERS. Aspects of this material recall "The Plymouth Express" (1923)
by Agatha Christie.
Other parts recall "Madame Sara" (1902) in The Sorceress of the Strand
by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace.
The Doll's Trunk Murder
The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932) is a non-series mystery novel.
It combines mystery with thriller and suspense aspects.
It is best in its vivid opening, which shows Reilly's powers of description (Chapters 1-5, 7).
A good later section is also full of storytelling, description and detection (Chapters 15, 16, 17).
Add in the Mary Sinton episode (Chapter 22) and the trip to Pittsburgh (Chapter 24) and you have the best sections of the book.
Otherwise, it descends into dullness.
The Doll's Trunk Murder mainly takes place in the countryside near Pittsburgh,
and centers on characters converging on a spooky mansion.
In this it recalls Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907).
Rinehart's firm Farrar & Rinehart published The Doll's Trunk Murder.
A brief flashback takes place on the real life Barrow Street in New York City (middle of Chapter 2).
Barrow Street is near Greenwich Village, a neighborhood that frequently appears in Reilly novels.
The Opening: Settings
The opening of The Doll's Trunk Murder benefits from its settings.
Related settings will recur in later Reilly novels. As usual, Reilly is good at describing them. They include:
- A region in the countryside, with an isolated house, a locale of sinister events.
- A road or path down which characters walk.
- A roadside inn nearby with a dining room and hotel rooms, that is quite civilized.
The hero's frightening march through the snow storm contains a single brief piece of abstract imagery (middle of Chapter 3).
"That climb was a nightmare of effort without recordable detail.
It endured outside and all around time but not in time at all because it was endless."
More detailed abstract passages will occur in later Reilly novels.
The Doll's Trunk Murder has interesting dream sequences (end of Chapter 10, start of Chapter 23).
These dreams are quite creepy and surreal. Neither one is at all realistic in events.
We also see the hero lose and regain consciousness (second part of Chapter 11).
This contains what seems to be a combination of a dream and a light-show seen by the hero.
We learn that viewpoint character Brierly has "an almost photographic memory for detail" (second half of Chapter 15) -
and we get a demonstration of this.
This sort of visual memory is perhaps linked to the "visionary" quality often found in Reilly's writings.
Mystery Subplot: The Main Murder
It is hard to see much creative about the main killing, or its solution at the book's end.
This is a serious limiting factor in The Doll's Trunk Murder:
- The choice of the killer is arbitrary: anyone else could just as logically been chosen as the killer.
- No clues point to the killer's identity.
- There are no puzzles solved in the solution, such as an alibi, impossible crime or how-done-it.
- The killer's motive is bland and generic. SPOILERS. The killer wanted to get ahold of some valuable documents.
That's an old warhorse of a plot.
Mystery Subplot: Miss Fenwick
I can't see anything interesting either about Miss Fenwick, the mysterious lady who rents the house.
Mystery Subplot: The Heroine's Secret
We learn immediately that the heroine Susan Tait has a secret, one which involves her in trouble (middle of Chapter 2).
The existence of such a secret is part of her introduction to the novel.
But we don't learn what the secret is, till late in the novel (middle of Chapter 28).
This anticipates Beyond the Dark, in which both hero and heroine have such secrets, not revealed till the end.
In both books, the revelation of the secrets are anti-climactic.
The actual secrets are not all that interesting.
In both books this plot gambit with the secret, seems more annoying than impressive.
Mystery Subplot: Identifying Objects
The police and also Brierly do the book's best detective work, in linked sections
that have them identifying objects from traces at the crime scene (Chapters 7, 15).
Mystery Subplot: Mary Sinton
The other best mystery subplot is the Mary Sinton episode (Chapter 22).
This mystery is posed and mainly solved, all within a single chapter (Chapter 22).
It draws on fairly-clued information presented earlier (Chapter 1).
The mystery in this episode has links to the impossible crime.
Sheriff Craven is introduced holding two phallic symbols: a flashlight in one hand, a pistol in the other (Chapter 3).
Later, he is associated with a poker (Chapter 3), a green pencil with which he makes notes on the back of an envelope (Chapter 4),
a skeleton key (end of Chapter 5). This recalls McKee's skeleton key in Murder in the Mews (Chapter 1).
SPOILERS. Craven's professional role is unusual (first part of Chapter 24).
I don't recall seeing a State Police role like this in other novels.
Craven is an "expert advisor", likely a skilled investigator, attached to the State Police.
He is given the title of Sheriff, apparently to make him more authoritative. It's a cool idea.
But one can see problems. By definition, a Sheriff is a lead law enforcer for a County.
And by this definition, no one who works for a State, City or the Federal Government is ever called "Sheriff".
In Murder Out of Turn (1940-1941) (Chapter 4) by Francis and Richard Lockridge,
we learn that the New York State Police have expert homicide investigators, who are given the rank of Lieutenant.
This makes sense: ranks like Lieutenant and Captain are consistent with working for the State Police - unlike the title of Sheriff.
Brierly and Craven: Male Bonding
The Point of View character Richard Brierly is introduced having a chance encounter with beautiful woman suspect Susan (Chapter 2).
It seemed logical to expect at this point that he would go on to develop some sort of romantic feelings for her.
But this never happens. Unexpectedly, he instead develops a male-bonding relationship with Sheriff Craven (Chapters 3, 15, 16, 24).
There is no male-female romance for Brierly; there is instead a male-male relationship with Craven.
This relationship recalls the one between young lawyer Cliff Shaver, the Point of View character in The Thirty-First Bullfinch,
and local Sheriff Tilden. However, Shaver and Tilden are mainly allies in sleuthing.
The relationship between Brierly and Craven involves both detective work, and more personal feelings as well.
Influence on Farjeon?
The Doll's Trunk Murder might be an influence on
J. Jefferson Farjeon's thriller Mystery in White (1937).
- Open with travelers finding refuge from a major snow storm in a country house.
- Have a vivid description early on of travelers trying to make their way cross country during the storm,
partly on foot.
- Involve a sinister knife.
- The Doll's Trunk Murder briefly speculates that past events in the house
might leave supernatural traces (near the end of Chapter 5). This is just a bit of atmosphere not further developed.
Mystery in White invokes a similar premise, but uses it create a full "psychic mystery".
- Have a brother and sister, although they are very different in the two novels.
- Involve a professional criminal, as well as respectable people from a wide range of social classes.
- Have an injured or sick character laid up in the house.
McKee of Centre Street
McKee of Centre Street (1933) is Helen Reilly's breakthrough
novel, emphasizing police procedure. The Centre Street of the
title is the famed headquarters of the New York City Police. The
tale opens with a description of the radio room there. It is written
in Reilly's most visionary style. There are descriptions of light
on walls, colors, sounds, the whole thing building to abstract
geometrical patterns of light and sound. Such 3D abstractions
remind one of the visionary novels of William Hope Hodgson.
Radio itself was a fairly new technology in 1934, and the chapter
is also an expression of a universe created by high technology.
The room contains maps showing the location of every police car
in New York City; in many ways, it is a symbolic or virtual re-creation
of the City itself. It seems like an early expression of Virtual
Reality. It is also the brain center of police operations, and
the chapter can be read as metaphors for the operation of the
Reilly emphasizes the efficiency of the police. This was a virtue
highly prized in the 1930's, where it was associated with Modernism,
science, and the Future. It also recalls Taylorism, the science
of running factories efficiently according to mathematical and
statistical methods. Reilly includes a document analyzing crime
statistics for 1932 and 1931. Such a statistical approach also
invokes Taylorist ideas. The police here are seen as a modern,
factory like operation, using machines, mathematics and efficient
organization to run their enterprise. It has been discussed whether
Reilly's books are ancestors of the modern police procedural novel.
They certainly try to describe police procedure accurately and
in detail. So in this sense, they certainly qualify. However,
many modern police procedurals stress the ordinary, human nature
of the police, while Reilly tries to convey the extraordinary
nature of the police.
The following chapters of the book depict a speakeasy where a
murder has occurred. The speakeasy is also depicted in technological
and organizational terms. The descriptions of its lighting effects,
and the role they play in the murder, are almost as much a "sound
and light show" as the opening police chapter. The electrician
in charge of the lighting becomes a key player in the story. I
cannot recall any other of the countless underworld nightclub
tales of the 1930's that include an electrician character. So
this is a unique point of view of Reilly.
Throughout the book, Reilly's extraordinarily vivid writing style will add an
almost surrealistic clarity to her descriptions of typical daily
life and New York City locations. Everything has a more real than
real vividness that recalls the bright light in such painters
as Dali and Magritte.
McKee of Centre Street sticks to its police procedure paradigm
throughout its entire length. The book is extremely pure in its
approach. Nearly everything in the book consists of the police
examining a crime scene, finding some physical clue, and then
using it to reconstruct the actions of the suspects and the victim.
The police also use the eye witness testimony of innocent bystanders,
and the facilities of a huge police operation. They also do much
trailing of the suspects, and even go so far to spy on them on
occasion. The suspects all stone wall and lie to the police at
every opportunity, so the suspects' testimony plays only a small
role in this book, as compared to, say, a typical Van Dine school
novel. Although the suspects' movements and actions are endlessly
traced, they are on stage for only a small fraction of the time
they would be in a conventional Golden Age novel, and do not really
come alive as characters. Throughout there is vivid descriptive
writing, especially of the buildings in which the suspects move,
and of New York City lighting and atmosphere. There is a an attempt
to create a portrait of New York City.
This purity of approach has both strengths and weaknesses. It
can be monotonous, and lack variety. But it does allow Reilly
to explore her innovative techniques at length.
Reilly's emphasis on typical scenes of daily life deprive her books
of the fabulous eccentricity that graces so many Golden Age novels.
Mystery Puzzle Plots
One does not want to oversell Reilly's work. McKee of Centre Street
lacks a clever plot solution. The end of the book takes
only around five pages, and shows no ingenuity whatsoever. Sure
enough, one of the characters did it. Reilly might as well have
thrown a dart to pick this character, for it could have been any
of the suspects. It is an anticlimactic end to a novel, all of
whose merit has been its detection, not its murder mystery puzzle plot.
By contrast, an early mystery subplot about strange events at the crime scene is nicely done
(solved at the end of Chapter 3).
Like Reilly novels as a whole, and many of her Golden Age contemporaries,
McKee of Centre Street has elaborate depictions of architecture.
Some of these anticipate The Line-Up:
A working class woman proves to be a valuable witness in the basement subplot (Chapter 4).
She lacks the "expert" knowledge of the working class witnesses in some later Reilly books.
Still she is another "working class person who shares much key knowledge with the police" in Reilly.
- The luxury residential hotel where a suspect lives (Chapter 7),
anticipates such a hotel which is the main setting of The Line-Up.
The two books show different aspects though: McKee of Centre Street features
a roof-top garden and back service stairs, neither of which is much shown in The Line-Up.
- SPOILERS. The yard and basement of run-down New York City buildings (second half of Chapter 3, Chapter 4)
anticipates that of the saloon in The Line-Up (Chapter 10).
Both solve subplot puzzles in their books: In McKee of Centre Street,
this explains strange footprints and a near-impossible crime,
in The Line-Up the whereabouts of a man who has disappeared.
Another non-elite woman, Lily Henderson, also has some knowledge (Chapter 12).
McKee and his men track down the unknown home address of the victim (Chapter 9).
More elaborate puzzles will occur in later Reilly books, in which the police have to
discover the unknown location where something took place.
See The Line-Up (Chapter 10), Mr. Smith's Hat (Chapters 1, 3), two subplots in Mourned on Sunday.
A clue involves a flower petal (end of Chapter 10, beginning of Chapter 11).
McKee makes deductions from it. He also shows expert knowledge of botany.
Earlier, a Blue Spruce needle is also a clue.
Botany-based clues recur in later Reilly novels. Such botany-detection is often the basis
for solving the location puzzles, mentioned above.
McKee brings out the writing on a burned letter (second half of Chapter 11).
This is a virtuosic set-piece of Scientific Detection. It anticipates other episodes
in Reilly novels of McKee and his staff using scientific techniques, often to recover lost knowledge.
(A list of such episodes is in the section of this article on Scientific Detection.)
McKee's knowledge is described as legendary (start of Chapter 11).
In addition to botany, we are shown:
- McKee's ability to explore a mansion and identify all its rare antique furnishings (Chapter 8).
- McKee knows what Baudelaire said about scent and its ability to affect humans (end of Chapter 10).
A Cartoonist Friend
A cartoonist friend of McKee's, Jimmy Telfair, plays a large role in the story.
He is one of many artist characters in Reilly's books.
Telfair and McKee are described as "intimate" friends (Chapter 9).
At least in 1930's novels, McKee's social life revolves around male friends, rather than women.
Jimmy's house is a converted stable, recalling the house in Murder in the Mews.
Men, Women and Consciousness
There is an odd contrast in imagery between the male and female
characters. The women have often lost consciousness:
By contrast, Reilly keeps emphasizing how alert the (male) police officers are.
This is especially true of McKee. We do see other cops taking brief cat-naps, in breaks on the case.
- The murdered woman looks as if she has simply passed out on the dance floor.
- Suspect Judith Pierce is found fainted in the phone booth.
- The janitor's wife is asleep.
- McKee's questioning causes suspect Mrs. Barcley to faint.
However, one of the male characters in the book will eventually lose consciousness,
in a spectacularly written passage (Chapter 15). The loss is described using the same kind of "abstract" imagery,
that will later appear in the drug trip in The Line-Up (end of Chapter 18)
and the heroine's falling in love in Follow Me (Chapter 4).
The specific imagery is different in the three stories.
There are two large manhunts in the second half of this novel.
the first across New York City, the second in the Connecticut countryside.
I tend to prefer the city one. It is written with
all of Reilly's visionary style of description.
The countryside one is a bit of a shaggy dog story. It takes place in all the
back ways and little used roads of a country area catering to tourists.
It focuses on the locals who support the tourist industry,
and their homes, camps and little known back paths. In this it
is similar to an even longer and more elaborate country chase
in Mr. Smith's Hat.
An Influence from Arthur Procter?
Murder in Manhattan (1930) by Arthur Procter is a police mystery, that might have had
some mild influence on McKee of Centre Street:
However, both the tone and details of the two novels are quite different.
- It deals with a public shooting in a crowded hotel
banqueting hall, the way McKee of Centre Street has a shooting in a night club.
- Both locales seem to be long rectangles in shape.
- Both are full of small tables, with diners seated there.
- The police eventually track down the position and movements of various suspects at the time of the shooting.
- Both novels have much about the New York City police.
The Line-Up (1934) combines the police procedure of its predecessor,
with a mystery situation that recalls Mary Roberts Rinehart.
It is an odd, but pleasant, mixture of two kinds of storytelling. As in
a Rinehart novel, we have a murder mystery about an upper crust family, who live
in a luxurious household. Also as in Rinehart, the family and a few friends are
self-isolated from the rest of the world, protected by their money from socializing outside
of a small circle of friends.
Halfway through the novel, Reilly
even introduces a nurse-sleuth who works undercover in the household and who
reports to the police, like Rinehart's Miss Pinkerton. Nurse Lucy Sturm
will return in Dead Man Control, Murder in Shinbone Alley and Not Me, Inspector.
Unexpectedly, McKee admiringly describes Lucy as "hard-boiled" (Chapter 17),
a term more typically associated with male cops and private eyes in pulp stories.
More traditionally, Lucy Sturm gets involved in a suspense passage at night (Chapter 16),
a Rinehart tradition. Lucy Sturm is performing detective work in this scene, as well as facing eerie events.
Police procedure in The Line-Up concentrates on medical investigation, and trailing suspects.
There is also a brief but interesting manhunt, which results in the title line-up (Chapter 10).
The police procedure is less intensively displayed here than in the book's
predecessor McKee of Centre Street.
We do get some of Reilly's best characterization of the various policemen on
Inspector McKee's staff. And Reilly takes us to McKee's austere home (Chapter 15).
McKee has virtually no personal life - he is even shown working on Christmas Day, a huge
anomaly in American life. The sentence at the chapter's end reveals that McKee has a cat.
In general, both
characterization and Reilly's trademark vivid descriptive writing, are among the book's
strengths. They also make the book a slow read: one has to linger over the details of
setting and atmosphere to get Reilly's full effect. Reilly tends to write in a way
that engages all the senses, with sights, sounds and even smells all evoked.
The Rich and Workers
The police also do a good deal of Rinehart-style snooping.
The rich people have a lot of secrets, and the police ferret them out,
in ways that suggest that the middle-class police are spying on the rich.
We are in the depths of the Depression here, and the contrast between the book's working class
characters and the rich is pointed and extreme. The sheer greed of the well-to-do and their
hangers-on is a sinister theme throughout.
Although it never directly compares them, The Line-Up implicitly contrasts two types of women:
The Line-Up does not take explicit sides in this contrast. But implicitly,
it is strongly in favor of Lucy Sturm.
- Suspect Diana is a beautiful Society woman.
She lives to spend her rich husband's money, especially on expensive designer clothes (the phone call in Chapter 3, start of Chapter 17).
Her main concerns are her appearance, entertaining and taking part in upper class Society.
She represents traditional "femininity" and a woman whose life revolves around shopping and her looks.
- Lucy Sturm is a nurse, a middle class woman who works for a living, and unmarried. She wears nurse's uniforms,
and is not pretty. In addition to her nursing work, she also does undercover sleuthing
for the New York police. And in the midst of watching overnight on the case, she
even knits clothes for a friend's baby (Chapter 16). Her life centers around useful labor.
The two types of women return in Murder on Angler's Island, which contrasts
rich Society woman Faith Ann Crale, obsessed with shopping and clothes,
and the heroine who is a member of the WAC's, and whose life centers around useful work.
Just as Lucy Sturm wears nurse's uniforms, so does the WAC wear her Army uniform.
Diana has a mother, society woman Mrs. Brainard, who is also grasping and materialistic.
The two work as allies. A similar mother-daughter pair of greedy upper class women will return in Compartment K.
An earlier, less-developed such mother-daughter pair are in The Doll's Trunk Murder (Chapter 2).
Altered States of Consciousness
Altered states of consciousness play a role again, as in McKee of Centre Street.
In The Line-Up, there is a creepy sleep walking scene (Chapter 16).
There are further events, vividly described (end of Chapter 18).
SPOILERS. And the first victim, a well-to-do society woman, gets poisoned by an overdose of an illegal prescription pain-killer
to which she has become addicted (Chapters 1, 15). This out-of-control modern day problem was already
present in 1934! The Line-Up shows us a society soaked in alcohol and dubious medications.
