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.





Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

129248Author: Helen McCloy (1904 – 1994) came from a writing family and began her writing career as a journalist, first for William Randolph Hearst and then as a freelancer. Her first mystery was published in 1938 to great acclaim and she continued to write 13 novels about her psychiatrist-detective, Dr. Basil Willing, on and off until 1980. She published 16 volumes of non-series mysteries (and there are some posthumous collections of short stories, etc.) Her marriage to Davis Dresser, who as “Brett Halliday” created the Michael Shayne series, lasted from 1946 to 1961. She was the first woman to serve as president of Mystery Writers of America (1950) and received an Edgar award in 1954 for her mystery criticism.

I think it’s safe to say that connoisseurs of detective fiction regard McCloy as one of the best American writers of detective fiction during her career. Her work is uniformly of a high quality; she’s skilled at planting clues and especially at delineating the psychology of murderers and murder suspects. Mike Grost suggests that although Cue for Murder is considered to be one of her better novels, his preference is for her later works and regards her work after 1945 as better than her earlier books; I tend to agree. I have elsewhere reviewed what might be her most famous work, Through A Glass, Darkly (1950).

dell0212Publication Data: The first edition is from 1942, William Morrow. The book was frequently republished in the 1940s, including its first paperback appearance as Dell mapback #212 in 1948, and then appears to have fallen out of publishing favour. Anthony Boucher selected it as one of his World’s Great Novels of Detection series for Bantam (F3027) in 1965, and it doesn’t appear to have been reprinted since. Amazon gives a peculiar listing which suggests that the book will be republished by The Murder Room (a subsidiary of Orion in the UK who’s been reprinting other of her titles) at the end of 2015. No e-book appears to exist.

McCloy’s work was very occasionally adapted for television; “Cue For Murder” was adapted for a French-language television program, “Le Masque”, in 1989. I have not been able to view this production.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. You will probably learn enough here to be able to solve the mystery without really thinking about it. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of this book’s details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

dell0212backThe book begins at an art gallery opening in Manhattan, filled with smartly-dressed women and attentive men. Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who consults to the police department, is attending, and meets Broadway star Wanda Morley and her surrounding players. Wanda’s new play opens that night; we see her with a handsome young actor, Rodney Tait, who stars with her and who is said to adore her. (His erstwhile girlfriend, also present, seems to disagree.) Wanda will share the stage with Leonard Martin, returning to the stage after a year’s illness.

We learn that something strange has happened recently from a tiny snippet of a newspaper story, of the “human interest” variety. There’s a tiny knife-grinding shop sharing the alley with the rear of the theatre (see the map back’s map, nearby, for a better idea of what everything looks like and where it is). Someone has broken into the shop and used the equipment to surreptitiously sharpen a knife — and, before leaving, the mysterious sharpener has released the shop owner’s pet canary, which is found fluttering around the shop.

Dr. Willing decides to attend the opening night. At this point we need to know a little bit about the play itself. It’s a revival of Sardou’s Fédora — not a well-known or especially good play. (Wanda is said to only choose lousy plays as her starring vehicles because her acting looks so much more realistic against the unbelievable events, and this tells you a lot about Wanda and her view of art.) Victorien Sardou is not remembered today except perhaps as the playwright whose original play was turned into the opera Tosca by Puccini, and this work which became the eponymous opera Fédora by Umberto Giordano, which actually brought the fedora hat into popularity for first women, then men. Fédora was written for Sarah Bernhardt; it concerns a young noblewoman (who in the original production wears a soft hat, which ended up named after the play) whose lover, a revolutionary, is brought to her home in Act I, mortally wounded. The lover is attended by a doctor and then discovered by a police officer; he dies at the end of Act I and Fédora vows revenge. (This revenge doesn’t come to pass because all anyone ever gets to see of the play is Act I.)

Since the part of the dying revolutionary has no lines and is required to only lie there motionless until he is kissed goodbye by Fédora and then expires, Sarah Bernhardt used it as a publicity vehicle; she enlisted her handsome young aristocratic friends to play the role onstage, giving them all the excitement of acting without requiring any actual talent or experience. Edward VII was one of them, and he delighted in having gone unrecognized. The novel tells us that Wanda Morley learns of this and decides to revive the tradition; the producers don’t care who plays the role and are pleased to save the money required to hire a motionless supernumerary. So the casting of her lover is up to Wanda.

