Dance of Death, by Helen McCloy (1938)

Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

UnknownThis book was also published under the name Design for Dying.

I picked up my copy of this the other day — I read it a number of years ago and had forgotten the details in the intervening time. After refreshing my memory I thought it was a sufficiently enjoyable experience to share it with you.

What is this book about?

Katherine “Kitty” Jocelyn is one of the top debutantes of the New York season. She is slender, dark-haired, pale, and lovely, and in constant demand by advertising agencies to endorse everything from cigarettes to Sveltis reducing pills. Her coming-out party has been anticipated by her family for a long time, and every detail has been under the command of the well-known Mrs. Jowett, the premier social secretary for coming-out parties. Her family has devoted all its time and resources to advancing Kitty’s social career for years.

Unknown-1But the coming-out party does not go as planned, in many respects. Kitty herself is so ill on the night of her masquerade ball that the family persuades her cousin to impersonate her; and, as the reader rightly expects in a murder mystery, Kitty’s body is found soon after. The highly unusual features of her death include the facts that her skin has somehow turned a bright yellow, and her body is so hot that it has managed to maintain a higher-than-normal body temperature — despite its being found in a pile of snow.

Dr. Basil Willing is a psychiatrist who consults with the New York police department who becomes interested in the case. His interest is first piqued by the possibility that Kitty’s cousin Ann is being pressured by the family to continue impersonating the famous debutante; Ann appeals for Dr. Willing’s help to return to her everyday existence. Then there is the bizarre cause of death; there’s a great deal of scientific information packed in here about how and why she died and I won’t spoil it for you, but apparently McCloy came up with an interesting and unusual way of killing someone that is based in scientific reality.

Suspicion falls on members of her family, some of the servants, a couple of Kitty’s many suitors, and even a gossip columnist who seems over-involved in Kitty’s life. But it falls to Dr. Willing to pierce the many competing motives and find what turns out to be a murderer who acted for a very prosaic and understandable reason.

Why is this book worth your time?

13552719._UY475_SS475_I’ve elsewhere spoken of the “brownstone mystery”, a personal coinage describing a type of mystery that’s addressed primarily to a female reader; it’s meant to show the household arrangements of the wealthy class (clothes, social lives, furniture, homes, family relationships) while demonstrating to the reader that wealthy people are just as immoral and vicious as all the other social classes. The brownstone mystery flourished in the 1940s and authors like Frances Crane and Helen Reilly specialized in it. I’ll suggest that this is an early example, but to be frank Helen McCloy is a much better writer than, say, Frances Crane and brings her considerable skills to this, her first book. This is a brownstone mystery plus, and it’s the plus that makes it worth reading.

Unknown-2There’s a lot here to like. Basil Willing became the protagonist of a dozen mysteries in McCloy’s oeuvre, and while his personality is not as fleshed-out as it would later be, especially with the future addition of the beautiful Gisele to his life, he is an interesting and oddly compelling detective. The murder method is fascinating and apparently realistic. McCloy later became known for the occasional mystery involving a little-known chemical, such as the truth serum in 1941’s The Deadly Truth, and her treatment seems scientifically accurate with just enough detail to interest the reader without being tedious. The details of the Jocelyn household and its underlying difficulties are realistic and uncommon. And finally you will understand the motive for the murder without difficulty, but I rather doubt you’ll ever consider it during the course of the novel. The murder plot is clever and well-hidden but not impossible to work out if you’re paying very close attention.

The idea of one person being forced to impersonate another for economic reasons has been the focus of mysteries a number of times; the one that came to my mind in connection with this instance is Puzzle for Fiends by Patrick Quentin. Here the idea is not made much of and soon disappears, which is a little disappointing. Quentin did it better and you might move on to that volume after this, if you’re curious to see how it’s handled over the course of an entire novel.

I frequently pause to comment upon what we learn about the society of the time and place against which the novel is set, but in this case it’s better if I don’t — almost everything is connected with the murder and I’m likely to say too much. But there is quite a bit here about the nature of the “coming out” process, which is a phrase that in 1938 related to debutantes and not sexual preference, and particularly its economic implications. Fascinating stuff and you’ll enjoy it more if you come to it without hints.

A note on editions

31301106My favourite edition is, as usual, the Dell mapback edition — in this case #33, a very early number from about 1942. The cover art by Gerald Gregg features Dell’s trademark, the pioneering use of airbrush for the illustration showing a marionette being manipulated by a skeletal hand, and the typography is excellent; so is the map by Ruth Belew on the back cover, showing the Jocelyn house. I note that there’s an average copy available on eBay today for US$12 and I think this one would be the most collectible; that’s a good price, to my mind. Most of McCloy’s Basil Willing series until about 1950 are available in mapback editions.

The first edition is by William Morrow and I see that what appears to be a good copy without a jacket is available for about US$50. The person on eBay who wants US$650 for a near fine copy in a VG jacket is possibly delusional, since that’s perhaps three times what it should bring to my knowledge, but who am I to say? There’s also a Gollancz omnibus edition of McCloy’s 1st, 3rd, and 4th Basil Willing novels that includes the interesting The Deadly Truth, mentioned above, and might be the best bargain … except for the recent uniform e-books edition from The Murder Room.

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Dance of Death, by Helen McCloy (1938)

  1. JJ says:

    Just yesterday I read and thorughly did not enjoy The Slayer and the Slain by McCloy and swore off her for life; today I’ve had two books by her recommended that sound great…dammit, fine, I’ll put this and Cue for Murder on my TBB. But if I don’t enjoy these, I’m only going to read another five or six by her before giving up entirely…

  2. Brad says:

    I’m sorry JJ didn’t enjoy The Slayer and the Slain because I thought it was clever (if not as surprising to today’s readers of “unreliable narrator” stories) and written in truly gorgeous prose. I think the mystery aspect of Through a Glass Darkly IS a bit overrated, but again, the writing and the set-up are so good, and Giselle complements Basil so well here. I can’t remember if JJ read Mr. Splitfoot, which IS an impossible crime and has nice atmosphere. I very much enjoyed The Deadly Truth and <Alias Basil Willing and recommend them both.

    Noah, I’m sorry you didn’t like Cue for Murder. It’s on my Kindle, along with Two Thirds of a Ghost, awaiting reading, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she makes of a theatrical setting. And I bought a copy in New York (at the Mysterious Bookstore) of the late title, A Change of Heart, about which I’ve heard nothing. I’m approaching McCloy in a very haphazard fashion, and while I admit she’s uneven in her plotting, I do love her writing, and sometimes she really hits the mark!

    I’m glad you had good things to say about her debut here. Somewhere else, I read something less flattering, but I look forward to reading this in the future.

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