It is not a pretty picture. Combined with Reilly's portrait of the money-hungry rich,
it shows a country sinking into darkness.
Scientific Detection: Finding an Unknown Location
A brief but interesting use of Scientific Detection is in the investigation of Alfred Haines (Chapter 10).
SPOILERS. McKee brings in a dermatologist. This scientific expert ultimately helps trace back Haines to his unknown origin town.
The tracing is also done by employing police procedure based in technology:
broadcasting descriptions to police using teletype. This climaxes in the lineup of the title.
More elaborate Scientific Detection in Mr. Smith's Hat and Mourned on Sunday will also trace a mysterious location.
However, those books employ botany, something not used in The Line-Up.
A simple but sound forgery investigation uses technology, including Cellophane (middle of Chapter 3).
Cellophane became a big deal in the United States, after a waterproof variety was introduced in 1927.
It likely seemed high-tech to readers in 1934.
The Line-Up has several different subplots, all boiling away. There is a
continuous series of plot revelations throughout the book. These show some ingenuity.
They are not at a masterpiece level, but they genuinely surprise - at least, they fooled me!
The various subplots are not as well connected with each other as they should be.
The identity of the killer is well-hidden. But it is not especially fairly clued,
and the core murder mystery is not the best plotted part of the novel.
The best subplot follows a Mysterious Stranger who once showed up at the family home.
Such strangers and their obscure errands are a frequent gambit in Mary Roberts Rinehart
and her followers. See my list of Mysterious Visitor tales.
In both Rinehart and The Line-Up, they serve the welcome function of
adding an outsider and outside scenes, to the otherwise enclosed world of the family
home. They also add to the amount of mystery in the tale. One has not just the murder,
but the whole background and motives of the stranger to puzzle over. The "stranger subplot"
in The Line-Up develops into a plot of Golden Age complexity, managing to dovetail
together many seemingly unrelated clues and incidents, in a way beloved by true mystery fans.
Step by Step Uncovering of Truth
When Lucy Sturm does detective work at night (Chapter 16), she only gradually learns what is going on.
She uncovers a fact, then later on another fact, then later on a still deeper fact:
Each new revelation builds upon what we learned before, in a logical manner.
- First she follows noises in the dark.
- Then she learns more by turning on the lights.
- Finally, more is discovered the next morning, from an object found at the scene.
This step-by-step uncovering of deeper and deeper facts, is a technique that is also used elsewhere in Reilly.
At its worst, this approach can seem like a tease. Facts are dealt out slowly, to keep the reader interested,
and to keep the plot boiling. But this approach has some virtues:
- It shows the search for truth is difficult, needs constant effort, and often needs to go through many stages to
gradually uncover the basic, underlying facts.
- Each step is grounded in detective work by a sleuth: always a good approach in a detective story.
- It requires ingenuity to construct a plot in this step-by-step fashion. This ingenuity can delight the reader.
The Working Class and Knowledge
The manhunt (Chapter 10) involves a policeman questioning a local bartender. The bartender knows about the architecture
of the building he runs, and tells the cop about it. The cop in turn uses this architectural information to help find the
This embodies a pattern found in other Reilly detective novels:
The bartender's knowledge in The Line-Up is pretty rudimentary. But later examples in Reilly
show actual expert knowledge:
- A working class man has knowledge, sometimes expert knowledge, about local conditions.
- This knowledge is drawn upon by the police, to help them make a discovery about the case.
This recurrent pattern in Reilly is markedly different from attitudes towards the working class
in some other books, films or TV shows. Reilly does not:
- The expert on the lake currents in The Dead Can Tell.
- The Portuguese fishermen who help McKee with the ocean currents in The Double Man.
Reilly instead steers a middle course. She shows working class people as having valuable knowledge unknown to others,
and she also shows that knowledge being used by highly competent experts (the police) to synthesize new ideas and achieve results.
- Portray working class people as ignorant.
- Portray the common man as having wisdom that sets them above evil, pointy-headed elite experts, who are phonies who know nothing.
McKee sneaks around, gathering evidence clandestinely and eavesdropping on suspects.
This is a role that will be often taken on by his assistant Todhunter in later novels.
In The Line-Up, McKee's clandestine activities have him sneaking through buildings.
His paths through these buildings utilize their architecture.
See the episodes at lawyer Gerard Burchall's (Chapter 12), Katrine's (Chapter 13), and to a lesser degree at Farwell's (Chapter 18).
McKee's home has interesting architectural features, that allow him to sneak visitors in and out of it (Chapter 15).
The glass doors in the apartment, anticipates the more elaborate glass architecture in Mourned on Sunday,
and the store windows in Death Demands an Audience and Follow Me.
SPOILER. The architectural model is a striking bit of imagery (Chapter 5). It links up with
further discussion of construction (Chapter 8). In real life, construction of any sort was rare during the Depression.
The countryside has both an inn and a nearby country house (Chapters 19, 20): a pair of structures often found in Reilly novels.
See The Doll's Trunk Murder, The Dead Can Tell, Murder on Angler's Island and Compartment K, plus a variation
on such buildings in Lament for the Bride.
The Line-Up stresses how the rich can obtain isolation, quiet and privacy: at the well-guarded residential hotel (middle of Chapter 1),
in a country area with hardly any homes (start of Chapter 18). By contrast, the working class hangs out in a tavern with thin burlap walls,
through which all the sounds of neighboring shops can be heard (Chapter 10). The suggestion is that such "seclusion"
is a rare privilege, available only to the rich: see McKee's first visit to the Grantham hotel (middle of Chapter 1).
"Thou art lord of the earth, bright gold" (end of Chapter 16) is from Charles Gounod's opera Faust (1859).
"Save the surface and you save all", which McKee quotes immediately after,
is from an advertising campaign for paint and varnish launched in 1922. It was probably famous in 1934.
Fernandez makes a joke about Vincenzo Bellini's opera La sonnambula (1831):
the opera about a sleep-walker he refers to, but does not name (Chapter 17).
References to opera return in the opening of Follow Me, where the husband hums from The Threepenny Opera (1928).
"Oh, the little more, and how much it is!" (Chapter 21) is from Robert Browning's "By the Fire-Side".
Mr. Smith's Hat
Mr. Smith's Hat (1936) starts out well, then becomes less interesting.
The Previous Case
The opening sentence of Mr. Smith's Hat is of the kind H. C. Bailey
often used in his Mr. Fortune short stories. It gives a comic-but-sinister look back
at the wind-up of a previous case, a case not otherwise chronicled in a story. And one involving poisoning.
Some other early McKee books have an early look at a previous case:
Neither of these "previous cases" involved murder, unlike the one in Mr. Smith's Hat.
And they lack the element of dark comedy found in Mr. Smith's Hat.
- McKee of Centre Street has McKee briefly looking for a black man as a witness.
This search is abandoned unfinished when the book's central murder case starts.
- The Line-Up has McKee wrapping up a previous case in the morgue.
The Line-Up also has McKee finished with another case, when the criminal is convicted,
based on evidence of a shoelace. This is blackly comic, like Mr. Smith's Hat to come.
The Opening in New York City
The opening (Chapters 1-3) details a police investigation in New York City.
This section succeeds both as a look at Manhattan life, and as a murder investigation.
The police stake out the victim's funeral, hoping to find clues among the mourners.
A variant on this gambit will recur in All Concerned Notified.
The police reconstruct the crime, in a solid piece of detective work.
Scientific detection is used, in a memorable subplot about a seed found at the crime scene.
A Second Mystery in the Country
The tale then changes setting and focus, to Connecticut and a group of rich folks living in the country.
This takes up much of the rest of the novel.
The opening of this long section tells of a discovery of a second murder (Chapter 4).
This opening involves a Reilly specialty, a person walking across the countryside by night.
McKee tracks a suspect's trail through the countryside, in a fine set-piece (Chapter 8).
He follows clues such as footprints and other physical evidence.
This section anticipates some McKee detective work in the countryside sections in
Mourned on Sunday.
Parts of this section show McKee in yards and local neighborhoods. This echoes a brief but nicely done section of
The Line-Up (Chapter 20), which has McKee and his men wandering outside in a small town.
We learn detective Todhunter's first name, and his nickname (Chapter 2). Both are surprising, and none too appealing!
No wonder he is always called simply Todhunter in the later books. Todhunter is perhaps not a fully formed character
in this early novel. He is described as neither tall nor short - while later books always emphatically
depict him as a "little gray man". His full personality has not quite emerged yet in Mr. Smith's Hat.
Todhunter will be drawn in full glory in The Dead Can Tell (1940).
Pell is a commercial artist. This anticipates the heroine of The Dead Can Tell.
Both are shown working at home on their drawings (Chapter 7).
Earlier Reilly books had important characters who were "nice young men who were friends of McKee,
worked in the arts, and who were involved in the case because they were dating a woman suspect".
Such men include journalist Pete Hogarth in Murder in the Mews
and cartoonist Jimmy Telfair in McKee of Centre Street.
Mr. Smith's Hat has a variant on such a character in fiction writer Philip Hogue (Chapter 3).
Hogue is still a "nice young man allied with the police, innocent of the crime but involved with the suspects".
But instead of being a special friend of McKee, he is the nephew of the Police Commissioner,
and went to college with Assistant Medical Examiner Fernandez.
(This might be a bit more upper crust than Pete Hogarth or Jimmy Telfair.)
All of these young men often serve as Point of View characters in sections of the story.
They also serve to give an inside look at the suspects, by someone who is
involved with them socially.
Dead Man Control
Success and Failure
Dead Man Control (1936) has many problems that make it impossible to recommend:
While Dead Man Control fails as a whole, it does have some well-done passages,
that show Reilly's literary skill (Chapter 1, 4, 6, 10, first half of 11, first third of 12, 21, 26).
Much of the discussion in this article concentrates on these worthwhile sections.
- A second-rate locked room mystery.
- A choice of killer that is arbitrary and not fairly clued.
- Cold, unsympathetic characters.
- A brief but dubious political passage (start of Chapter 2).
- A briefly seen character who is racially stereotyped (last part of Chapter 12).
The Very Wealthy and Their Mansion
Dead Man Control takes place among one of Manhattan's wealthiest families.
These people are unusually wealthy, compared to the rich in other Reilly books,
or even compared to many well-to-do Golden Age detective novel suspects as a whole.
The family lives in a Fifth Avenue mansion: the domain of the wealthiest New Yorkers.
The mansion is explored in depth (Chapters 1, 2, 6, 8, 10).
A later mystery set in such a ultra-wealthy family's mansion: The Deed Is Drawn (1949)
by Willetta Ann Barber and R.F. Schabelitz.
We often get a servants' point of view. This links Dead Man Control to tales of
"mansions and their servants", like Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey.
However, Dead Man Control lacks the warm, cozy feeling of such TV shows.
This mansion is more like a mausoleum: it is compared to a tomb (start of Chapter 2),
its hall is "sepulchral" (start of Chapter 6). It is extraordinarily cold.
Various "regular guy" police express their dislike of it, finding it creepy
(Stoltz at the start of Chapter 2, Pierson in Chapter 6).
This is not an "Old Dark House, spooky mansion" kind of creepiness, which can be light-hearted fun.
It is an "upper class coldness and cruelty" kind of sinisterness, a place where the very rich oppress others.
We learn how exploitative and oppressive the millionaire capitalist Kingston is, towards several groups:
Later we learn explicitly how cruel the capitalist is. He is described as a sadist (start of Chapter 6).
Later his cousin Michael Dolge is analyzed as a masochist forced into admiring Kingston (start of Chapter 18).
- The Working Class. He has been monstrous to the servants since he was a little boy (Chapter 1).
This is really creepy.
- Women. The wall contains an Old Master nude by Rubens (Chapter 1). This painting may be priceless -
but it also symbolizes the millionaire's treatment of women as sex objects.
- Animals. The library is full of hunting prints (Chapter 2).
This symbolizes the millionaire's killing of animals for sport.
Rather startlingly, the publicity about the crime at the mansion leads to a Communist demonstration outside it,
something that is broken up viciously by the police (start of Chapter 2). It is a vivid vignette of life in 1936,
a period in the Depression when Communism was gaining in mass popularity in the USA.
I'm of two minds about this:
Reilly will return to Communism in the much later The Canvas Dagger (1956).
Unfortunately, brief mentions of Communism are the only trace of any left-of-center politics I can find in her books so far.
She rarely if ever mentions non-Communist liberal politics, such as
labor unions, the New Deal, Social Security, the Democratic Party etc.
Nor are other non-Communist traditions like democratic socialism or left-wing anarchism mentioned.
All of these would be vastly more constructive than Soviet Communism.
- It is good for writers to explore events around them.
Certainly this passage does that. It is well-written, too.
- But it fails to offer any context. A protestor offers a defense of the Soviet Union:
something that makes me cringe. Stalin was operating with full evil in 1936.
Communism was already a full scale disaster by 1936.
No mention is made of the failures of Communism in Dead Man Control.
Dead Man Control contains a "locked room" mystery. This is Reilly's only known attempt at a full-fledged
"impossible crime", although there is a well-done near-impossible crime in the opening chapters of McKee of Centre Street,
and the Mary Sinton episode in The Doll's Trunk Murder (Chapter 22).
I have always found the solution of the locked room mystery in Dead Man Control disappointing and downright annoying.
The solution is simple and uncreative, even crude.
The solution's only merit: it is indeed physically possible, and has a certain plausibility (Chapter 27).
BIG SPOILER. It depends on the heroine behaving with a complete lack of intelligence,
refusing to speak up after the crime, and tell what she knows.
The solution is perhaps a variant on the one Gaston Leroux used in
Le mystère de la chambre jaune (1907) (The Mystery of the Yellow Room).
However, it is enough of a variant to be legitimately original.
An alternative solution to the locked room is explored, in a subplot. The solution itself is not very good:
it's completely implausible, for one thing, and never fully worked out in detail.
But the idea leads to a small series of nicely-done revelations (end of Chapter 10,
two episodes in the first part of Chapter 12: the conversation with Lt. Pierson,
and the phone call McKee's detective eavesdrops on.)
As is often the case with Reilly, these ideas are revealed step by step,
with each step's revelation leading logically to the next.
This subplot brightens up the mystery. Series character police Lt. Pierson is involved with it.
Animals: McKee as Eccentric
A private animal collection or tiny zoo was a setting in Mr. Smith's Hat.
Dead Man Control continues the exotic animal motif, by showing McKee feeding his
pet baby alligator (middle of Chapter 8).
This is one of the few depictions of McKee in any Reilly novel
where he could be described as eccentric. Eccentric sleuths were popular during the Golden Age -
but typically, McKee is not one of them. He is burningly intense in pursuing his work -
but is not otherwise eccentric or bizarre.
McKee is shown watching porpoises in the Atlantic (Chapter 4), also an exotic animal.
McKee had a pet cat in The Line-Up (end of Chapter 15).
Series Sleuths: Lucy Sturm, Todhunter, Tripp, Stanwyck
Lucy Sturm, the nurse-detective secretly employed by McKee, makes a return visit.
Unfortunately, she appears very briefly: little more than a cameo (middle of Chapter 12, end of Chapter 21).
This is one of the least interesting Lucy Sturm episodes in any Reilly novel.
She was seen far more extensively in The Line-Up.
Similarly, the short, simple appearances of Todhunter in Dead Man Control are less enjoyable
than usual (Chapters: end of 15, first part of 17, first half of 21, middle of 25).
Todhunter is described as "dun-colored", a variant on his usual gray (end of Chapter 15).
Todhunter's best episode is at the boarding house on Charlton Street (Chapter 21). This real-life street
is directly south of Greenwich Village, in a neighborhood known as Hudson Square or the Printing District.
The man the cops are looking for did indeed tell the landlady he worked as a printer.
Sergeant Tripp of the Connecticut town of Fairport makes a return, too (Chapter 22).
He appeared earlier in Reilly's previous novel Mr. Smith's Hat.
The events of Mr. Smith's Hat are referred to as the Gilbert Shannon case in Dead Man Control.
Another officer from Fairport in Mr. Smith's Hat, Stanwyck, returns as well (Chapter 22).
Wily defense attorney Gerard Burchall returns from The Line-Up.
He was eating a bag of peanuts in The Line-Up (Chapter 12).
In Dead Man Control he has moved up to a bag of mixed nuts (Chapter 25).
There is something very 1930's about this. Simple inexpensive pleasures like nuts
were perhaps valued during the Depression. See Spencer Tracy's hero in the film
Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936).
Transportation and Communication Centers
Reilly loves to depict communication and transportation centers. These are present in Dead Man Control,
but treated far more briefly than in other Reilly works.
The "radio rooms" on the Atlantic cruise ship allow passengers to listen to radio stations through loudspeakers
(start of Chapter 4). This is a simple communication center.
So is the telephone switchboard at the club (first part of Chapter 12).
The boathouse where the boat comes from in the book's final suspense passage,
is mentioned twice but not shown (Chapters 26, 27). This is a simple transportation center.
Greenwich Village: Ruins
Reilly novels of this era are full of scenes in Greenwich Village.
Dead Man Control has a brief episode in Greenwich Village (start of Chapter 11) -
but it is shorter and less colorful than those in other Reilly books.
It takes place among torn-down buildings, soon to be the site of a new apartment building.
The half-demolished buildings can be considered "ruins". Ruins will return in later Reilly novels,
Mourned on Sunday and The Farmhouse. Those novels' ruins are in the countryside,
rather than in Manhattan like Dead Man Control.
The mansion only has subdued lighting, something that upsets good guy police detective Stolz
(start of Chapter 2). It is one of the main things about the mansion he finds creepy.
One of Reilly's specialties is the description of light. Here we find the opposite:
a place without good light. Such a thing is a sign of wrongness and badness in Reilly.
The only bright light in the mansion, is a one-sentence description of police photographer flashbulbs
(last part of Chapter 1). The police have lights, even if the mansion doesn't.
Later, burglars make the lights go off in the mansion by removing the fuses (Chapter 8).
One-sentence descriptions show McKee experiencing dark nights, broken a little bit
with fairly distant lights:
The heroine's "abstract" visionary experience, at the novel's end,
shows her coming out from darkness into light. Abstract passages are a Reilly tradition.
- Fifth Avenue with lights from towers to the south, and passing cars (start of Chapter 6).
- A coastline with boats gets a one-sentence description of its two lights,
one far to the north, the other to the south (last part of Chapter 26).
These barely affect the darkness.
Men's Casual Clothes
Men wear spectacular clothes, when not in suit and tie. These are casual outfits:
Both the police and the bad guys in this finale (Chapters 26, 27) are engaged in hoaxes;
both are involved with hierarchy.