Immediately before the play begins, an unknown man who will play Fédora’s lover is seen to make his way to the alcove where he lies down and begins to pretend to be near death, lying motionless. After the curtain rises, the only three actors who have any business near him are Rodney Tait as the doctor, Leonard Martin as the policeman, and of course Wanda Morley who kisses him good-bye before he is said to expire. Act I curtain and the stagehands begin to strike the set; of course, the unknown man is truly deceased. Dr. Willing comes up from the audience to possibly assist with first aid and notices something very odd. Although the dead man is lying in a pool of blood with a surgical scalpel sticking out of his chest, a passing housefly ignores the blood and seems fascinated with the handle of the knife. No one is quite sure why, but a number of witnesses note that the housefly will not leave the scalpel alone, even though the blood would seem to be a more attractive target. We also learn that a mysterious figure in a long dark cloak has been hanging around on a fire escape and no one can identify him … or her.

Basil Willing soon identifies the victim as wealthy young John Ingelow, who is said to have been leaving his wife Margot, aka “Magpie”, in order to marry Wanda. Is Wanda’s romance with Rodney Tait just a publicity stunt? She’s certainly done this before with other co-stars, one of whom was Leonard Martin. Did she truly mean to run away with the victim, or is this merely another example of her desire for publicity? Wanda is constantly saying that she wants to leave all the annoying hurly-burly and glitter of the theatrical life and be merely a homebody housewife … was John Ingelow the man for whom she meant to abandon her career, or was she merely stringing him along for more publicity as a femme fatale?

The investigation progresses, but the public’s demand to see the play now that it’s been involved with murder is so great that the show must indeed go on. A brash young playwright named Adeane seems to be the only person who wants to take the ill-fated role of the dying revolutionary ( so that he can get some attention paid to his unpublished scripts); the theatre is standing room only when the production resumes. And, as the experienced reader will have already guessed, Adeane is found dead in the same position in the same set at the end of Act I on re-opening night, and again only the same three actors have gone near him.

Very shortly after the second death, Basil Willing works out the identity of the murder and, more importantly, the reason behind all the murderous activities. He confronts the killer in an exciting climax, and then explains everything.

n246275Why is this book worth your time?

This is certainly a highly-regarded novel by a well-known and esteemed mystery writer; it’s absolutely worth your time if for no reason other than the collective intelligence of a lot of mystery critics suggests that it is.  It really is a good book.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way; I didn’t like this as much as I might have done — I didn’t even like it as much as I felt I should, given the admiration I have for other critics who think it’s a great mystery. There is some beautiful writing in this book, not just descriptive pieces like showing the reader what it’s like to be acting in a play, or viewing it from the audience. The beautiful writing is also concerned with what people are thinking and why they do what they do, and from that point of view it’s masterful. When McCloy talks to the reader about how shallow Wanda Morley is — selecting cheeseball revivals of lousy plays in which to appear so that critics will say, “Oh, why doesn’t anybody put Wanda Morley into a play that’s worthy of her talents?” — we get it. We get it in a way that adds value to the book because we grasp not only what underlies Wanda’s career, but that McCloy understands the theatrical milieu well enough to give us inside information about it and the motivations of the people within it. Wanda’s tired protestations — about how she’d really rather be a housewife, and yet she never actually does anything about achieving that goal — are both funny and entirely understandable. McCloy (and through her, Dr. Willing) understands human nature and understands how to tell us, and show us, so that we can understand it too.

The problem with it considered strictly as a piece of detective fiction is that the murder itself is easy to figure out. My God, is it easy. Let’s face it. There are really only three suspects for whom the murders are physically possible; the murders are committed onstage in front of an attentive Broadway audience and a stage full of actors. Unless you’re prepared to put in a lot of thought considering ways in which people could be dropped in by ropes from the ceiling, or knives thrown 60 feet with unerring accuracy — all of which are stupid and generally impossible, and I’ll tell you right now, they aren’t the answer — there’s only three people on your list of suspects, and they are all three of the principal actors. If you can construct a list of circumstances and conditions that the identity of the murderer must meet, and then hold those three people up against it, it’s childishly simple to figure out whodunit. Even if the title of the book wasn’t telling you exactly which clue was the vital one …

The point of this book is not so much whodunit, though, as whydunit. And that’s a slightly more difficult issue. It is clear from the way the material is presented that any solution to the mystery must explain (1) the fly that buzzes around the knife handle; (2) the repeated liberation of the knife-grinder’s canary from its cage, and (3) the motive for wanting to kill these people in the first place. There’s also a minor physical clue that must be explained away, the circumstances surrounding someone seen in a long dark cloak standing in deep shadow.  (And there’s a tiny point about the nature of an outdoor clock at the top of a skyscraper that today’s reader will not really understand, since analog clocks are out of fashion, but it doesn’t really matter since the time sequences in the book are precise and clear.) For me, the only unclear point was the motive.

That’s because, in the decades since 1942, other authors have manipulated these same facts for the pleasure of the reader. As far as the fly buzzing around the knife handle, well, I might have an unfair advantage since there’s a particular medical condition in a member of my immediate family that is directly relevant. But anyone who has read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon has seen the same material presented in the same way. The underlying principle was apparently known in Babylonian times. With respect to the liberation of the canary; that’s not really a physical clue but a mental one. If you understand why the canary was freed, you’ll understand the motivation for the crimes and, honestly, the symbolism is a bit tacky. It’s the kind of thing that sounds good in a book, but that I doubt would actually occur to someone. And as far as the person in the long dark cloak — I’ve seen that same idea used as the basis for the central “trick” in a mystery novel by E. X. Ferrars from about the same time period (the wartime blackout in England, as I recall), and I dimly remember but cannot name a couple of other novels that used it too. I’m not saying McCloy didn’t use it first, far from it, but at this remove I’ve definitely seen it used by others and thus it is not really surprising.

The problem is that although I was clear about the identity of the murderer from a fairly early point, due to one of those “casual remarks” clues that I find so easy to spot these days (you know, when one character drops an off-hand remark about the earlier history of another and there’s no real reason for mentioning it), there’s no proof until very close to the end of the novel and that pretty much comes from the murderer confessing the details. Although the murderer’s motivation is lying right there for any police officer who cares to go looking for it, it takes a tiny leap from the facts to the circumstances which apparently no one but Basil Willing is capable of making, even though he doesn’t seem to have done so either. Instead, Dr. Willing pretty much does what I did; creates a list of circumstances and conditions that the murderer’s identity must meet, figures out whodunit, and then starts to investigate the motivation for the crimes.

I mean, let’s face it. The murders are committed in front of hundreds of people; I can’t actually imagine that anyone would hope to get away with it in a plan that has hundreds of ways to go wrong and only one way to go right. I suggest that it’s much easier to acquire a sharp knife in dozens of ways that are easier and safer than by breaking into a shop and sharpening one. If the murderer actually wanted to kill the victims and ruin a third party’s life in the process, I can think of a lot easier ways than committing two murders in the middle of sold-out theatrical performances (a blunt instrument and a dark alley come to mind). What this book is about is a crazy person doing insane things, and mostly for the purposes of making an interesting mystery. And that kind of spoils my enjoyment. For a book that people esteem so highly for containing so much psychological insight, the central psychological issues are pretty much nonsensical.

All things considered, there is a lot to applaud in this book and a small core of disappointment. Like I said, the writing is beautiful. You can see the production of Fédora unfolding before you (in fact, you see it so many times you’ll never need to actually go to see it should anyone be silly enough to mount a production). There are little moments of description that are so evocative and clear that you can see things happening, and take in tiny details of clothing and background. It all clicks because it has a basic rightness about it; the author has seen these things, either in real life or her mind’s eye, and is showing them to you as they are. Nothing is slurred or fuzzed over; if it’s in the book, it’s clear. Essentially everything about this novel is beautifully arranged; if it were a film, I’d be praising things like set design, costuming, and production values. You will believe most of the people are doing things for real reasons — the only exception being the murderer.