Hoaxes often benefit from invocations of hierarchical chains of command.
See my discussion.
The bad guy's hoax involves a simple form of identity theft:
also a recurring element in such hoaxes.
- The millionaire wears a purple satin smoking jacket over his evening clothes (start of Chapter 1).
- A suspect wears a leather jacket and aviator's helmet while piloting a motorboat
(last part of Chapter 26). The buttoned-up clothes serve to hide his face and identity.
In the 1930's leather jackets were associated with outdoor activities like camping.
The sympathetic deputy in Stormy Night (1937) by Christopher Hale
wears a leather jacket and hunting boots when he looks for a missing person in the woods.
- The gardner who takes orders from this suspect is a "surly fellow in a sheepskin coat" (Chapter 26).
This makes the suspect and the gardner leather-clad. It also introduces the concept of
hierarchy, with a chain of command: the gardner takes orders from the upper class suspect.
In the same section uniformed patrolmen salute McKee
despite initial alarm he causes them: also an invocation of discipline and hierarchy.
Police Surveillance: Comedy
Police surveillance is a recurring theme in Reilly. It is especially witty and
Frederick Irving Anderson-like in its
unexpected operatives exploring the estate (start of Chapter 26).
Police surveillance in Dead Man Control is mainly carried out against the Big Rich
(Chapters 2, first part of 12, 26).
There is perhaps a subtext, in which the middle class in the form of the police,
exercises some social control over the Big Rich by monitoring their activities.
Dead for a Ducat
Dead for a Ducat (1939) is an inoffensive but only intermittently interesting book.
It's skimpy in its mystery plotting, and largely lacking the bravura set pieces found in other Reilly.
A middle section of the book has interesting detail and some good plotting (Chapters 13-17),
and is closer to first-rate Reilly. Other decent passages: Chapter 4, last part of Chapter 10, Chapter 21.
Dead for a Ducat is an early example of a Reilly book, in which the point-of-view
is split between a heroine and the police, in alternating sections. As usual in such books,
I often enjoyed the police sections more than the suspense sequences with the heroine.
The young heroine is perhaps a sign that Reilly was trying to appeal to the
"youth market" in Dead for a Ducat. The briefly seen employees of the Hunt Club
(Chapter 21) might be a similarly pitched appeal: young people loved night clubs and popular music.
The main murder mystery is simple, and has few interesting features.
And there are no clues that would allow the killer to be identified.
SPOILERS. Best subplot: what Todhunter discovers in the medicine cabinet (first part of Chapter 13)
and its explanation (first half of Chapter 17). This is a nice little mystery puzzle.
Related: the surprising content of the medical analysis of the bottle (last part of Chapter 14).
This surprise is interesting in its own right, as a mystery twist.
And also for laying part of the groundwork to explain the medicine cabinet mystery.
The Hiding Place
Also clever: the hiding place used by Andrew Storm when he disappears (last part of Chapter 10).
This is hardly a "subplot": it is just a brief episode. Still, the hiding place is well done.
It shows Reilly's interest in landscape.
SPOILERS. The hiding place is underground. For related hiding places in Reilly,
see the Architecture section in this article.
The killer's motive is carefully hidden from the detectives and the reader,
until the solution at the end (Chapter 24). I didn't find the motive believable:
the killer must be quite self-deluded and out of touch with reality,
to believe that this motive is based on a realistic possibility.
Reilly used a similar motive in The Dead Can Tell.
There is a gender reversal in the two novels and their motives.
Inspector McKee only shows up briefly, towards the end (end of Chapter 18, Chapter 19).
Most sleuthing is done by Todhunter. In fact he is the main detective in the tale.
Unfortunately, this sleuthing is sometimes less
interesting than Todhunter's work in many later Reilly books.
Todhunter does some good work early on (Chapter 4), and especially in the book's middle section (Chapters 13-17).
We see him doing some pleasant "police procedural" inquiries in the town (Chapter 21).
The local Connecticut authorities are awful, with a single-minded obsession with railroading
the hero into prison. The hero blasts them for their incompetence, and calls them every name in the book
(latter part of Chapter 18). I agree with him: these authorities are awful.
In the later Mourned on Sunday (1941) police heroes accurately call the heroine a fool in her behavior;
here it is a suspect blasting a whole group of male law authorities for their incompetence.
Most of the main locals are in fact depicted as bad people, whether suspects or law authorities.
By contrast, the young hero Andrew Storm is a visiting New York City attorney, someone outside local society.
He recalls such noble, competent big city young lawyers as Cliff Shaver in The Thirty-First Bullfinch
and Hugo Cavanaugh in The Velvet Hand. Andrew Storm's former boss, New York attorney Graut is
also depicted sympathetically, just like Hugo Cavanaugh's lawyer boss Gerard Straight in The Velvet Hand.
The book negatively depicts the way the rotten assistant state's attorney Broughton
interrogates the heroine (end of Chapter 17). One can generalize this into
a feminist critique of the way men in general carry on conversations with women.
The heroine's wealthy grandfather is a textile manufacturer. He is an extremely rotten person,
doing the best he can to ruin the lives of anyone who crosses him.
While no social commentary is made explicit, one wonders if there is a subtext
condemning the rich.
The game room at the mansion perhaps reinforces the idea that rich people
don't work hard.
Dead for a Ducat lacks the communication centers that run through Reilly.
But it does show the police systematically using high tech communication:
By contrast, the naive young heroine puts too much trust in the
corrupt low-tech communication system at the mansion where she lives.
She is shocked, shocked to learn that her family has been intercepting letters from her boyfriend.
And her not using US Mail or a telegram leads to near disaster at the end (first part of Chapter 22).
- Todhunter calls McKee long distance in New York,
using a phone in the town's telegraph office (end of Chapter 4).
- McKee sends cables to the Surete in France (end of Chapter 21).
The Game Room
The game room at the mansion (end of Chapter 6) is briefly but vividly described.
As a place of organized amusement, it recalls the nightclub in McKee of Centre Street.
The game room also recalls the "brain centers" in other Reilly novels. Most such brain centers
control communication or transportation: important subjects.
The game room is in charge of something much more frivolous: sports and entertainment.
The game room has pictures painted on its walls. This enhances its image as a "brain center".
The game room contains a row of riding boots, waiting for use.
This anticipates the boots worn by men dressed as gentleman hunters:
Liam Fogarty in The Farmhouse (Chapter 2), Tom Gillespie in The Canvas Dagger (Chapter 4).
Riding boots conveyed both attractive sexiness and sinister upper class privilege in this era.
In Dead for a Ducat Reilly creates elaborate metaphors, to describe the characters' feelings.
Often these describe the characters' disturbance at strange twists the case is taking.
Some of the best are in the book's middle section:
- The heroine and the gray screens (middle of Chapter 13).
- State Policeman Captain Viskniski and the rope ladder (start of Chapter 17).
All Concerned Notified
All Concerned Notified (1939) is an uneven book. The first two-thirds (Chapters 1-16)
set forth an absorbing account of the investigation of a woman's murder in New York City.
There are good police procedural details of how the police trace the victim's identity and movements.
(Tracing the identity of an unknown woman victim also figures in Reilly's later Compartment K.)
Intermixed with this, are the suspects, who live in a decaying mansion in New York City's
Greenwich Village. The spooky mansion is one of the architectural gems that are found in Golden
Age mystery fiction. Reilly takes us on a tour of the mansion, going from the grounds and lowest floor,
up to the distant attic. Such bottom-to-top architectural trips are also found in other Reilly novels,
such as Murder in the Mews and Follow Me.
This section of the book climaxes, with a discovery that explains some of the key mysteries
of the book - although not whodunit. These explanations are logical and to the point.
It is a good thing, because after this, the book collapses. The last third is a complex account
of the characters' history, and who did what during the crime. The characters' back-story seems
like a re-hash of the premise in Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907).
And the solution involves no less than three unconnected groups of people wandering around,
doing all the sinister, mysterious things at night we have seen throughout the novel. Other subplots emerge
out of nowhere here, too, further gumming up the book's logical unity. Making things worse: there
are no clues that let us identify the killer - so the mystery is not "fair play". (Bad Reasoning
Department: Inspector McKee concludes that one rich woman is innocent, because she "wouldn't have
killed her own maid." This is one of the more absurd pieces of ratiocination in the Golden Age.)
The first two-thirds of the novel have merit, and are highly readable, given
some good plot ideas, police work, the architectural setting, and Reilly's skill with description.
But the solution of the mystery is a real mess.
Among the non-police experts McKee asks for assistance in his detective work is a woman (Chapter 1).
The novel does not editorialize on her gender, or make explicit feminist comments.
But this character shows the ability of working women to acquire expertise, and use it for social benefit.
Death Demands an Audience
Death Demands an Audience (1940) is a McKee mystery.
The Opening: A Communication Center
The opening is an excellent section, taking place in a Manhattan department store,
mainly in its fancy shop windows and adjacent areas (Chapter 1).
The entire section is closely linked to the store's architecture.
The store windows are one of the communication centers found in Reilly.
They convey information to large numbers of New Yorkers.
In 1940, such windows were popular and had a sizable impact on the public.
The windows have a visionary quality: something central to Reilly's work. They show dramatic images.
A public event is about to take place: the unveiling of a new store window. In 1940,
such an unveiling would indeed attract public interest, including a curious crowd.
What would it show? What would it reveal about fashion and The New?
Murder at Manhattan public events is central to the opening crimes in
McKee of Centre Street (the night club) and Murder in Shinbone Alley (the fashion show).
The heroine is in green: a common color in Reilly heroines' clothes.
SPOILERS. This section invokes the image of the double, in the heroine and the mannequin.
Reilly does this well, creating a surrealist feel. However, it seems atypical of her work,
with doubling imagery not often found in other Reilly books.
Tracking: A Visionary Episode
The police track various rich suspects, outside of their homes (Chapters 4, 5).
This section is one of Reilly's vividly imagined set pieces. It has the visionary quality
found in Reilly. It is also an instance of other Reilly tropes:
The police look at various suspects through windows, without being able to hear them.
The police interpret the suspects' emotions and attitudes, through the "meanings" of their postures and expressions.
This is like looking at the mannequins in the store window, and what their shapes express, in the book's opening.
- The (middle class and working class) police spy on the rich.
- People walk around in the countryside after dark.
- Two nearby buildings are in the countryside. Unlike some later Reilly books,
both are private homes - an inn and a private home will be more common in later novels.
The flow of visuals in the tracking episode has a fascinating, pronounced effect.
It is a bit like the flow experienced by a viewer of a silent movie.
Reilly, who was born in 1891, would likely have seen countless silent films during her youth:
the silent film era in the USA ran from 1895 to 1929.
(Helpful hint: if you haven't watched many silent films, they have a different "feel" from sound films.
The "pure flow of images", one after another, is a striking and worthwhile experience.
Silent films are easily available today, both from rental services and public libraries.)
Looping Back to the Crime: The Book's Structure
The murder is discovered and gets a preliminary investigation in the opening (Chapter 1).
This opening takes place at the department store where the murder occurs.
But without a full investigation at the crime scene completed,
the novel immediately digresses to the homes of the suspects (Chapters 2-5).
Then, the novel somewhat unexpectedly returns to the department store crime scene,
with the police doing a full investigation of the murder (Chapter 6).
This includes a reconstruction of the shooting based on forensic and ballistic evidence.
This section is good, and includes the sort of thorough investigation we hope for in a good mystery novel.
In the later Mourned on Sunday, Reilly will structure an even longer delay between
the initial account of a killing, and its detailed police investigation.
SPOILERS. The solution at the book's end reveals that the department store has nothing to do with the crimes.
The victim is shot at the store, where he works - but the motive for the killing is not related to the store.
Further, the way the corpse winds up in the department store window is just an accident.
I found this disappointing: the department store aspects are among the best parts of Death Demands an Audience.
The "Display" Work Area
We get a brief portrait of the vast underground work area,
where the store windows are designed and constructed (Chapters 1, 6).
It anticipates the even more elaborate depiction of the art school in Murder in Shinbone Alley,
which concentrates on design and craft work. Both are hives full of skilled artists and craftsmen.
The man in charge of the "display" division has a background both as an artist,
and as a teacher in art schools (middle of Chapter 7).
This makes the similarity between the "display" area in Death Demands an Audience
and the art school in Murder in Shinbone Alley even closer.
One suspects that Reilly was inspired by the "display" area in Death Demands an Audience
to take the deeper look into the art school in Murder in Shinbone Alley.
The art school in Murder in Shinbone Alley seems to have equal numbers of male and female teachers, and students too.
By contrast, the design area in Death Demands an Audience seems to be a mainly male preserve,
with an all-male staff. A woman employee of the store, Evelyn Eberhardt, is explicitly hoping to
get past the all-male restrictions and get a job there (Chapter 6).
This is a feminist look at women's aspirations.
The "display" area has glass windows in its ceiling, to let in light (middle of Chapter 6).
This is an example of the glass architecture found in Reilly.
SPOILERS. The windows are unusually placed.
The store windows themselves are glass architecture, too. Reilly had an affinity with glass
in her buildings.
SPOILERS. Policeman Todhunter fails in both of his tracking and protection scenes (Chapters 2, 12).
This is disappointing. In later books, Todhunter is usually spectacularly successful with his quests.
I prefer seeing him succeed in his detective work, instead of failing as in Death Demands an Audience.
Perhaps Reilly had not quite developed the character and skills of Todhunter fully,
by the time of Death Demands an Audience.
Murder in Shinbone Alley
Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940) is a mystery.
Structure: Straightforward American
As Marcia Muller points out in her laudatory review in 1001 Midnights,
Murder in Shinbone Alley is very much a traditional whodunit murder mystery. The murder takes place on page 1;
it is witnessed by a policeman, although he doesn't see who did it; Inspector McKee shows up two pages later,
and the rest of the book is a vigorous investigation. This means that Murder in Shinbone Alley
is close to what Ellery Queen called the "straightforward American school" of mystery fiction,
in which detectives investigate crimes without frills or distractions. Queen included himself as a member of this school.
Links to McKee of Centre Street
Murder in Shinbone Alley resembles McKee of Centre Street.
Both have initial murders at large, celebratory evening gatherings in Manhattan.
McKee of Centre Street takes place at a busy speakeasy, Murder in Shinbone Alley
at a fashion show. This is a more high-brow and refined environment than the speakeasy, though.
Both have huge crowds of potential witnesses/suspects, mainly well-to-do people.
The books apply a similar, interesting detective strategy, found in
McKee of Centre Street (Chapter 5, start of Chapter 6), Murder in Shinbone Alley (second half of Chapter 5).
SPOILERS. The police quiz the crowd about what was happening at the time of the murders,
and figure out where every person in the crowd was at the period of the killing.
In both books, this enables the police to shrink drastically the crowd of suspects, down to a small group
of under ten people. While this is a seemingly simple strategy, it can be unexpectedly fascinating
to read about. One sees a pattern emerging out of the unknown.
A Mystery Subplot: Tying Together Events
A mystery subplot deals not with the murder, but rather with a series of events at the art school (events set forth in Chapters 11, 13).
McKee ties all these events together, and figures out that they reflect a common, single cause (end of Chapter 13).
However the reader doesn't fully understand McKee's thinking,
until further explanations are made to the reader (middle of Chapter 15, second half of Chapter 16).
This subplot recalls one in McKee of Centre Street (the subplot solved at the end of Chapter 3):
However, the McKee of Centre Street subplot has impossible crime features,
something lacking in Murder in Shinbone Alley. On the whole the subplot in McKee of Centre Street
seems more clever and ingenious.
- Both subplots have a similar structure:
they link together a series of seemingly unrelated events, and explains them as results of a unified cause.
- Both novels have brief, memorable scenes in which McKee puts all the facts together,
and realizes he knows what is going on.
- Both deal with activities of people at the crime location, more-or-less at the time of the crime.
- Neither concern the actual murder.
The explanation in Murder in Shinbone Alley takes place much later in the novel (half-way through) than
the subplot explanation in McKee of Centre Street (early chapters).
A Mentally Disabled Character - and the Poor
The above subplot intermingles with the story of Willie Cleet. Cleet is a mentally disabled man.
He is presented largely sympathetically and without stereotyping. Reilly confronts the issue of the human worth
of such disabled people head-on, in a pointed discussion between McKee and his assistant Pierson (end of Chapter 15).
WIllie Cleet is not glorified. He is, however, shown as honest and gainfully employed.
His widowed mother Mrs. Cleet is also a sympathetic and employed person. Reilly books repeatedly contain
working class characters, treated with respect. However, Mrs. Cleet and Willie are depicted economically
as a step below the working class. They are described as "poor". Today, they are what would be classified as
"the working poor", although that modern term is not used in Murder in Shinbone Alley.
Murder in Shinbone Alley offers protest against the way society treats the Cleets,
and other people with their combination of disability and poverty.
McKee is shown getting angry over this treatment (middle of Chapter 6).
However, it is unclear if McKee is denouncing the rich or the class structure.
Instead, his ire seems directed at the allegedly too-bossy charitable organization that dictates the Cleets' life.
He also expresses a distaste for "organized society".
SPOILERS. The same section that visits the Cleets' slum home, offers a denunciation of the slum lord that owns it (Chapter 13).
This is something unusual to read in a 1940 mystery novel. This emphatically does look at how the rich mistreat the poor.
It seems different from McKee's earlier attitude (Chapter 6).
Murder in Shinbone Alley takes place at a prestigious art school, where people study painting, design and fashion.
This locale recalls the "genteel setting about the arts, with sophisticated people" one associates
with Ngaio Marsh.
Artists are a recurring subject in Reilly's books. But Murder in Shinbone Alley takes one of the
deepest dives into the work lives of artists of any Reilly novel.
As best as one can tell, the art school seems to be training "commercial artists" rather than "fine artists".
People go there to become illustrators (a major profession in 1940, with its profusion of magazines needing illustrations)
or to become advertising artists, rather than to learn how to create "high art" paintings for museums.
This is consistent with the emphasis on commercial art in much of Reilly.
Gender: The Integrated School
The art school has a fairly large faculty and student body. Both faculty and students include men and women.
Interestingly, roles in the school seem mainly NOT linked to gender. There are man teachers and woman teachers
of various subjects, and they seem to be chosen purely for their expertise in their subjects.
None seem chosen for their jobs due to being male or female. Similarly, the students are shown in class,
and both men and women in each class are doing the same kind of tasks (Chapter 11).
Even the nude models who serve in the drawing classes include at least one woman (Chapter 11), and one man (Chapter 12).