It’s a truism of literary analysis that you have to work with the book you actually read, not the one you want to have read. Helen McCloy is a great writer and, let’s face it, Anthony Boucher thought this novel was worth including in a “Great Novels of Detection” series. Who am I to argue with Anthony Boucher? Well, all I can say is that if this book had left out the silly path from the murderous idea to the actual murderer, and allowed the murderer to act like a rational human, I think I would have liked it better. It probably wouldn’t have been a detective novel. It would have been an interesting crime novel at a time when such a thing was not yet possible (the psychological crime novel was still some years away in inception), because the only flaws in this book have to do with the mystery plot in and of itself. The murderer would have confessed, possibly after the first murder but certainly after the second, because the motivation which is given for the murders would have been completely accomplished and nothing else would have been necessary. Then Basil Willing in his psychiatrist’s persona would have been an interesting commentator on why the murderer did what was done, and this would have been an extremely powerful book. It’s been sacrificed for the puzzle mystery. Now, as a reader who has spent most of his life tracking down and appreciating well-written puzzle mysteries, I can’t say with a straight face that I think this is bad. Helen McCloy wrote good puzzle mysteries and I love puzzle mysteries. I just can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the puzzle mystery had been left out and the sheer intelligence behind this book had been allowed to shine through.

In a way, there’s an analogy with something in the book. Wanda Morley picks bad plays in which to star, because they make her talents look more impressive. It makes me wonder if Helen McCloy wrote a poor puzzle mystery because it makes her beautiful writing look more impressive. It’s kind of a shame that the puzzle per se is the least interesting thing about a book that’s known as a great puzzle mystery … I suggest that you read it for yourself to see if you agree. Whatever she’s writing, Helen McCloy is worth reading.

thNotes for the Collector:

The first edition is from William Morrow, 1942. Other contemporaneous editions exist, including ones from Detective Book Club and World. First paper edition seems to be Dell mapback #212 from 1948 (it appeared in an edition of “Thrilling Mystery Novel Magazine” in 1946, it’s up to you whether that counts as a paperback or not). The Bantam Great Novels of Detection paperback edition, with entries selected by Anthony Boucher, is from 1965.

I note that, as of today, on Abe Books, there’s a copy of the mapback edition that is signed and inscribed; even though it’s only in Fair condition, $30 plus shipping seems like a fantastic price for a copy. I may grab this one myself! The second most interesting copy available is a Very Good copy of the first edition in jacket for $50 plus shipping and this may actually be the one that is of more interest to collectors. I’m very fond of mapbacks, is all. The 1965 Bantam Great Novels of Detection series was a very good series, containing writers like Hake Talbot, Ellery Queen and Christianna Brand, and you could do worse than focus on collecting a set of them.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1942 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; sixth under “G”, “Read one book set in the entertainment world.” Everyone agrees this is one of the great backstage mysteries. I’m surprised I haven’t yet managed a complete line of six books, but I’m getting closer.



Through A Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy (1950)

Through A Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy (1950)


Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was an American mystery writer best known for her creation of Dr. Basil Willing, psychiatrist, star of at least 14 volumes (including one collection of short stories).  What little I know about McCloy includes her marriage to Davis Dresser, creator of Michael Shayne, and her hard work on behalf of Mystery Writers of America, whose first woman president she was. She received an Edgar Award for her mystery criticism in 1954. The general quality of the Willing series is very, very high; a couple of themes seem to repeat throughout her work and this one is on the theme of the “double”.

Publication Data:

First off, let me apologize to MW Books, whose copyrighted image I have borrowed to illustrate this; my policy is to use an illustration of the book which I have read in anticipation of a review (so that, if I quote a page number, you’ll know what I’m talking about), and this is seemingly the only image available on the internet of my particular edition of this book. I will note that they have a couple of copies available on at a huge price and I hope they accept this misuse as trying to advertise their product.

This is the eighth volume in the Basil Willing series. The first edition appears to be Random House from 1950. First UK is Gollancz, 1951, and first paper is probably Dell #519. I personally think this is a nice example of Dell covers from this period and so I’ll show it to you further down in this review. My own copy, shown above, is Collier mystery 02274 from 1965. Having seen a number of copies of this specific book over the years, my memory suggests that Collier would republish with identical insides and a cover upon which only the price went up. This one is 95 cents; you can tell how close you are to a first printing by comparison.  I have no idea if there are editions cheaper than 95 cents; it’s possible.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, and a similar warning should apply. 

This book is generally considered to be one of McCloy’s best; at least, so excellent a critic as Anthony Boucher said so in his introduction to a reprint of another McCloy novel, Cue For Murder, and I nearly always agree with Boucher. So that’s a good context for this novel; she’s generally considered to be a clever and intelligent writer and this is one of her best.

Faustina Crayle is a pretty, meek, and inexperienced teacher at Brereton Girls’ School just outside of New York. The principal, Mrs. Lightfoot, calls her in and fires her without explanation, beyond that she is likely to be a bad influence on the students and the school. In fact, as it soon comes out, Faustina is said to have a doppelganger; an identical twin spirit whose appearance presages disaster and death. Another teacher at the school, Gisela von Hohenems, becomes interested and communicates the situation to Basil Willing, psychiatrist and detective. Willing investigates when another young teacher, Alice Aitchison, is found dead at the foot of some stairs during a school social event, and an eyewitness account puts Faustina on the scene — except that at the time of the murder, she is making a telephone call to Basil from a long distance away. During the main events of the plot, Willing proposes marriage to Gisela and is accepted. Some schoolgirls give fairly crucial evidence about the doppelganger‘s activities but it takes Willing’s investigation of Faustina’s unusual history, financial prospects and little cottage home to bring events to a dramatic close and explain events completely. (I’ve deliberately omitted a fairly crucial plot point in case you haven’t read this novel; you will enjoy it more this way.)

That’s the plot of this book, pretty much. The atmosphere in which the plot is contained is a huge contributor to its success; this is a beautifully written book and that’s a major part of its effectiveness.

Why is this so good?

2131-1There are two things about this book that contribute to its general excellence; the writing style and the general structure.

What I have left out from the plot summary above is the atmosphere that surrounds this book, and it is really excellent. The author has done a wonderful job of building suspense from unease to downright panic, and by the time you get to the book’s climax in the bijou little cottage crammed with Victorian antiques, your nerves will be keyed up exquisitely.  When the figure in the mirror moves just a little, and there is a scent of lemon verbena in the room, you will be ready to scream like a teenage girl. I nearly did. She surrounds the theme of the doppelganger with just plain old creepiness. It’s like a well-written ghost story that builds and builds, and then Alice dies, and then it builds and builds some more as the investigation progresses and things get spookier and more eerie.

And the writing is exquisite. From the very first page, we see that this is a book where what we are shown is important to understanding characters. Mrs. Lightfoot, the matron:

“In dress she affected the Quaker color — the traditional ‘drab’ that dressmakers called ‘taupe’ in the thirties and ‘eel-gray’ in the forties. She wore it in tough tweed or rich velvet, heavy silk or filmy voile, according to season and occasion, combining it every evening with her mother’s good pearls and old lace. Even her winter coat was moleskin — the one fur that same blend of dove-gray and plum-brown. This consistent preference for such a demure color gave her an air of restraint that never failed to impress the parents of her pupils.”