The main owner of the school, and its head, is a man: preserving some elements of patriarchy and male control.
But we learn that the school also has at least one woman co-owner (Chapter 11).
As best one can tell, this gender-blind, gender-equal approach is not discussed explicitly as a
principle or issue, anywhere in the novel. It is just there, implicit in the book's detailed depiction of the school.
Still, such a gender-neutral environment is unusual for 1940 - and is far from universal today.
It makes the art school be an unusual place. One that offers a different view of how society might be operated.
Gender: Two Contrasting Women
The murder victim is an example of that vast mystery tradition, the Victim who is So Obnoxious
That It Is No Surprise they Are Killed.
She is also an example of a type repeatedly denounced in Reilly books:
the upper class woman who doesn't work, and whose life revolves around "traditionally feminine" activities.
This woman is even a debutante: more "traditional upper class feminine" you cannot get.
And as usual in Reilly, she is contrasted with an admirable woman who works, and who is less interested in the
"feminine": the art teacher Nairn English.
Such contrasting pairs are used to critique ideas of femininity in other Reilly books as well.
The Real Shinbone Alley
Shinbone Alley is very much a real street or alley in Manhattan. It was not made up for the book.
It is accurately depicted in Murder in Shinbone Alley, as a small, short back alley running behind buildings off Lafayette.
Manhattan has a number of such ancient "alleys", now considered of historic interest.
Shinbone Alley is part of the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, an official "historic district" full of
fascinating looking old buildings. Today NoHo is upscale, a place where the wealthy live.
However, the novel suggests that in 1940, after a decade of Depression, that the neighborhood
was far more run down.
For most of its history, Shinbone Alley was a public street or alley, like any other.
That is how it is depicted in Murder in Shinbone Alley. However, it has reportedly
been "privatized" today, and is closed to the public. Photos on the Internet show huge locked gates
at both ends of the alley today, blocking access and keeping the public out.
These gates did not exist in 1940.
Various maps on the Internet label various different alleys in NoHo as "Shinbone".
These maps are not consistent with each other, alas! Murder in Shinbone Alley
makes it clear that it is talking about the short alley that opens on the EAST side of Lafayette, runs East,
soon makes a sharp right turn to the South, and opens out and ends on Bleecker Street to the South.
It is easy to find this short alley on Internet maps of Manhattan - and several such maps
do indeed label it as Shinbone Alley. See here for a good map and photos,
and more photos.
Greenwich Village is another real-life Manhattan neighborhood, famous as the home of intellectuals and
people in the arts. Three women in Reilly's novel who work at the art school have rooms there:
a logical choice for New Yorkers who work in the arts, like these women.
Readers throughout the 20th Century have had a deep interest in reading about Greenwich Village
and its intellectual residents.
The three women live in a pair of neighboring houses. The houses are in an off-trail street in
Greenwich Village: the apparently fictitious Ninetta Place, which opens off the real-life Gay Street (Chapters 9, 14).
SPOILERS. Ninetta Place is explicitly compared (Chapter 9) to Clove Court, the fictitious Greenwich Village
setting of Reilly's earlier All Concerned Notified.
Both are small streets virtually hidden inside Greenwich Village, invisible to public view.
Both are reached by going through an entrance in a wall: a gate for Clove Court,
a green door in a Gay Street wall leading to Ninetta Place in Murder in Shinbone Alley.
Both streets are essentially concealed, unknown to exist except by a handful of people
(and presumably the US Postal Service!). These streets are examples of the Golden Age interest in landscape architecture.
I've labelled Ninetta Place and Clove Court "fictitious" because Internet searches have failed to turn up
any references to them. I don't know if Reilly based them on real-life models,
or whether they are entirely made-up out of her imagination.
The hotel in The Line-Up is a place of privacy for the rich, a place where their money isolates them from
the rest of Manhattan. Ninetta Place and Clove Court also offer privacy and isolation for their residents.
The real-life Gay Street is itself an extremely short road, one of the shortest in Manhattan. It looks insignificant on a map.
But it has acquired symbolic resonance by its use in literature:
In 1938, the basement apartment on Gay Street was a dump where two penniless young working women
like Ruth and Eileen could get a cheap room.
Today, an Internet listing asks $4,500,000 for a house on Gay Street. Times have changed.
- Ruth McKenney used it for her famous autobiographical fiction My Sister Eileen (in book form 1938).
This describes aspiring writer Ruth and her aspiring actress sister Eileen
moving into a basement apartment on Gay Street. Gay Street thus symbolizes the story of
"nice young people moving to Greenwich Village and attempting to launch careers in the world of the arts".
- The art school workers in Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940) also exemplify such young women in the arts.
- The mystery novel The Frightened Stiff (1942) by Kelley Roos
opens with the married sleuths Jeff and Haila Troy moving into a basement apartment in Gay Street.
Jeff is a photographer and Haila is an actress: they are a Bright Young Couple,
and typical of "young people in the arts in New York City".
The Dead Can Tell
The Dead Can Tell (1940) is a mystery novel. It is an uneven work, one whose good storytelling
and often interesting subject matter are not matched by a decent mystery puzzle.
The Dead Can Tell has vivid story telling throughout.
Unfortunately, it has an uncreative solution to its central murder mystery.
The choice of villain seems arbitrary; there are few interesting plot surprises or twists in the solution;
and hints that some fascinating complex conspiracy is going on are badly unfulfilled.
The subplots are generally more interesting than the murder mystery:
- A subplot about a missing maid, also seems ultimately pointless, considered as a mystery plot.
- SPOILERS. The subplot about the gun is full of dramatic surprises, that occur throughout the novel. These succeed as story telling.
But the ultimate account of the gun provided in the book's solution at the end, does not show mystery plotting creativity.
- SPOILERS. More interesting than the murder mystery, is a subplot about the victim.
The victim turns out to be involved in some surprising activities.
These are more both dramatic and more logical than anything about the murder.
These mainly emerge in the middle of the novel, leading to some good scenes.
However, the victim's activities turn out to have nothing to do with the killing or the main murder mystery.
A scene at the home of political boss Pat Somers leads to some surprising plot revelations (Chapter 8, 9).
One doesn't want to spoil them, as they are well-constructed as a plot twist.
SPOILERS. They also briefly mention a subject that rarely appears in Golden Age mystery fiction (Chapter 9).
This must have been fairly bold for its time.
The big city politicians Cliff and Pat Somers are somewhat unusual characters for Reilly.
They extend Reilly's fiction into the worlds of public life and political activity.
Careers in the Arts
The Dead Can Tell gives the heroine and some of her friends interesting and glamorous New York City careers.
The heroine is a commercial artist whose drawings are a hit in magazines; her woman friend
is an agent for swing bands, and a man is a radio announcer.
Swing music especially appealed to young people, such as teenagers and those in their early 20's.
Perhaps Reilly was trying to appeal to young readers.
Or, such references to swing music might establish that Reilly was "keeping up with current trends".
There are perhaps similar involvements with swing band music in
Our Second Murder (1941) by Torrey Chanslor.
Unlike Chanslor, Reilly does not bring swing musicians on-stage in the story of The Dead Can Tell.
The heroine's work as an artist anticipates The Double Man, with its artist colony.
In real life, Helen Reilly was married to artist-cartoonist Paul Reilly.
Such artist characters might, or might not, draw on Reilly's personal experience.
The heroine's work appears in the real-life magazine The New Yorker (Chapter 2).
There are suggestions that this is the ultimate achievement for a commercial artist in this era.
There are similar glamorous references to The New Yorker in The Man with the Lumpy Nose (1944),
a mystery about cartoonists by Lawrence Lariar.
The heroine is shown being able to work almost anywhere. All she needs is her drawing board
and a room with some privacy. She does her work while staying as a guest with a friend.
One wonders if this is a metaphor for Reilly's own ability to write.
Before the heroine made magazine drawings, she created murals (first part of Chapter 1).
Mural painting was big in the 1930's. During the Depression, the US Government agency the WPA
hired unemployed artists to make murals in public buildings. We do not learn who
employed the heroine to create murals.
The Dead Can Tell is mainly set in New York City. But a long section moves the action to
lower Dutchess County (second half of Chapter 15 to Chapter 21).
This is a beautiful rural region up the Hudson River from New York City.
Almost all the section in Dutchess County is set in a single, fairly small landscape.
There are a few conversations indoors in a couple of buildings in the landscape, but the action is mainly outdoors.
This entire set-piece is an excellent Reilly piece of description. The landscape comes to life,
and is shown in vivid detail.
As in many Reilly books, the landscape in The Dead Can Tell involves water.
In The Dead Can Tell, this is a lake.
Eventually, currents and under water aspects of the landscape become prominent in the mystery plot.
The police are helped in learning about these from a local, working class expert (the town's oldest inhabitant).
He anticipates the Portuguese fishermen who help McKee with the ocean currents in The Double Man.
The setting in anticipates the country setting of Reilly's later Compartment K:
- A beautiful lake in a remote country setting.
- An inn where some of the characters stay, refined, upper class, and with a nice dining area.
The inn has telephones that help people communicate with the outside world.
- A private country house, where some of the central suspects stay.
This is an old family farmhouse in The Dead Can Tell, traditional but genteel.
McKee's assistant Todhunter plays a big role in The Dead Can Tell. As usual, he adds some human warmth
and an occasional comic touch. He is prominent in the Dutchess County episode.
Todhunter's dog Jumbo assists him. Jumbo is overweight, and good-natured. Todhunter is crazy
about Jumbo, and there are suggestions that Todhunter over indulges Jumbo with food.
Jumbo is of practical help with Todhunter's investigations and exploration of the landscape.
Todhunter has a Common Man feel. He is shown eating inexpensive food.
Todhunter is put up against the powerful political boss Pat Somers, surveilling him unobtrusively.
SPOILER. Todhunter snatches key evidence out of Somers' hand, before Somers knows what is happening.
It is a funny look at the apparently powerless, nebbishy Todhunter out-maneuvering one of the most
powerful men in New York City.
There are a few references to South America, although no scenes are actually set there (Chapter 1):
World War II broke out in Europe in 1939.
US media started promoting Latin America as a glamorous place that was also at peace and out of the war zone.
One suspects that The Dead Can Tell is an example of this.
- McKee goes to Rio de Janeiro on an assignment, unconnected with the mystery in The Dead Can Tell.
- Steven's firm might send him to Argentina on a job.
In addition, it was patriotic to depict Latin America, because of the official
Good Neighbor Policy (1933-1945) the US had with Latin America.
This put a patriotic spin on even escapist entertainment set south of the border.
McKee's visit to Brazil is officially requested by the Brazilian Government (start of Chapter 1).
This is perhaps an example of the cooperation between US and South American countries stressed by the
Good Neighbor Policy.
McKee buys a 2-way radio-telephone for his police car, out of his own pocket (start of Chapter 7).
In 1940, this is the last word in high technology. We learn that McKee has to use the Fire Department's network to make calls:
the police are not yet set up to handle radio-telephones. It is a brief but solid look.
SPOILER. Some of the well-to-do New Yorkers own recording technology, which they can use to make records
in their homes (Chapters 2, 8). Such recordings are woven into the plot. Reilly is taking an interest in what
were high technology innovations in 1940.
A late incident is a "Hoffman operation", designed to help identify a corpse (end of Chapter 23).
Reilly had used a somewhat similar gambit in All Concerned Notified.
The details are more elaborate in All Concerned Notified.
And more varied in using a multiplicity of techniques, rather than one single method as in The Dead Can Tell.
For these reasons, the account in All Concerned Notified is more interesting.
Still, the events in The Dead Can Tell are sound scientific detective work.
Not purely technological, is the New York City storage warehouse, where people store their furniture (Chapter 10).
It is interesting to see what such a place was like in 1940.
Mourned on Sunday
Mourned on Sunday (1941) has absorbing storytelling. In chapter after chapter, Reilly
unfolds vivid descriptions of setting, combined with the progress of characters and events.
The novel often returns to scenes of previous crimes, with a deeper investigation carried out by McKee.
New facts are unearthed, and new accounts of events ore given.
The effect can be a bit like that in Miss Pinkerton (1932) by Mary Roberts Rinehart,
which goes deeper and deeper into its crime events. Miss Pinkerton often depends on new witnesses
to extend previous accounts of a crime: that sometimes happens in Mourned on Sunday too.
But Mourned on Sunday also relies on police investigation to deepen accounts of crime events.
At first in Mourned on Sunday, the killing is not regarded as a murder, and not investigated deeply by police.
This can seem frustrating. One fears one is in some sort of "suspense novel",
in which the investigation of mysteries by detectives is neglected or skimpy. But gratifyingly,
the later chapters include detailed investigations by the police, in the "mystery novel" tradition.
Mourned on Sunday differs from conventional mystery novels, in that its investigations often occur
much later on in the book than is typical. Mourned on Sunday employs a different time scheme
in its construction from a typical mystery book: with crime events often occurring early,
but their investigation often delayed. This perhaps makes the plot construction in Mourned on Sunday
to be experimental.
Much of the action takes place in a series of rural landscapes. These are set in lower
Dutchess County in New York state, scene of part of Reilly's earlier The Dead Can Tell.
The elaborate landscapes show Reilly's powers of description. While there was only one landscape in The Dead Can Tell,
there are several in Mourned on Sunday, stretching through the whole novel.
Dutchess County is a real place, and its real life county seat, the city of Poughkeepsie is mentioned
as the center of its government and police forces. But the actual towns where the action takes place
seem to be fictional. These small towns are apparently "typical" of the countless real life villages
that dot Dutchess County. The similar small village in The Dead Can Tell also is apparently fictional.
Dutchess County is tremendously genteel. It is a center of well-to-do people:
upscale Vassar College is in Poughkeepsie, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his ancestral home
at the nearby town Hyde Park. Such an upper crust enclave is typical of the country settings of many Reilly novels.
As is often the case in Reilly, some of these landscapes involve water. The heroine crosses a
small brook (Chapter 3). Later on, McKee far more dramatically uses a precarious log bridge to
cross Devil's Gorge.
Some of the landscapes include ruined buildings.
Golden Age novels often show an interest in architecture, and Mourned on Sunday is an example.
The hotel, and the hero's house, both get their architecture linked to plot events in the mystery story.
The architecture of the hotel plays a role in the first killing.
Later in the book, investigation gradually reveals the hotel architecture influenced movements of people around
the time of the murder. And was embedded in the killer's murder scheme.
The staircase, and getting in and out of it, is an issue, as it is in some mysteries by
Aaron Marc Stein.
The layout of the second floor at the hero's house is relevant. I would have enjoyed seeing a floor plan.
The house's exits also become a subject of mystery interest.
Architecture: Glass, Atmosphere
Glass architecture plays a role in the atmosphere of Mourned on Sunday,
but not in its mystery puzzles or actual mystery plotting:
Reality seems heightened in these glass structures. Events seem more intense.
- The first murder occurs in a hotel lounge with a glass roof (end of Chapter 1). The first murder is strikingly surreal.
The surreal quality is enabled, in part, by the glass architecture.
- Soon, the heroine is lured to a rendezvous in an abandoned greenhouse in the countryside (Chapter 3).
The two locales have some common features:
These glass architecture scenes have a bit of the same atmosphere as the "brain center" episodes in
Reilly like the radio room in McKee of Centre Street and the Planetarium in Beyond the Dark.
However, the locales in Mourned on Sunday do not actually seem to be centers of thought.
- The hotel lounge has orange trees growing in tubs; the greenhouse used to have flats full of vegetable seedlings.
- Food is brought around by waiters on trays, in the hotel lounge; food used to be grown in flats in the greenhouse.
Reilly creates some atmosphere involving light in the greenhouse. She describes the texture of the light inside.
And has the heroine looking through the glass and seeing stars. Light effects are a Reilly specialty.
The title Mourned on Sunday is dramatic and memorable. But it doesn't have much relationship to the actual book.
Mourning plays little role in the novel. While there are tense suspense passages, the book is not grim or gloomy.
Nor do Sunday or other days of the week play any role in the mystery plot.
An Imperfect Heroine
The heroine is far from being perfect. She is more flawed than the typical heroine of Reilly novels.
For example, she has married a rich older man for his money: a behavior that would be frowned on by readers
both in 1941 and today.
Like all too many heroines of HIBK novels, the heroine conceals evidence from the police,
and refuses to tell them what she knows. Some HIBK novels defend or at least rationalize such actions by heroines.
But Mourned on Sunday takes a different attitude. SPOILERS.
Police hero McKee roundly condemns the heroine's approach and brands her a "fool".
His police assistant Pierson is also a skeptic: "Is that girl sick or dumb or what?" (Chapter 10).
This is funny, and refreshing in its blunt approach.
SPOILERS. The end shows that McKee has fallen in love with the heroine, from afar.
I don't think this episode works very well. It is not consistent with the all-business attitude of McKee
in other novels (Reilly says McKee's interest in a woman in Mourned on Sunday is an "entirely unaccustomed note").
Furthermore, this is really not much of a heroine. She is beautiful,
but full of character flaws, and lacks personal accomplishments. She is not much of a partner for a dynamic man like McKee.
Nor do we really see McKee having deep romantic feelings.
The finale does establish that McKee is heterosexual: something that is not really apparent in most Reilly novels,
which instead show McKee concentrating on police work. It also places him in a mystery story tradition of
"detective falls for beautiful woman suspect". Reilly herself does not seem to view this finale
as being significant: as far as I know it is not referred to again in later McKee novels.
Todhunter, the mild-mannered but astute police assistant of McKee, comes in for some pleasing high comedy again.
Todhunter likes food, and is grateful when he gets it. In Mourned on Sunday, we see Todhunter at an inexpensive town restaurant
called a "dog wagon", where Todhunter is gratefully munching on a tuna sandwich and an orange juice.
Once again, a Reilly novel links Todhunter to ordinary people's food, part of his very modest working class life.
Todhunter regards this as a treat and is grateful, whereas the rich suspects are upset that
they don't have the latest high style clothes (middle of Chapter 16).
We learn about Todhunter's preferences in police work: he likes open-ended surveillance missions,
where he is charged with gathering facts (start of Chapter 20). This is consistent with the portraits
of Todhunter in other Reilly novels.
Todhunter and a likable young witness also eat at a "dog wagon" in Dead for a Ducat (Chapter 21).
The Police Team
A memorable passage has McKee ascribing success in investigation to his team as a whole (start of Chapter 20).
This is both his personal philosophy, and his practical policy: rewards and recognition in the Police Department
go to the men of the team as a whole.
Links to The Thirty-First Bullfinch
Mourned on Sunday begins in Manhattan, Inspector McKee's home base. But most of the later parts of the novel
take place in the countryside. In this it recalls The Thirty-First Bullfinch, Reilly's early
country house mystery. Other similarities:
- The victims are rich in both books.
- Both books have not one, but two doctor characters among the suspects. One doctor in each book has recently returned
from a long stay in Europe.
- A nice, intelligent young lawyer gets involved in both books, but not as a suspect. He is the heroine's lawyer in
Mourned on Sunday, a lawyer sent to help the victim in The Thirty-First Bullfinch. (I was hoping the lawyer in
The Thirty-First Bullfinch would play a bigger role, and maybe romance the heroine, but it was not to be.
Neither lawyers have any romance or personal involvement with the characters.)
- Vivid passages in both books have characters wandering outside in the countryside at night, sometimes in the rain.
- Water plays a role in the novels' landscapes: a river and gorge in Mourned on Sunday,
the ocean in The Thirty-First Bullfinch.
- SPOILER. A conspiracy by a group is behind the murders in both novels, rather than a lone killer.
A leaf forms a clue in Mourned on Sunday, as a seed did in Mr. Smith's Hat.
In both works, it is used to track down a location. This subplot is smaller and less spectacular
in Mourned on Sunday than in Mr. Smith's Hat.
McKee also shows that a car has visited a certain rural area, by comparing flower remains on a tire,
to the identical flowers growing in a field. This is another botany-clue-to-a-location.
A search uses an interesting technical trick (end of Chapter 22).
Reilly's continuing nurse-sleuth Lucy Sturm is briefly mentioned, but not brought into the story (Chapter 19).
Beyond the Dark
On the Run
Beyond the Dark (1944) is the last of three books Helen Reilly published under the pseudonym
Kieran Abbey. It deals with non-series characters. It takes the form of a suspense novel,
with a young couple on the run from both the police and more sinister pursuers.
As Anthony Boucher pointed out in his review, Beyond the Dark is one long chase
across Manhattan locales.
David L. Vineyard has annotated lists of:
Beyond the Dark breaks into two nearly equal halves. The first half is a long chase
in which the fleeing couple visits various well-known Manhattan locales. These are described with Reilly's
vigorous skill. In the second half (from Chapter 12 on), the couple goes on the offensive, and starts
tracking down and discovering information about the bad guys. This second half is far less colorful
than the first. The bad guys are not very interesting, and there is less emphasis on New York locales.
The chief merit of Beyond the Dark is the vivid, poetic adventure in Manhattan in its first half.
Beyond the Dark has mystery elements, with the couple (and the reader) striving to understand what is going on,
and why the couple are being chased. These elements eventually include a mysterious murder.
However, the book arrives at the most obvious, simple and perfunctory answers to all its questions.
Its mystery aspects are undistinguished. SPOILER. The killing turns out to have been caused
by a falling-out between the bad guys: a solution that lacks all ingenuity.
Beyond the Dark has an experimental aspect: a novel in which the reader knows
almost nothing factual about its central characters until its final pages.
Reilly keeps the backgrounds of her hero and heroine concealed through most of the book.
All we learn is that each has a secret that prevents them from going to the police.
Only in the last few pages do we learn the hidden facts about their mysterious secrets.
SPOILER. The answers seem disappointing, simple, not too imaginative,
and not connected with the events of the rest of the novel.
They also seem weak: hardly justifying the characters' refusal to seek out the police and FBI,
and tell what they know.
SPOILER. A good aspect of the plot: people the couple meet casually, later show up unexpectedly
in places the couple visit. Reilly does this three times (Chapters 4 (end), 6 (start), 11).
This is startling as a plot development. It also gives the book a paranoiac feel,
with strange events that keep threatening the couple.
Paranoia plays roles in other Reilly suspense novels, such as Follow Me.
SPOILER. A place where the villains secrete their victims (Chapter 14) recalls
a similar setting in The Line-Up.
The opening is a tour-de-force description of a sunset over the Hudson River.
The setting sunset and its light also seem to transition the couple from a world of innocence
and safety, to a world of danger.
The night spots the couple visits (Chapters 5-8) are often described in terms of light flashing
on bright pieces of clothing: women's jewels and gowns, men's white shirt-fronts.
These descriptions are superb. The night spots are cheerful, full of partying people.
They give a welcome undertone of comedy to the novel. They add escapism and glamour.
The couple visit the Planetarium (end of Chapter 17, start of Chapter 18).
Although the specific Planetarium is not named, it is clearly the Hayden Planetarium
at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
Reilly's interest in light makes the projected light in a Planetarium a natural for her.
The best part though, is a description of the machinery at the center of the Planetarium.
Although Reilly does not use the metaphor, the machine can be seen as the "brain center" of
the Planetarium. Reilly is interested in the way the machine can adjust the sky to show
what the stars look like in different eras. It is compared to H.G. Wells' science fiction novel
The Time Machine (1895). This section recalls the speakeasy
and its lighting effects in McKee of Centre Street.
Locations and Architecture
Some of the best locales involve a favorite Reilly architectural motif,
people climbing to heights of buildings or structures:
The visit to a ferry terminal, where boats depart from Manhattan to New Jersey,
is also well-described (Chapters 3, 4). The terminal is like a giant version of the boat house
in The Thirty-First Bullfinch. That boat house contained small boats that
allowed the novel's small privately owned island to communicate with the mainland;
the terminal in Beyond the Dark serves huge ferries that allow people to
come and go from the large island of Manhattan. The island nature of Manhattan
is emphasized by the book's dialogue.
- The book opens with the couple on Inspiration Point, a high lookout pavilion in the far
Northwest of Manhattan. Menacing strangers soon approach them, climbing a giant
outdoor staircase that leads up to them from below.
- The characters go to a chic Greenwich Village apartment, that occupies the top two
floors of an old, fashionable building. Even within the apartment, the hero has to keep
climbing to reach the upper floor at the building's top.
During the ferry scene, Reilly occasionally shows events from the Point of View
of two cops who are on stakeout, looking for the couple. This gives the book a tone of a
police procedural. At other moments, the couple reasons out what the police are likely doing:
which also adds a police procedural element. Beyond the Dark is definitely not
a full fledged police procedural tale like McKee of Centre Street,
but Reilly has included elements linking it to the procedural subgenere.
The hero pays tribute to the brains and skill of both the New York Police and the FBI
(start of Chapter 4). During wartime, every effort is likely being made to show them respect.
Beyond the Dark avoids discussion of politics. The book instead restricts itself
purely to patriotism. The Nazi spies are depicted as villains without any redeeming qualities.
But Reilly never mentions or analyzes Nazi political or social philosophy, or extols the merits of democracy.
Unlike Helen McCloy, who never missed a chance in her wartime books to analyze and
critique Fascism in detail, Beyond the Dark never delves into any sort of social
or political analysis.
Murder on Angler's Island
Murder on Angler's Island (1945) is an uneven book.
The parts dealing with the crimes and their investigation, are good.
So are the depictions of the heroine's life as a WAC (a soldier in the Women's Army Corps).
Unfortunately, much of the novel looks
at the unpleasant upper class suspects, a bunch both repellent and uninteresting.
The best parts of the novel, the chapters picked out in the Recommended section above,
make up 34% of the book: around 79 paperback pages.
Like The Thirty-First Bullfinch, Murder on Angler's Island is set on a
small island somewhere off the coast of New England. Beyond this geographical fact, however,
the two islands have little in common:
Murder on Angler's Island does not really do much with the island aspect of its setting.
The book could be set on a mainland, non-island tourist resort without much change.
Nor is there much New England local color, aside from some brief looks at the old Inn (second half of Chapter 10).
It is a generic resort.
- The Thirty-First Bullfinch has an isolated island,
cut off from the world, with a single spooky mansion.
- Murder on Angler's Island is set on a popular resort island,
filled with tourist inns and houses for rental. It also has a US Army fort.
The island is far from being isolated: it is teeming with people, and in constant communication with the outside world.
While the setting is not New England-ish, the landscape is evoked with Reilly's customary skill.
Much of the action takes place in the extensive grounds of the Monmouth Inn, and inside
two buildings on the Monmouth grounds: the Inn itself, and the house the Crales rented.
A dual setting at a country inn and a nearby house recalls The Dead Can Tell and Compartment K.
However, in those books the house is a privately owned country mansion, independent of the inn.
By contrast, in Murder on Angler's Island the house is a rental property, and on the Inn grounds.
There is a detailed look at the WAC (Women's Army Corps) post.
This shows both the buildings, and the Army life and institutions that occupy the buildings.
The Crimes and Their Investigation
Murder on Angler's Island has some good set-pieces, showing the crimes and their investigation.
These tend to start from the point of view of heroine Elizabeth,
then switch over to investigations by McKee or his assistant Todhunter. These include:
Reilly shows her powers of description in these episodes, of locations, events and atmosphere.
- The events leading up to the initial murder, and its investigation (Chapters 2 - 4).
This starts with the heroine engaged in that Reilly specialty, a person walking across the countryside by night.
Lights are vividly described, also a Reilly interest.
- The second murder, at the Monmouth Inn, and its investigation (second half of Chapter 10, first half of Chapter 11).
- Further investigation of the first murder (second half of Chapter 14, Chapter 15).
There is some Scientific Detection in these investigations.
Forensics plays a major role. Photography of crime scenes also helps.
The heroine is a WAC: a female US soldier in the Women's Army Corps during World War II.
The book gives interesting glimpses of her life on the base, working as part of a team of woman soldiers.
The book shows women functioning well, in a military context.
The women are described in terms exactly like male soldiers. They are called by their last names,
or by their rank. They do work that could be done by males. The portrait has a subversive side:
it shows women depicted in ways that are traditionally associated with men. It is still a bit startling today.
It must have been quite unusual in 1945.
The book shows prejudice against women being soldiers (Chapter 8). The unlikable man who says this is condemned by the novel.
This is an interesting feminist scene.
The WAC heroine is implicitly contrasted with wealthy Society woman Faith Ann Crale.
This woman's life revolves around shopping and wearing expensive clothes, and playing bridge (Chapters 2 - 3).
These traditional "feminine" activities form a contrast with the heroine's uniform and useful work.
We also learn that the heroine likes to read, while the Society woman never reads.
Any observer would conclude that the supposedly "ideal feminine" lifestyle of the
Society woman is badly flawed. And that the new WAC life of the heroine is much better.
Even if it includes almost no "feminine" activities.
The description of WAC life parallels the description of the New York police
as an institution, that runs through Reilly's books.
A number of 1940's Reilly heroines have successful, interesting careers:
the heroine of The Dead Can Tell (1940) is a commercial artist and magazine illustrator, her woman friend
is an agent for swing bands; the heroine of The Farmhouse (1947) is a writer
who also does war work writing reports for what seems to be a US Congressional committee.
But we never learn much about their work or about the institutions that employ them.
Murder on Angler's Island is different. It gives a thorough, if concise,
look at the lives of the WACs. It shows a different way of life for women,
and opens the possibility of social change in the way women live and work.
World War II gave Reilly, and US women in general, justification
for women working. Being a WAC or writing government reports were patriotic contributions.
They allow women to work in serious roles, but still justify this effort in ways that
were acceptable to much of mainstream society. Even in this context,
Murder on Angler's Island shows the fierce opposition WACs faced from
what we would today call male chauvinists.
The Silver Leopard
The Silver Leopard (1946) takes place in the period immediately following World War II,
with soldiers returning home.
When last seen in Murder on Angler's Island (1945), series sleuth McKee had his regular civilian job as
Inspector in the New York Police. But in The Silver Leopard, McKee is suddenly provided with
a military job background in World War II. We now learn that McKee had been a Commander in Naval Intelligence,
and had served in post-war activities in the Far East (Chapter 3). He is now suddenly back, discharged from the service,
and steps into the murder case in The Silver Leopard.
Captain Nichols Bray, one of the heroine's boyfriends, is a handsome young ex-Army flier, now discharged after war injuries.
He is treated as a murder suspect, and is ultimately portrayed as quite a flawed character.
McKee doesn't like him. I wonder if a Captain would have received such a negative portrait during the actual war.
Although he has been discharged from the service, Bray is repeatedly shown wearing his uniform.
There are suggestions he does this because it makes him look both sexy and prestigious.
One suspects that the book, and American society as a whole, finds wearing such a uniform as improper,
and taking an unfair advantage: after all, Bray is not in the Army, and not entitled to wear a uniform.
Movies about the post-war era, such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Till the End of Time (1946),
suggested it was fine for discharged veterans to wear their uniforms for a few days, on their return trips
back to their home towns. After all, they had no other clothes to wear. But once back home, they were expected to resume
civilian clothes immediately.
Role model McKee immediately corrects a policeman who innocently addresses him by his war time rank of Commander.
He's Inspector now, McKee insists, in the New York police, and out of the Navy. McKee's refusal to use a rank
to which he is no longer entitled is seen as correct, admirable behavior. It also suggests that McKee has a positive attitude,
engaging with his present day work, rather than living in the past.
Nichols Bray has the same last name as the much more sympathetic romantic hero Philip Bray of Dead Man Control.
A Timetable Mystery
The timetable of events before and after the murder, plays a role in The Silver Leopard.
So does identifying and analyzing what various witnesses saw and heard in this period in the victim's home.
This sort of timetable mystery is a standard kind of mystery puzzle, but it is a bit rarer
in Reilly's work. Reilly has a few solidly ingenious ideas up her sleeve.
The account of the murder and its time table starts half-way through Chapter 2, with the words
"She got a cab and drove straight to Nicky's hotel, the Warfield, on East Fifty-Second Street".
It continues with the initial investigation of the crime scene (Chapters 3, 4).
This section contains the best timetable aspects of the mystery.
There are a few more timetable ideas later on, notably about the leopard (Chapter 7)
and the bonds arriving in the apartment (Chapter 8, explained in Chapter 22).
But the opening section (Chapters 2-4) has the best ideas.
The Silver Leopard
The Silver Leopard of the title is a small statue. It moves all over, from location to location,
as part of the mystery plot. Reilly shows some mild ingenuity, in dreaming up logical explanations for the
leopard's movements. These ideas are not great, but they are mildly clever, and serve adequately
to thicken the mystery plot.
Movements of objects have a long history in mystery fiction. One thinks of the title object
in The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts.
The bonds are more objects, whose peregrinations are part of the plot of The Silver Leopard.
Among the more puzzling problems in The Silver Leopard, are the separate questions of how
the bonds and the leopard arrived at the crime scene. The book provides decently unexpected answers to these
questions: the arrival of the leopard (start of Chapter 15), the bonds (Chapter 22). The arrival of the bonds
interacts interestingly with timetable questions in the plot.
The Farmhouse (1947) is a low key, but sometimes enjoyable mystery.
Inspector McKee only appears sporadically in The Farmhouse. His assistants such as Todhunter
do not appear at all. While Inspector McKee only shows up now and then, his appearances are
satisfying, partly because the mystery plot usually moves forward when he does show up.
Evidence of the year The Farmhouse transpires is vague and inconsistent.
The heroine first met suspect Joel Ten Eyck in "thirty-five", "almost ten years" ago (start of Chapter 5).
That would set the story in 1944 or 1945. The story starts in April - so this would be April 1944 or April 1945.
But the story seems to take place after the war ended in August 1945:
The heroine has just recently wound up her war work (Chapter 1); four of the men are veterans home from World War II.
April 1946 would be a plausible post-war date. I suspect that April 1946 is the actual date in which the novel is set.
There is little scientific detection in The Farmhouse. The heroine does deduce that someone has been in the house recently,
from conditions in the oil tank (end of Chapter 1).
Simple ballistics shows the victim was murdered (middle of Chapter 6).
The first half (Chapters 1-9) of The Farmhouse mainly takes place in the old farmhouse of the title,
and in the surrounding landscape.
The basic premise resembles Mary Roberts Rinehart's famous
The Circular Staircase (1907): a woman moves into a remote country home,
and is immediately baffled and menaced by mysterious and ultimately hair-raising goings-on.
Helen Reilly develops her tale differently from Rinehart:
The first half of The Farmhouse resolves some initial mysteries; it is thus something
of a complete story. It resolves the mystery of why people are interested in the heroine's farmhouse,
and keep causing trouble there. This first half is more interesting as a mystery, than the rest of
the solution revealed at the book's end.
- Instead of Rinehart's mansion, Reilly has a decrepit old farmhouse.
- Reilly's heroine is younger than Rinehart's spinster, and involved with romance.
- The causes of the mysterious events at the farmhouse have a different explanation than Rinehart's book. The events also differ in detail.
- Reilly sets the action both in the farmhouse and the landscapes around it; Rinehart largely confines herself to the mansion's interior.
- Reilly's heroine does some home improvement work, while Rinehart's accepts the mansion as is.
BIG SPOILER. The events in the first half, and their explanation, are linked to that standard part
of mystery structure reconstructing the crime. There is a hidden crime, of which the characters know nothing at first.
Then they unearth the crime, reconstruct it - and find explanations along the way of the strange events at the farmhouse.
The hiding place of the body in The Farmhouse involves landscape (Chapters 4, 5).
Somewhat similar landscape conceals the flower in "The Blue Chrysanthemum" from
Tales from One Pocket (1928-1929) by Karel Capek.
The details of the landscapes are different though.
Karel Capek was Czech, and comes from a different literary world than Helen Reilly.
I don't know if it is plausible to suggest any sorry of influence from Capek
on Reilly. Perhaps the landscape similarities are a coincidence.
Reilly and Capek share an interest in plants and plant-based mystery.
Another possible but unlikely influence: the name of suspect Wick Fellows might reflect
Lynn Brock's sleuth Colonel Wick Gore.
The Farmhouse returns to Dutchess County in New York state, scene of part of Reilly's
earlier The Dead Can Tell. and of Mourned on Sunday. Dutchess County is a real place.
Many of the Dutchess County towns mentioned in The Farmhouse are also real places:
Bangall, Millbrook, Pine Plains, Poughkeepsie, Silvernails. The heroine's family home farmhouse is near Bangall,
a tiny town in the center of Dutchess County. The bigger city Poughkeepsie is in the far West,
along the Hudson River that forms the Western boundary of Dutchess County.
If I understand US Census records correctly, Reilly is listed as living in the town of Dover in
Dutchess County in 1940.
As best I can tell, Reilly's books never mention that President Franklin D. Roosevelt came from Hyde Park
in Dutchess County. Still, the fact that Dutchess County was the origin of the US President (1933-1945)
must have brought it public attention. Reilly also doesn't seem to mention universities in the region,
such as Vassar or Bard College. Reilly treats Dutchess County as a predominantly rural area,
made up of working class real farmers, and rich people with country homes who often pretend to be
The Farmhouse was likely written before the construction of Levittown (1947-1951), the first
"modern" suburb. Dutchess County in The Farmhouse is full of the elite rich, not
the sort of suburbanites who would soon move to Levittown and so many similar places in the post-war years.
There is lots of chintz in the decor of these rich people's country "farm" homes.
The decor recalls the cozy chic one finds in 1935-1949 Hollywood films showing the country homes of the rich,
such as Bringing Up Baby or Christmas in Connecticut.
Architecture and Landscape
The farmhouse has a disjointed layout. It is really three old houses cobbled together.
Access to the upstairs is irregular. The farmhouse is not bizarre or extreme in floor plan,
but its irregularities add flavor to the account. One wishes the novel included a floor plan.
The dilapidated, decayed condition of the farmhouse, echoes the decayed greenhouse in Mourned on Sunday.
There are also abandoned train tracks in The Farmhouse: we learn that trains have stopped coming to the locale.
Such genteel rural ruins are distinctive parts of the Dutchess County milieu in Mourned on Sunday
and The Farmhouse. Reilly doesn't ascribe causes to these ruins. But one can guess that they reflect a USA
where there had been little construction since the early 1930's. First the Depression made people too poor to build;
then World War II led to a moratorium on most construction for the duration of the war.
Ghost of a Chance (1945, 1947) by Kelley Roos
shows a Manhattan full of converted old buildings and boarded-up mansions, with little new construction.
As in other Reilly novels set in Dutchess County, the houses are part of elaborate landscapes.
The heroine does much walking in both book's landscapes.
There is a heavy rainstorm, that plays a role in the plot (end of Chapter 4).
It is shorter than the major rainstorms in The Thirty-First Bullfinch and The Day She Died.
A second rainstorm will mark the trip to Poughkeepsie (Chapter 14).
The Farmhouse includes passages mandatory in HIBK books: the heroine wandering around the house
in danger in the dark. While unlike many critics, I don't hate such passages, they do
have the negative effect of stopping the plot while a suspense passage takes place.
However, an episode in The Farmhouse is pleasantly done (Chapter 12).
It has good descriptive writing, telling us about the farmhouse atmosphere
and the landscape outside. Like many other passages in The Farmhouse,
this shows Reilly's skills as a descriptive writer and creator of atmosphere.
The graves are unusually designed, having a common joint architecture and lights.
The lights can be seen from a distance. Their lighting is a motif running through the novel.
Reilly mentions them in the book's second sentence.
The grave lights are smaller in scale than lights in other Reilly novels, such as
police radio room and speakeasy in McKee of Centre Street and the Planetarium in Beyond the Dark.
Still, they have much of the same effect, a dramatic center of lighting effects.
The Poughkeepsie Trip
Most of The Farmhouse takes place in the countryside. But late in the book (Chapters 14-15),
the characters make an excursion into the town of Poughkeepsie. This recalls the episodes
late in The Thirty-First Bullfinch and The Day She Died,
which also switch a mainly rural novel to a change-of-pace town locale.
The Poughkeepsie trip is an excellent set-piece, rich in atmosphere. Like the trip in
The Thirty-First Bullfinch, it is full of descriptions of water.
Even closer to the Poughkeepsie trip is the journey to Pittsburgh in The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932) (Chapter 24).
The Pittsburgh journey is clearly a rough early sketch for the later Poughkeepsie trip.
Both have a suspect being trailed; both wind up in hotel in a warehouse district of an industrial city.
The Poughkeepsie trip is much more detailed, and much better written, however.
Reilly got a chance to take her first version and greatly improve it in The Farmhouse.
The destination in Poughkeepsie is described in both geometric and geographic terms.
It aligns neatly with the compass directions. It is a geometric environment, made up of rectangular windows
and spherical lights. Both the geometric and geographic elements help give the scene a visionary quality,
something heightened from everyday life.
Light forms a major portion of the description. It climaxes with flashing sparks of light (end of Chapter 14).
Reilly's set-pieces often involve light.
Poughkeepsie is described as a "factory town". The environment emphasizes this industrial atmosphere,
with buildings that resemble warehouses. Accounts of cars, boats and garages also contribute to this effect.
The industrial aspects also recall such technological environments in Reilly as the radio room
in McKee of Centre Street and the Planetarium in Beyond the Dark.
The Farmhouse is contemporary with the Wrightsville mysteries of Ellery Queen,
set in a small New England manufacturing city. The emphasis on manufacturing towns
might reflect a contemporary consciousness of the importance of industry to America.
Suspect Liam Fogarty has an unusually heightened appearance for a male character in Reilly,
in his first appearance (Chapter 2):
Liam Fogarty's name marks him as Irish-American. In the 1940's, Irish characters in fiction stood in for
the entire range of ethnic immigrants in the USA, everyone from Norwegians to Poles to Greeks.
Fogarty is a contrast to the heroine's boyfriend Dan Garth (Chapter 1). Garth has a WASP name,
lives on inherited money and an inherited family business, is blond and big,
and represents the WASP establishment that traditionally ran the US.
He is also over ten years older than Fogarty, and much duller.
Reilly is careful not to stack the deck too much against Garth:
he is a war hero, from an era in which the wealthy actually served in the military in World War II.
Today rich Americans only make money off the wars they promote, while poor Americans fight them.
- He is linked to color: he has blazing red hair, and he meets the heroine among yellow forsythia bushes:
a sign of spring. (In Chapter 11 Fogarty is linked to a yellow warbler on a blossoming plum branch, also both
yellow and spring imagery.)
- He is clad in an elaborate costume, also a bit atypical for Reilly men,
although the hero of Beyond the Dark does get dressed up for his night on the town.
Fogarty is done up as a gentleman hunter. His clothes ambiguously convey sexual attractiveness or sinister suspicion:
shiny black boots, a rifle. He admits that the clothes are not for real: he is just pretending to be a hunter,
and is not actually shooting animals. The hunting rifle might be a sexy phallic display, or it might signal
active danger and menace from a villain.
The heroine is a writer: Reilly often insists on having her women have active careers.
The heroine is just finishing up her war work writing reports for what seems to be a US Congressional committee (Chapter 1).
HIBK writers often linked their characters to the US Federal Government and Washington DC.
Unfortunately we learn only a little about the heroine's work. We briefly learn later that
the heroine's apartment is in Greenwich Village, then the center of New York's intellectuals.
Reilly will return to Greenwich Village intellectuals in The Canvas Dagger.
The heroine depicts herself as not enjoying mathematics and not being good at it,
despite the number-crunching reports she wrote during her war work (Chapter 1).
This attitude is dated and cringe-inducing. Today's detective heroines of books and television
are often shown as good at science and math: a good thing, in my opinion.
Staircase 4 (1948-1949) shows Helen Reilly adapting techniques of 1940's suspense:
The heroine got the clue for this search earlier, when she recalled a new image about a past encounter
(towards the end of Chapter 5). This newly illuminated memory is in Reilly's visionary tradition.
- Chapters 6-7 show the heroine being menaced
in the Gaslight tradition, with someone trying to make
her believe she has lost her mind.
- Chapters 11-12 depict her heroine sleuthing for a mystery witness through endless streets
of New York City, in the tradition of Cornell Woolrich's
Phantom Lady (1942).
Staircase 4 has some excellent descriptions of the lights of New York City,
especially in twilight, after dark and in the rain. These show Reilly's power
to evoke effects of light and color.
Murder at Arroways
Murder at Arroways (1949 - 1950) starts out like a typical HIBK novel, with three chapters
devoted to the relationships of a large extended family. However, Helen Reilly delights the mystery fan
by sneaking in a bunch of puzzle plot material:
All in all, Reilly is smuggling mystery material into what the characters think of as a pure exposition of
romantic and family alliances.
- The family is recovering from two deaths six months before,
and Reilly broadly hints to the reader that either of these might not be natural. We get vivid account of both,
with plenty of shadowy aspects waiting in the background for later investigation.
- Several details observed by the heroine also get double explanations later, also in the best mystery tradition.
These details are ambiguous, one of Reilly's favorite approaches. What the heroine thinks she is seeing
is not the reality.
- Also, unidentified people she casually encounters often turn out later to be named characters
with a role in the plot. This recalls a similar strategy in Beyond the Dark.
- Five of the characters have unexplained secrets, also adding to the puzzle.
Reilly does not strictly follow the Rinehart technique of "and then I did", with its sequential storytelling.
Instead, she employs frequent flashbacks. These are of all types: dialogue discussions of the past, brief memories,
long formal flashbacks. Because of this, her storytelling is as temporally complex as Citizen Kane (1941).
All of these flashbacks have a syrupy coating of feeling, in the "women's fiction" tradition.
Because of this, one might not notice how avant-garde her narrative approach is.
Lament for the Bride
A Plot Framework
Lament for the Bride (1951) shares a framework (maybe a formula) with a later Reilly novel,
Compartment K (1955):
- Both open with the heroine firmly attached to a respectable man, her brand-new husband in
Lament for the Bride, her fiance in Compartment K.
- Then she accidentally runs into her old boyfriend. She feels horribly guilty about all this,
and Conceals All from her current partner. (Why she feels so guilty is a mystery to me.
My late, highly respectable mother always said that people's love lives before they were engaged
was nobody's business but their own. And that there was no need to confess it.
One suspects that most Americans in the 1950's agreed.)
- Mysterious violence ensues.
- Unfortunately, this just makes the heroine's tangled love-life even more anguished and complex.
- This takes place on a journey to a glamorous tourist spot: St. Augustine, Florida in
Lament for the Bride, the Canadian Rockies in Compartment K.
- The characters and their problems have roots in New York City, so Manhattan's Inspector McKee gets involved.
- SPOILER. Eventually the detectives discover that some characters are trying to conceal
a Big Secret from their past, the kind of life-changing-if-revealed Secret that was often featured in later
Mary Roberts Rinehart.
I thought the soap opera aspects were more entertaining in Lament for the Bride than Compartment K.
The soap opera in Lament for the Bride approaches the pleasantly lurid, while Compartment K
is full of grim anxiety.
Quite a few HIBK novels, by Reilly and other writers, open with a woman who is caught between two boyfriends,
and who can't decide between them. Reilly's previous The Silver Leopard (1946) began this way.
I personally have not been able to find this a fascinating subject, or deeply compelling.
It reminds one of that Campy pop song Torn Between Two Lovers (1976).
On the other hand, a novel's characters have to have personal lives, and the two-boyfriends gambit
is a reasonably dramatic premise for a tale.
Reilly's heroines sometimes discover that men they love are lying to them, often in ways that exploits or victimizes the heroine.
This is not just a "suffering heroine of soap opera" plot. It also suggests actual problems faced by women in real life.
Description: Landscape and Buildings
Lament for the Bride benefits from some good descriptions of St. Augustine and its lush vegetation
in its opening (Chapters 1-3). These are not at the level of Reilly's top creations of atmosphere
in other books. But they make pleasant reading.
The opening has vivid descriptions of the mansion, and, especially, the fancy hotel across the street.
But unlike much Golden Age writing, unusual architectural features of the buildings are not stressed.
There are no maps or floor plans, and nothing in the layout of the buildings is relevant to the plot.
The mansion and hotel seem like variations on that Reilly staple setting, the "country inn and nearby country house".
The Double Man
The Double Man (1952) is one of Reilly's least interesting books. It is not offensive,
but it is unimaginative and uninspired.
The Double Man is a bit untypical of later Reilly, in that mystery elements are already present on the first page.
Other Reilly novels often resemble soap operas in their early chapters - until a murder finally occurs.
By contrast, while there is plenty of soap opera, relationship problems and anguish in the opening of
The Double Man, we also have the heroine investigating a mysterious death.
David Fergus: Gender Ambiguity?
David Fergus is perhaps the book's most likable character (start of Chapter 3). He is an odd construction.
In some ways, he has the personality of a gay man:
However we soon learn that he's sexually attracted to women: he can't take his eyes off the heroine.
There is no sign anywhere that he is attracted to men, or has special male friends.
By any literal definition, he is a straight man, who is exclusively attracted to females.
- He drives a spectacular lilac-colored convertible. Lavender had been a symbol of gay men for decades before The Double Man.
- His conversation consists of witty remarks about people. These are often sarcastic or downright bitchy.
- He's an artist.
Despite the sophistication of Reilly's settings and characters, I don't recall anybody in a Reilly book
who is actually explicitly gay. It is just a subject that never seems to come up.
The Double Man is set in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This is the sort of chic, upscale country area,
filled with well-to-do folk from the big city, that often appears in Reilly novels.
Reilly gives it the old college try, attempting to create Cape Cod atmosphere. She shows the oceanside dunes,
describes waves, and gives accounts of typical Cape Cod architecture, both big houses and cottages.
This is professional, competent enough, but rarely becomes interesting. The descriptions in The Double Man
don't usually reach the levels of those in Reilly's best novels.
Reilly will return to Cape Cod in The Canvas Dagger. And the local policeman Sergeant Carney in The Double Man,
McKee's friend, will return in The Canvas Dagger, promoted to Lieutenant.
Reilly's next novel The Velvet Hand has a biographical note saying that she spends most of the year living
in a cottage on Cape Cod. Her cottage is red and white, 200 years old, and surrounded by rambler roses.
Cape Cod has Portuguese inhabitants. They make brief appearances in a few episodes of The Double Man
(second half of Chapter 2, end of Chapter 12).
Reilly is always careful to treat them respectfully, depict them as good people, and in general avoid any offensive depiction.
The Portuguese in The Double Man are working class. They play the role of working class characters that run through
other Reilly novels: offering a brief change of pace, from the largely upper crust characters who dominate the novels.
Both scenes with the Portuguese advance the mystery plot.
The Velvet Hand
The Velvet Hand (1952-1953) is one of Reilly's dullest and dreariest books. It has a peculiarly lifeless quality,
that makes it no fun to read. There are also problems with its mystery plotting, and its treatment of gender issues.
The Velvet Hand is perhaps Reilly's attempt to write suspense fiction.
While a mystery, it seems less "detective story"-like than do many Reilly books.
McKee and the police do not show up until over halfway through the book (Chapter 12).
Links to The Opening Door
The Velvet Hand bears some resemblance to an earlier Reilly novel The Opening Door.
Both books focus on a large extended family of well-to-do adults, people who are often unpleasant and troubled.
In both, the reader's immersion into this unlikable family and their problems can seem like a suffocating experience.
SPOILERS. Both novels have a similar mystery structure, with a proper young woman from the family (not the heroine) in deep trouble.
Both novels come to similar twist endings, with similar characters in both tales serving as the villain.
Both novels have a heroine, who has defied her upper crust family and done something radical: she's gone to work!
This is commendable. It perhaps has feminist undertones, although neither work explicitly links this to feminism.
Both heroines seem far more functional and commendably energetic than their unlikable families.
However, neither book shows us much of the heroine's work.
The Velvet Hand stresses the heroine's desire to work: she first graduates from college,
then gets a job which she holds down for several years. She has her own apartment, which she pays for.
She proudly paid for her own coat out of her earnings, a coat that is now three years old.
By contrast, we repeatedly learn how the other women in the family live at home,
extract all the money they can from the family, want new clothes, and are graspingly materialistic.
The heroine is independent and self-supporting; the other women are out for what they can get.
These women Libby and Miriam both are more traditionally "feminine" in much of their behavior than the heroine.
In both their femininity and their greedy materialism, the recall the unlikable Society woman Diana in The Line-Up.
Links to Follow Me
Aspects of the story anticipate Follow Me. In both books:
- The heroine meets a bunch of New Yorkers who move in respectable circles,
but who have sleazy lives and ties to crime (Chapters 3, 4).
- She even explores some of these people's apartments. This is illegal: walking into someone's apartment and poking around.
Description: Suspense in Manhattan
The pay-off to the villains, and the events that follow, are depicted in one of Reilly's vivid descriptive passages
(Chapter 10). Much of this action transpires in Manhattan, long a favorite site for Reilly's excellent descriptive writing.
It also includes follow-up events and discussion back in the suburbs.
This section is not at the peak level of the best such passages in other Reilly novels. But it is solid and worthwhile.
Also Manhattan-set: a visit to the apartment of a suspect (last part of Chapter 3). This takes place in or near
Greenwich Village, also a location familiar from earlier Reilly books.
The Main Mystery Plot: Give Us A Break!
SPOILERS. The specific mystery plot and solution of The Velvet Hand is a cliche, one of the
most over-used plots in all mystery fiction.
An early example is the short story "The Gatewood Caper" (1923) by Dashiell Hammett.
This plot regularly turns up on TV crime shows, and has for decades. Writers: please stop recycling this!
Mystery Sub-Plot: Middle of the Night
There is a small but clever mystery subplot. This involves the strange, puzzling activities in the middle
of the night, witnessed by the heroine (middle of Chapter 6). McKee immediately solves this, when he
is finally brought into the case (Chapters 12, 14). This is the best mystery puzzle in the book.
Mystery Sub-Plot: The Pay-Off
The pay-off section (Chapter 10) begins a mystery puzzle: who is the mysterious villain who collects the pay-off?
McKee solves this before the end of the novel (middle of Chapter 17).
The solution isn't brilliant, but it is both odd and surprising.
McKee discovers the solution through police investigation, showing simple but sound detective work.
It is a pleasure to see some real detection, even for this brief episode.
This episode (Chapter 17) concludes with McKee meeting with the Police Commissioner,
a fairly regular event in Reilly novels. This pleasantly augments the "police procedural" aspects
of this section.
Hugo Cavanaugh is the novel's young hero. While he is sometimes treated as a suspect,
he is mainly portrayed as a Good Guy. He is one of the few really sympathetic men (other than the police like McKee),
in a novel where most of the men are dysfunctional.
Hugo Cavanaugh is an utterly conventional representation of 1953 middle class manhood.
He is shown as good at his upper middle class law job.
Cavanaugh is even described by the author as full of "sharp masculinity" (Chapter 2).
Reading about him can make one a little nervous, from the perspective of the new century.
For a man to be good, does he have to be this "masculine", "normal", conventional and career-oriented?
"Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way" to be an admirable man in 1953.
The senior partner of the law firm where Cavanaugh works, Gerard Straight, is also treated sympathetically,
and is like a middle-aged version of Cavanaugh. With Cavanaugh described as masculine, and his boss
actually named Straight, we are getting a gender-normative description of good men.
However, there are things to be said in favor of Hugo Cavanaugh.
He spends most of the novel trying to help other people.
He shows persistence and determination, keeping plugging away relentlessly at attempts to help.
"Persistence and determination" are two of the most admirable traits of the traditional male role.
They were drummed into middle and working class boys as part of their male role socialization.
Whatever the future of gender roles in society, it would be a big mistake to get rid of "persistence and determination".
Likely they should also be part of the training of women and gay men, not just straight men like Hugo Cavanaugh.
Still, it would be wrong to underestimate Cavanaugh, who mainly shows his masculinity through persistence in attempts to help others.
Also, Cavanaugh is a name strongly associated with Irish Catholics. While The Velvet Hand
never explicitly discusses religion or ethnicity, Hugo Cavanaugh is certainly intended
to be seen as a Catholic Irish-American. Books and films of this era were full of Irish-American heroes.
They stood in for the masses of Catholic immigrants in US society: the Irish were the most
"socially acceptable" of Catholic immigrant groups. Hugo Cavanaugh would thus have been seen by 1953 readers
as a positive portrayal of immigrants and their descendants in the USA. And like all such people,
he would be seen as a man who made his career through hard work, rather than inheriting a position in society
from an Old Money member of the elite.
Tony Wilder, William Grant: Gender Ambiguity?
In her previous book The Double Man, Reilly included a character David Fergus who has some personality traits
often associated with gay men, but who is exclusively attracted to women, and thus heterosexual.
She has two more characters in The Velvet Hand who show a similar combination of
"traits often linked to gay men, but who are in love with women". The specific traits of these two men
are different from each other, and from David Fergus:
Just like David Fergus in The Double Man, Tony Wilder and William Grant are described
exclusively in terms of relations with women. There is not the slightest hint of any
male relationships in their lives. Thus by definition, all three are heterosexual.
- Tony Wilder is a way-too-handsome, perfect looking and perfectly dressed man, with hints that
he takes money from women as a gigolo - there is talk about an "admission charge" for a date (Chapter 2).
His financial exploitation of older women lovers is soon confirmed.
Gigolos in this era were sometimes seen as often being gay men.
Tony Wilder is described as looking like something created by Michelangelo: a gay artist.
Later events also form gay-suggestive imagery (Chapter 17).
But this guy is in love with the novel's woman-in-trouble Libby.
- William Grant is a mild-mannered desk clerk at a hotel (Chapter 3).
Hotel desk clerks were sometime portrayed as gay men in books and films of the era.
But William is also madly in love with the beautiful Libby.
While David Fergus was a suspect, he is mainly a sympathetic character.
By contrast, Tony Wilder and William Grant are dysfunctional people,
mainly seen in a negative light.
Tony Wilder is described as being extremely well-dressed - the book implies he is TOO well-dressed (Chapter 8).
Another suspect Samuel Pedrick is also described as wearing a tuxedo that is called "too sharp" (Chapter 14).
In this era, upper-class men were supposed to be well-dressed, but not TOO elegant:
they were supposed to maintain a proper dividing line between good, expensive clothes but not too-good clothes.
Reilly's negative comments on these men actually causes me to feel sympathetic to them. It is so awful to be sharp?
Middle class and working class men often wanted to get really dressed-up.
They perhaps wanted to look as sharp as possible. What is the harm in this?
However, the book's disapproval of these men's too-sharp clothes, is consistent
with the skepticism it shows about about women like Libby wanting new, expensive clothes.
Compartment K (1955) is apparently known as Murder on the Express in Britain.
It is an uneven, fairly minor book. As detailed below, it has both strengths and weaknesses.
It might please readers who want light suspense in a genuinely glamorous setting (the beautiful Canadian Rockies).
Compartment K shares a plot framework with Lament for the Bride, as discussed previously in the
Lament for the Bride section.
The Depraved Upper Class
Compartment K continues Reilly's critique of the rich. SPOILER. Characters from a haughty upper class family,
Loretta Pilgrim and her daughter Candy, are shown as greedy, unscrupulous in their quest for money, and materialistic.
They also are relentless moralists in public, self-righteous, hypocritically condemning others for their alleged faults
(second part of Chapter 8, one-third into Chapter 11, start of Chapter 15, start of Chapter 16, middle of Chapter 19).
This portrait of the well-to-do as moralizing hypocrites and greedy, materialistic secret crooks
is among the most scathing in Reilly.
While most of the suspects are living upper middle class lifestyles, two of the murder victims are lower class.
Episodes look at their lives (Chapter 17). Brief sections that counterpoint lower class characters,
in a mainly upper class story, are a strategy that runs through both Reilly and Mary Roberts Rinehart.
The early parts of Compartment K are set on a train. Unfortunately, there is not much train atmosphere,
during much of the opening. Readers looking for a "train novel" are going to be disappointed.
The scene painting and descriptive writing improves, after the opening:
- We get a look at two train stations, and the Great Divide the characters cross (second part of Chapter 5).
- The last of the train trip, and the first look at the mountain scenery and buildings (Chapter 6).
- A brief look at the police and a suspect in the countryside by night (middle of Chapter 9).
- This is immediately followed by two transcontinental telephone calls (second half of Chapter 9).
The atmosphere that surrounds these calls is especially good. Reilly views the calls as a technological wonder,
and she achieves poetry out of their ability to link and fuse two worlds. The phone calls
recall the radio room in McKee of Centre Street, both being high tech police communication poetically described.
The Opening: The Annoying Heroine
The aspects of the opening dealing with the heroine are especially weak:
Many of Reilly's heroines in other books are sensible. The heroine of The Silver Leopard, for instance,
mainly tells the truth to both the police and everyone else. One wishes the heroine of Compartment K
had followed her example.
- Much of the opening is dominated by the heroine's feelings of guilt and anxiety.
These make Compartment K unpleasant to read. Compartment K made me feel nervous and anxious, just like its heroine.
- The heroine keeps doing incredibly stupid things to cover up evidence, lying to shield suspects
from the police.
- The heroine tells her last disastrous lies (first half of Chapter 5), and the novel's opening comes to an end.
A Writer Hero
Nils Gantry is the heroine's fiance. He is a professional writer, and clearly a good one. He seems to be a "man's man"
and a serious, committed writer, in an era in which writers were respected. He is distinctly a bit tougher
than the other characters, and less upper class. He also doesn't have money (middle of Chapter 5).
He is one of the book's few characters who is not some sort of parasite on the well-to-do.
This gives him an implicit dimension of social commentary, suggesting he is an alternative to
the greedy, materialist lifestyle critiqued in Compartment K.
This sort of hard-working man without connections making it on his own is a bit unusual in Reilly.
Nils' professionalism and straightforwardness recalls a little bit the young lawyer in
The Thirty-First Bullfinch. That lawyer becomes the friend of the police detective.
In Compartment K, Nils is already the friend of police detective Todhunter, before the action of the novel opens.
The two knew each other from Nils' days as a police reporter.
Nils Gantry is frequently seen through police detective Todhunter's eyes (start of Chapter 2, middle of Chapter 5,
near start of Chapter 6). These passages serve to characterize Nils. They also show Todhunter evaluating and probing
Nils' character, thus establishing Todhunter as a sleuth who thinks penetratingly about the suspects in the mystery.
The sections show Nils and Todhunter working and living in a "world of men", a place where reporters and police
have professional lives. This gives a change of pace to the often female milieu of much of Compartment K.
Todhunter: A New York Homicide Detective
The best parts of Compartment K are those not dealing with the heroine, but Todhunter.
Todhunter is a police assistant to Inspector McKee, on the train under orders from his boss.
The Todhunter sections focus firmly on the mystery plot, and are better than the heroine's soap opera.
These scenes tend to feature detective work and advancing the mystery plot, both pleasant subjects.
They are the best part of the opening (first half of Chapter 2, second part of Chapter 3, second part of Chapter 4).
One suspects that Compartment K would be better if it were only half as long,
and Reilly had kept in the parts with Todhunter and the police, and mainly omitted the sections starring the heroine.
Todhunter is low key and personally modest, but shrewd and penetrating. He rapidly picks up on clues,
and aspects of suspects' testimony, that have significance in unravelling the plot.
Todhunter communicates back and forth between his location work in Canada and McKee in Manhattan.
The relationship between his field work, and the background investigations provided by McKee's team,
are decently done.
Canada: A Positive View
Reilly is careful to depict close, pleasant ties between Todhunter and the Canadian police.
However, there is less about Canadian police organization and procedure,
than there is in Lee Thayer's Still No Answer (1958),
which also takes place in British Columbia.
Constable Duvette of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is also low key and thorough.
Duvette performs a key, shrewd piece of investigation, that leads to a breakthrough in the case
(middle of Chapter 8). One suspects that Reilly is indicating that there are plenty of brains
North of as well as South of the Canadian border.
Hero Nils suggests Canada is poised to take off economically, and would be a good place to invest
(middle of Chapter 5).
A Tabulation: Unsolved Mysteries
Just before going to sleep (midway in Chapter 4), Todhunter sums up the three most mysterious problems
in the case thus far: the missing camera, the unidentified woman who is killed, and the unknown motive for inviting the house-guests.
In her The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913) (Chapter 16), Carolyn Wells
referred to lists in mystery fiction as tabulations. One of the lists Wells cites, from
Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907),
is closest in techniques to Reilly's: both are lists of unsolved mystery problems.
Such lists of unsolved mystery questions are a standard part of traditional mystery fiction, both useful and appealing.
The three unsolved problems turn into three separate mystery subplots. SPOILERS AHEAD:
The unidentified woman who is murdered gets tied into the other subplot about the Big Secret
(first half of Chapter 19). This fuses the subplots about the motive/Big Secret and the unidentified woman.
It also ties the two fused subplots to the core murder mystery.
- The missing camera gets a first revelation (very end of Chapter 5, start of Chapter 6),
then a full scale development of a solution (second part of Chapter 8, Chapter 9).
This subplot is lively, and makes absorbing reading as a story. The solution is partially clued, but not fully fair play.
It can be viewed as foreshadowed and clued by details of the victim's career (middle of Chapter 4, start of Chapter 6).
This subplot is pleasant. But it is not closely related to the other subplots, and thus has little to do with the murder
and the mystery that surrounds it.
- The unknown motive for inviting the house-guests turns out to derive from a Rinehart style Big Secret (end of Chapter 14).
This is fairly good reading, too. It gets a further fairly clever twist (end of Chapter 15).
Unfortunately, none of the solutions to the subplot seem supported by clues.
- The unidentified woman who is murdered, is eventually identified through some simple
but pleasantly sound detective work, involving the mail (start of Chapter 13, Chapter 17).
The mail is also a form of communication, like the phone calls used by the police earlier.
Reilly keeps the revelations about these two subplots constantly coming during the second half of Compartment K.
The flow of plot revelations is pleasant enough reading, and shows sound construction,
with each revelation taking us deeper and deeper into the solution of the mystery. However, this material is not well clued,
and thus not "fair play". It is therefore hardly any sort of "mystery puzzle" that the reader could reason out.
The reader can only sit back and passively read the various new plot developments as they are revealed.
From the above analysis, one can see that I like the missing camera subplot better than the main mystery
concerning the murders and its related puzzles of the Big Secret and the unidentified woman. Both are readable,
though, and have a quantity of plotting.
The Canvas Dagger
The Canvas Dagger (1956) is a strange experiment within Helen Reilly's oeuvre -
and one of her least enjoyable books. At first glance, it
seems like a conventional Reilly novel: it's a murder mystery, set against Reilly's milieu of
chic, sophisticated New Yorkers.
But oddities start building up. For one thing,
its characters are members of New York's intelligentsia, with the victim a portrait painter
in Greenwich Village, and its heroine a chic young copywriter. These people are definitely
not Bohemians, let alone Beats - they are closer to the Social Register than to coffee houses.
But still, the book is a rare excursion by Reilly into the sort of cultural-artistic milieu familiar
in Van Dine School mystery writers. Reilly soon mixes these in with scientist-engineer types,
also something of a rarity in her work. She switches the setting to Cape Cod,
near Provincetown, long an area with close ties to the intellectual community in
Greenwich Village is an important setting in early Reilly novels like Murder in the Mews,
McKee of Centre Street, All Concerned Notified, Murder in Shinbone Alley and Beyond the Dark.
Reilly's books always showed skepticism about the upper classes. The Canvas Dagger
pushes this to an extreme. Like The Line-Up, there is a portrait of the well-to-do
willing to do anything at all behind the scenes. We eventually get a portrait of some
really ugly human beings. The Canvas Dagger develops into an extremely nightmarish
portrait of life in 1956. It reflects some of the acute anxieties felt by people in this era.
Reading it is a painful, disconcerting experience.
The heroine of The Canvas Dagger is the granddaughter of a US Army general,
something not commented on, except to establish the heroine's impeccable upper crust
social credentials. But The Canvas Dagger turns out to reflect other realities of
a militarized country. Eventually, everyone in the book seems to be standing near a huge Black Hole,
pulling in all aspects of life into one big horrible nightmare. Unlike many mystery novels,
The Canvas Dagger does not re-establish any sense of normalcy at its finale. Instead, things
seem to be much, much worse than we imagined. Not even Inspector McKee can set things right.
The possibility that Communist spies might be operating in the district is made repeatedly throughout The Canvas Dagger.
The novel is firmly anti-Communist. It treats Communism as an enemy of the United States,
and a security threat due to its spies. There are no discussions of Communism as a political system,
or analysis of Communism.
Reilly's treatment of Communism in The Canvas Dagger is similar to the portrayal of
the Nazis in Beyond the Dark. Both are seen as enemies of the United States, neither gets any analysis
or in-depth study.
I agree with the key elements of Reilly's portrayal: Fascism and Communism are evil systems;
both were major threats to the United States and other democratic countries;
both had extensive spy networks operating in the US and elsewhere.
People who are Communists but not spies get some brief comments in The Canvas Dagger.
Rich, superficial and conventional Mrs. Melville denounces the Satterlees, a married artist couple,
and their social circle as "Reds" (Chapter 10), because of their political views.
Later she jeers that they and their friends want "Social justice - on other people's cash" (Chapter 14).
We never get a direct account of these political views, or any in-depth study of their concrete politics.
Architecture: The Opening
The opening involves a house in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan (Chapters 1, 2).
The events are closely tied to the building's architecture. While not a triumph, this makes pleasant reading.
The opening has some broad resemblance to Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954).
Both involve witnesses looking through windows, from one building into another.
Both are set among creative intellectuals in Greenwich Village.
This opening shows the heroine's writing career, and offers perspectives on New York writers in general.
Unfortunately, this dimension disappears from the novel after this section.
Mystery Plot: The Strange Events in the Country
A series of sinister events takes place after the heroine moves to the Cape Cod countryside (Chapters 4-8).
These events gradually get explained, by around half-way through the book.
The steady series of revelations in this section of The Canvas Dagger shows
decent plot construction. Reilly keeps adding a little bit more to what the heroine and the reader know,
each revelation building on the last. This shows logic. Some of the developments are surprising, too.
Most of the revelations are grounded in sound detective work by the police: also a positive feature.
SPOILERS. The events have some broad similarities to events in the first half (Chapters 1-9) of The Farmhouse.
I prefer the treatment in The Farmhouse:
Tom Gillespie's clothes in the countryside (Chapter 4) echo those of suspect Liam Fogarty in The Farmhouse:
gentleman hunter's gear of boots and a shotgun.
- It is more rigorously developed as a mystery puzzle plot.
By contrast, the reader just has to accept the events in The Canvas Dagger as a series of plot twists
that could not have been "solved" as a mystery or reasoned out in advance from clues.
- The Farmhouse is richer in interesting descriptive detail of the setting.
McKee is still quoting. "Assume a virtue if you have it not" (in Chapter 10) is from Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Ding Dong Bell
Ding Dong Bell (1958) is another Reilly novel dominated by soap opera.
The heroine and her fiance are both from extended families, that together have more problems
than the entire town of Peyton Place.
Ding Dong Bell is basically a soap opera, in which folks occasionally get bumped off.
It is grim, lacking humor.
Ding Dong Bell is a novel mainly without interest (exceptions are discussed below). It is not offensive in any way.
It is by no means a failure. In fact, it succeeds at what it sets out to do,
which is to place a heroine into a tense soap opera, punctuated by occasional scenes of crime.
I just don't think this is a worthwhile goal.
Ding Dong Bell recalls soap opera situations from earlier Reilly novels:
Ding Dong Bell uses these plot gambits from earlier books, but Reilly is clearly trying to vary them,
and develop them in new directions.
- As in Lament for the Bride, the heroine is about to become a man's second wife, and she has to face
down people who are still loyally devoted to his first wife. In Lament for the Bride,
this was a lurid situation recalling Rebecca. Ding Dong Bell is more realistic
and more downbeat, with problems including an angry step-daughter-to-be who hates the heroine.
- Another situation recalling several previous Reilly books: the about-to-be-married heroine
is suddenly confronted with her old boyfriend. Unlike many previous Reilly novels, however,
the heroine is not tempted by this man. She instead regards him as an evil person, and a menace to her current marriage.
The Heroine's Big Secret
The best part of the soap opera in Ding Dong Bell is the past the heroine is concealing
about her old boyfriend. We learn early in the book that Something Happened previously in their relationship.
But not until the very end do we learn exactly what. This recalls Beyond the Dark a bit, in which we learn right away the heroine has a
secret reason for not going to the police, but where we only learn the actual reason at the end of the novel.
SPOILER. In both books, the secret involves helping another woman who has a serious problem.
Big Secrets often occur in Rinehart school mystery novels. And they are often at the root of a book's murder mystery.
Ding Dong Bell differs sharply from this tradition, in that the heroine's Big Secret
turns out to have nothing to do with the murder. It is a purely personal problem of the heroine's,
and has no connection with crime.
SPOILERS. We learn the details of the heroine's Big Secret in two stages. First, we get an apparently
complete account (end of Chapter 13). But at the book's finale, we discover that we have had only part of the story -
and that the Big Secret is very different from the way it first appeared. This surprise twist is structured
like a typical murder mystery plot twist: only it deals with the heroine's personal life, rather than a murder or crime.
This twist about the Big Secret is more ingenious, than anything in the murder mystery plot of Ding Dong Bell.
The twist about the Big Secret comes at the very end of the novel, after everything has been revealed
about the murders and their mysteries. This "pride of place" position for the Big Secret revelations suggests
that they are more important that the murder mystery. And as we have said, the Big Secret twist
is better plotted and more ingenious than the murder mystery.
As in Compartment K, Ding Dong Bell alternates scenes from the Point of View of the heroine,
and those featuring the police. In both books, some of the police scenes are distinctly superior
to the soap opera episodes with the heroine. The police episodes in Ding Dong Bell are not at the peak level
of Reilly's work, but they do make some of the better reading in the novel.
We get a succinct, vivid account of the crime scene, the results of the initial murder investigation
(start of Chapter 4):
A later section has a number of interesting episodes (Chapter 13):
- This includes the first account of the results of the heroine's activities at the scene.
These were only hinted at in the previous chapter with the heroine.
- The victim's office (where the body is found) is an information center, one used for evil purposes.
This scene shows the key aspect of the information center, the files in the office, destroyed through fire and water.
Throughout the book, we learn that the victim has been frighteningly effective in snooping out information,
which he stored in those files.
This chapter moves the plot forward, always a good thing in a mystery novel.
- A body is discovered in the countryside. This shows Reilly's skill at painting nature areas.
It is the first really descriptive look in Ding Dong Bell at the "village" of Spuyten Duyvil,
where much of the mystery is set. (Actually, Spuyten Duyvil seems to be in the south of the Bronx,
just north of the tip of Manhattan.) The landscape recalls a bit the opening of Beyond the Dark,
set in the upper tip of Manhattan around Inspiration Point.
- We get an account of policeman Todhunter snooping around, eavesdropping on conversations.
Todhunter was the star of Compartment K, and Ding Dong Bell confirms
Reilly's affections for him. This section is good-naturedly comic, offering a light-hearted interlude
in a mainly grim novel.
- McKee summarizes a police background check on the heroine's evil old boyfriend Delphin "Del" Saunders.
While Saunders looks like an upper class or upper middle class New Yorker,
this is a false front he is projecting - he has no money.
Instead, he is a social predator, preying on and parasitic on the rich, while mingling with them socially.
The male murder victim in Compartment K was a similarly polished-looking predator.
Both men have modest middle class jobs, socially respectable, but not well-paying (insurance, stockbroker).
Both eventually get involved with crime. In both Compartment K and Ding Dong Bell,
the police have a much more realistic view of these men than does New York upper middle class society,
which accepts them based on their appearance.
- At the end of the chapter, police investigation discloses for the first time,
part of the heroine's Big Secret.
Movements at a Crime Scene
The police trace out the movements of the characters and suspects, around the time and place
of the first killing. A similar tracing of the victim's last hours and who crossed her path
is in Compartment K.
Not Me, Inspector
Not Me, Inspector (1959) returns to the basic situations of The Line-Up (1934),
written 25 years before. Both books have a wealthy extended family, the killing of the elderly
head who controlled the purse-strings, and a mysterious, perhaps forged check. Both novels
take place in cold New York City winters. Both novels include nurse-sleuth Lucy Sturm among
their supporting character detectives. Both even have similar villains revealed at the end.
But Reilly works new approaches on this material.
Follow Me (1960) is a short, vividly written mystery novel, almost a novella.
The Pulp Style of Plotting
Some aspects of it remind one of the pulp story.
It seems to show a version of the "pulp style of plotting",
with many disparate characters in the book engaged in criminal
schemes. When any one thing bad happens, it is hard to tell which
group of characters has done it. Please see the article on hard-boiled fiction
for an in-depth discussion of this style of plotting, which was
widely used by Black Mask authors of the 1920's and 1930's.
At the end of Reilly's book, there turn out to be no less than
three groups of villains. And two of the groups have multiple
bad guys in them, instead of solitary criminals. Reilly uses such
all surrounding villainy to generate a sense of paranoia. This
paranoia is also found in the pulps. It is interesting how gender
plays a role in how this paranoia is perceived. When a tough detective
is up against criminals at every turn, readers sometimes interpret
this as a piece of serious social criticism. When Reilly's sleuth,
a pleasant, chic young New York house wife, encounters universal
villainy, one can treat it as a "woman in danger" story.
Actually the feel of paranoia is similar and intense in both Reilly
and the hard-boiled's. The paranoia is an entire world view, and
similar in both kinds of writers. Reilly's heroine does not carry
a gun, or beat people up, but she is remarkably similar in spirit
to the tough guy detectives of the pulps.
Other aspects of the story recall the hard-boiled
pulps of the Black Mask school. The heroine gets roughed up when
she explores a dangerous criminal lair toward the beginning of
the book. This is very close to what happens to Raymond Chandler's
Philip Marlowe or other tough p.i.'s when they explore some dangerous
locale. Her serious injuries seem far removed from the genteel
threats sometimes inflicted on HIBK heroines. There are also private
detective characters who play a major role in the book. Another
scene that recalls the hard-boiled school: the canyon in Chapter
8, and what the heroine finds there. This discovery is not the
fixed aftermath of a crime scene - no, the heroine-sleuth is plunged
into a complex series of events involving a crime in progress.
When the dust clears, she is left with a series of ambiguous clues
about the events. The whole thing is pure hard-boiled, and could
have come right out of 1930's Black Mask. Raymond Chandler loved
to include scenes set in mysterious lonely canyons, and so did
Forrest Rosaire in "The Devil Suit" (1932).
Reilly had some contact with pulp magazines. Her second McKee
novel, Murder in the Mews (1931), was serialized in
Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine, and she published a handful
of short stories in other pulps. However, the novel serialization
could easily have been arranged by an agent or a publisher, and
Reilly's degree of contact with the world of pulp writing seems
The murder victim in Mr. Smith's Hat (1936)
was grinding out Western stories for a fictitious magazine called
Cowboy, which seems to be a pulp. One recalls that:
All of these references to pulp by Golden Age writers seem to be by women authors.
Perhaps this is just a meaningless coincidence. Or perhaps, male
writers were more conscious of the low career status assigned
to pulps, and avoided referring to them in their tales - career
success is a traditional part of masculine self image.
- Craig Rice's
protagonist in Murder Through the Looking Glass (1943)
wrote for the science fiction pulps,
- Lenore Glen Offord's
series sleuth Todd McKinnon earned his living writing pulp detective
- Dorothy L. Sayers'
Unnatural Death (1928) refers to Black Mask.
Reilly has a personal interest in architecture, that wonderful
staple of Golden Age novels. Late in Follow Me, the heroine
is held captive in a pink adobe house. Eventually, the roof of
the building plays a role in the story. Similarly, in her early
novel Murder in the Mews (1931), the roof of a building
figures prominently. The characters in both books start out at
the bottom, and eventually make their way to the top of the house.
That early novel Murder in the Mews is stilted. Reilly would become a vastly
more lively writer as the years progressed. She had the gift of
unrolling an ever more complicated plot, with each section providing
some new, startling revelation about her characters. Her books,
although they generate suspense, are true detective stories. The
heroine of Follow Me, while she gets in jeopardy, is a
real sleuth, and constantly both attempts to solve the mystery,
and succeeds at uncovering more and more of the hidden truth.
On rereading, one can dip anywhere into Follow Me, and
come up with a section that recalls itself vividly to memory.
Reilly likes ambiguity. Many of the relationships in Follow
Me can be interpreted in more than one way. So can most of
the twists of the crime story. This adds to the paranoia of the
plot. These different interpretations go off in numerous directions,
so that suspicion is cast over everyone in the novel. A key scene
in Chapter 11 has the heroine looking at two walls. One looks
bluish, the other green, but it is an effect of light on identically
colored walls. This is a metaphor for the entire book. The everyday
background of events in Follow Me should not disguise the
quality of imagination in it. It is very difficult to come up
with such relentless sustained ambiguity, one encompassing so
many scenes and patterns.
Color is often used when the heroine is about to have some revelation.
For example, what she sees in the shop window in Chapter 7. These
revelations have a visionary quality, as if they were illuminations
of concealed truth, almost a mystic revelation. They often suggest
hidden connections that were obscure before. This is a paranoiac
world view - that everything is concealing some truth that could
speak. It is also the sign of a real detective. Reilly's heroine
is a genuine detective, always motivated above all by the desire
to learn the truth, and always uncovering more and more of it.
The opening scientific detection in Mr. Smith's Hat turns
into a full fledged "revelation" of the kind found in her later work.
The revelation involves color and form. It is one of the best pieces of imagery in her work.
Follow Me describes the heroine's feelings when falling in love (Chapter 4).
These include feelings of floating, and being in another dimension.
This is "abstract" experience: being part of an alternate reality at is full of abstract sensations,
remote from ordinary reality, concrete material environment or daily life.
It is almost science fictional. It resembles a bit the cyberspace that would appear decades later
in 1980's science fiction tales, also sometimes "abstract".
SPOILER. The heroine's "abstract" experience while falling in love recalls the brief drug trip
in Reilly's anti-drug novel The Line-Up (1934) (end of Chapter 18).
The details are different, but both are abstract, visionary experiences.
The Husband and Capitalism
The husband is a junior executive at a New York marketing research firm, one with ties to the advertising industry.
Today, this milieu is famous, as the subject of the TV series Mad Men.
Even in 1960, it was the subject of much skeptical satire:
see North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
and Lover Come Back (Delbert Mann, 1961).
It is seen as an industry without a moral compass, devoted to dubious, corrupt ends.
In Follow Me, the husband's activities are described in ways that suggest
the political system of "capitalism", although the word is not used (Chapter 1):
Since the husband is completely corrupt, there are perhaps implicit suggestions
that his links to capitalism implies a dark side to the capitalist system itself.
- The husband's work at the firm researches selling: he is involved with research about selling soap.
This suggests selling and marketing viewed as economic systems. The husband's research involves selling colored vs white soap:
a completely meaningless distinction in terms of function, one whose only purpose is psychological manipulation of buyers.
- The husband is obsessed with acquiring capital for himself, and frequently uses the word "capital"
to describe this goal.
The husband is perfectly dressed and groomed, in the 1960 businessman's style (Chapter 1).
This slick appearance was universally viewed as a signature of the Madison Avenue ad world,
both in 1960, and retroactively in the series Mad Men.
The husband is contrasted with Duval, a veteran employee of the firm. Although Duval is much older, near sixty,
and employed much longer, the husband is making a bigger salary (Chapter 2). Such conflicts between older men
and young hot shots were seen as a pressure point in the business world of the day:
see the TV drama Patterns (1955) written by Rod Serling, which caused a sensation.
An upper middle class home is coldly perfect in its decor. Among other problems,
no books or periodicals are visible at all (Chapter 4). Reilly clearly disapproves:
one suspects she regards this as part of an anti-intellectual lifestyle.
This recalls the disapproval shown to Society woman Crale in Murder on Angler's Island,
who never reads, unlike the heroine.
Reilly also disproves of the way this home is arranged for show.
Gerrard Moore: Downward Mobility
Gerrard Moore is an friend of the husband. He recalls the drunken victim in Mr. Smith's Hat. Both:
Despite these similarities, Gerrard Moore is a sinister figure, while the victim in
Mr. Smith's Hat is mainly sympathetic.
But Reilly works new approaches on this material.
- Have come down in the world, from an upper middle class life, to a poorer lifestyle.
- Have moved into a low rent, near slum neighborhood of Manhattan.
- Are charming.
Certain Sleep (1961) is a mildly entertaining Reilly novel.
Unobjectionable, it is far from Reilly's best work.
It lacks the brilliant descriptive writing that is such an asset in Reilly's finest.
Certain Sleep is at its best in:
The first two of these sections include liberal political commentary, as discussed below.
- Its opening, which offers a look at the characters' careers, lives and points of view (Chapter 1),
- The initial investigation of the crime (Chapter 5),
- A manhunt (Chapter 12).
The Heroine and her Artist Work
The heroine is another Reilly character who is a commercial artist (Chapter 1),
like the protagonist of The Dead Can Tell. She would like to be a painter.
She creates art for store windows, recalling the department store setting in Death Demands an Audience.
Both novels use the word "display" as the term describing store window creation.
Both books have a two-name pair as the title of their stores.
Madison Avenue and Conformity
Follow Me mentions the advertising industry, and links it to a crook character.
Certain Sleep offers explicit criticism of Madison Avenue (Chapter 1).
A non-conformist writer alleges that Madison Avenue is "brain washing" the USA,
telling it what to think, read, watch and dress. He also alleges that the rich are in charge,
paying for advertising's services. This is a brief but highly pointed critique.
The man who gives it, Charles Dunn, is described as highly qualified writer,
with a successful stint as a political reporter in his resume. Charles is far from being a Beat
or coffee house denizen. He seems like a successful, respected man.
His background as a top political reporter implies he is well informed about society.
Charles Dunn recalls previous Reilly characters:
In this era, concern about conformity was not confined to a social fringe,
but was widespread among educated Americans.
- Nils Gantry from Compartment K, another sympathetic professional writer
who seems to be a self-made, hard-working man. Nils Gantry has a background as a former police reporter,
just as Charles Dunn once worked as a political reporter. The two men have different personalities,
despite their similar career patterns.
- Pete Hogarth from the early novel Murder in the Mews (1931).
Hogarth is a political writer and journalist; Dunn is a former political reporter.
Hogarth makes a brief negative comment on the Machine Age and how it is standardizing life.
This anticipates Dunn's more trenchant social commentary.
Certain Sleep neither endorses nor denies Charles' charges.
But their presence suggests Reilly wants us to take them seriously,
as a possible problem facing society.
In a disturbing way, in this view Madison Avenue recalls the "brain centers" that appear in other Reilly books.
Madison Avenue is depicted as doing the thinking and communicating for all of America.
Charles shows his nonconformity in his clothes: wearing rumpled suits and crookedly tied ties.
This is a long way from the flamboyant hippie and mod fashions soon to erupt. This book is just before
the US counterculture of the mid and late 1960's. It would have been interesting to get Reilly's reactions to this,
but she died in 1962 before its beginning.
I like Charles. SPOILER. Unfortunately, Charles turns into that romance book and film staple,
the Nice Guy who Doesn't Get the Girl. Certain Sleep would be more interesting,
if the heroine married Charles and set out to explore a life of nonconformity together.
Police Corruption - and Attacks on the Poor
Certain Sleep has a corrupt cop in charge of the local police (Chapter 5).
Captain Baker is empowered by a corrupt society: the people who run the town are his allies.
He also attacks the poor.
The rest of Certain Sleep does not explore police corruption in any depth.
We simply see Captain Baker being obnoxious: he is always unsympathetic.
BIG SPOILERS. The mystery plot in Certain Sleep is recycled from Murder on Angler's Island.
Both the initial situations involving the three main characters, and the Big Surprise at the end,
are taken over unchanged from the earlier novel. Reilly has tweaked the identity of the murderer a bit,
although the same sort of person is the killer in both books.
This lack of originality is a big minus for Certain Sleep.
Murder on Angler's Island is a considerably better book.
SPOILER. The movements of some of the characters on the night of the crime, recall a bit Mourned on Sunday.
In both books, the heroine is outside, witnessing these movements. In both, the movements are across a
fairly wide area in the country.
McKee's deductions about the cigarette, are a nice "reconstruction of the crime" (Chapter 5).
The cigarette is another "object in a Reilly novel serving as clue".
This section about the crime's initial investigation is completely new and different
from anything in Murder on Angler's Island.
McKee finds a clue of a cigarette ash in McKee of Centre Street (start of Chapter 3).
Manhunt: Obscure Places & Working Class Knowledge
Todhunter engages in a brief manhunt (Chapter 12), manhunts being a favorite Reilly subject.
This winds up at a mildly interesting country setting. Like some other Reilly manhunts,
the place is designed to be "obscure": a region that few would enter, or hunt for a missing man in.
Reilly shows some ingenuity in coming up with such places.
Several Reilly novels have working class men who are experts on some subject, giving information to the police.
Certain Sleep does something different but related. Todhunter follows a mainly-innocent accomplice
of the missing man, which leads him to the missing man's hiding place. The accomplice is working class; a waiter.
The waiter inadvertently provides Todhunter with the knowledge needed to find the man.
The missing man is also working class, another waiter, and it was his idea on where to hide out.
The manhunt is the last sustained appearance of Todhunter in a Reilly book.
He's perhaps her best character. It is good to see him go out on this nice adventure.
Reilly's Last Novel: The Day She Died
The Day She Died (1962) is Reilly's last novel. It returns
to the New Mexico locations of Follow Me (1960). Reilly
lived in New Mexico in her later years, and these two books are
clearly based on personal observation.
The Day She Died avoids HIBK mannerisms. It is a tale of pure
detection, and its point of view characters are almost entirely two
detectives. But it is one of Reilly's works most closely following
Mary Roberts Rinehart
traditions. It takes place in an isolated country house, one that
is full of sinister events, much like Rinehart's The Circular
Staircase (1907). Many aspects of the characters' personal
lives are ones that are familiar to us from Rinehart's fiction.
Its format also follows that of J.B. Priestley's The Old Dark House (1927):
a group of strangers take shelter in a crumbling
old country house from a terrible rain storm. In this case, the
old house is an ancient adobe ranch, a relic of New Mexico's earliest
days. Reilly describes the storm, the New Mexico landscape, and
the ancient house with tremendous vividness. These scenes have
the visionary quality found in Reilly's best writing. Later chapters
take us into modern New Mexico cities, a pleasing contrast.
Links to The Doll's Trunk Murder
The Day She Died reuses the plot and characters of Reilly's The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932).
The characters and situations have all been modified from The Doll's Trunk Murder,
but are recognizable as versions of those in the earlier novel. (Similarly, Reilly's
previous novel Certain Sleep was a remake of her Murder on Angler's Island.)
A major difference in the two novels is the setting. The Day She Died takes place in New Mexico,
and all the New Mexico atmosphere and depiction is new in The Day She Died.
The Doll's Trunk Murder mainly took place in rural Pennsylvania.
McKee is now the detective, rather than the non-series Sheriff Craven of The Doll's Trunk Murder.
Still, McKee very much occupies the same "slot" in the novel's structure, as Craven did in The Doll's Trunk Murder.
- McKee arrives at the crime scene by accident, while Craven was there deliberately to investigate.
- McKee is now the main Point-Of-View character in the novel, while that role was taken by
Craven's friend Richard Brierly in The Doll's Trunk Murder. Brierly has an analogue in The Day She Died,
Steele, but Steele is only occasionally a Point-Of-View character (Chapter 13).
Male characters in The Day She Died tend to be younger than their originals in The Doll's Trunk Murder:
Female servants get more drastic transformations:
- Steele is in his early forties while Brierly was 50.
- Wandering worker Ward is 19 or 20 and referred to as a "boy", while his original Boyd is a grown-up "man", albeit "young".
- Money-bags businessman Henry Hilliard is in his late thirties, while his original Hilary Mallett is around fifty.
Steele combines aspects of two characters in the original: Brierly and Smith.
- Hispanic male yardman Emilio Gomez is based on female servant Minnie Stern.
- Upper class sister Mary Dane is based on servant Mary Sinton.