It will not surprise the reader to learn that not only is this portrait parle of Mrs. Lightfoot  effective at demonstrating what we need to know about her character, but it is somewhat important to note that the colours of dresses are mildly significant to the plot. Not crucial, but useful to remember that Mrs. Lightfoot could not have disguised herself with a dress she would not have owned. And also, for an audience of women who are assumed to find the details of dress and ornament very important, there is plenty here to interest them. I am assuming here something that seems obvious to me but with which others may disagree; that McCloy is writing for an audience of women.  I’m not saying that all women find such things interesting, but it is certainly fun to speculate for a moment about what “season and occasion” would mean in the life of a woman who tries to communicate restraint with her clothing and can afford to indulge her whims, regardless of one’s sex. Similarly, other clothes are described effectively to contribute both to our understanding of the character and to the plot. Alice Aitcheson, the young victim noted above, “stood, profile to the open door, facing a dressing-table. She wore a long-skirted gown of corded silk the same vivid burnt orange as her scarf. There were outrageously high-heeled black suede pumps on her feet with huge rhinestone buckles. The sleeves were elbow-length, but the neckline dropped dangerously over her thrusting bosom.” She is trying to flout the sedate conventions of the girls’ school;  she has recently graduated to adulthood, being allowed to choose her own clothes.  The book then (p. 78) devotes a paragraph to the reaction of each of the middle-aged unmarried teachers; “old Miss Chellis in dingy blue taffeta … Mademoiselle de Vitré, in voluminous raisin velvet … Miss Dodd, carefully smart in well-cut beige crêpe … silver-haired Mrs. Greer, in pale blue with Parma violets …”  I really enjoyed the moment where “all the girls in white voile looked as if they were thinking, That’s it! That’s the way I’m going to dress the very first chance I get!” An accurate observation of all ages of women and communicated in a few well-chosen words that say a lot to a female audience accustomed to assessing other women’s character from their clothing. “Carefully smart” says a lot about income and upward mobility, doesn’t it? That’s what makes it so effective that the colours and style of clothing are essential to the plot. The murderer — for indeed there is a murderer, I am sorry to say, because the murder was not committed by a non-existent doppelganger — dressed in clothing that reminded other characters of Faustina Crayle, seen from afar, and used the clothing’s resemblance to further the plot by clever improvisation. I wonder if it’s possible to demonstrate the depth and range of nuances that were available to the contemporary reader but perhaps not to today’s. One of the reasons that the murderer can imitate Faustina Crayle so well is because there was a fad for camel’s hair topcoats at a certain girls’ school. Does it need to be explained to today’s reader what “topcoat” means, and that an actual camel has painlessly sacrificed its outer covering in the name of fashion? I had to Google to figure out how corded silk differed from other kinds of silk, and I hope Wikipedia has a photo of Parma violets so that today’s reader can appreciate just how effective this would be against pale blue.

The other reason this is such a good book is a little more complex and relates to the way in which this volume picks up on themes and territory carved out by other writers (and, if you accept my assumption that McCloy is writing for women, how she translates male-created trophes of detective fiction into female contexts).  Two of these themes were easily apparent. McCloy has taken something from Erle Stanley Gardner, “the interesting situation or ‘hook’ at the beginning of the book that leads to murder in an unusual way”, and John Dickson Carr, “the supernatural situation at the beginning of the book that leads to murder and must be explained in real-world terms by the end”.

Gardner was a pulp writer who had learned in the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace that the reader had to be hooked, and so the initial chapters of Perry Mason novels are filled with what I might describe as wacky premises. A beautiful girl is being paid to put on weight (TCOT Blonde Bonanza).  A man loses his glass eye and it shows up clutched in the hand of a corpse (TCOT Counterfeit Eye).  A scientist wants to know if it’s possible to hypnotize a gorilla (TCOT Grinning Gorilla). I have to say, this is a premise that Gardner would never have used because his fiction is always strongly rooted in reality; Mason wouldn’t spend a moment considering a supernatural premise (the closest is perhaps TCOT Glamorous Ghost). But this is something of the level and quality that Gardner would have been able to use effectively.  A shy young girl who learns that people around her keep seeing her in two places at the same time, and it scares the hell out of them? That to me sounds like a job for Perry Mason, but Paul Drake would have been following any and all people involved to find out where they were, and that would have given things away too early.

Of course John Dickson Carr’s many excursions into quasi-supernatural themes and premises are great work. A book like The Plague Court Murders as by Carter Dickson, with its eerie atmosphere and ghost who fires invisible bullets. The Three Coffins, where the murderer is said to have risen from the dead. The Unicorn Murders, where the victim has a conical hole in his forehead that it’s suggested was created by a unicorn’s horn. Vampires (He Who Whispers), tarot cards (The Eight of Swords), old family curses (The Red Widow Murders), and cursed Egyptian tchotchkes (The Curse of the Bronze Lamp) — all are offered to the reader as potential solutions and disposed of by the end of the book as products of a human agency. (Yes, I am familiar with the contents of The Burning Court and except it here.  I also except the couple of Carr’s historicals where time travel is attained by means of the Devil.) In a way, both of these are the same process for Carr and Gardner; raise something interesting as the “hook” and then explain it or dispose of it for the amusement of the reader. In Carr’s mysteries, half the fun is waiting to learn the way in which Carr will explain how the coffins have been moved around inside a locked mausoleum if not by ghosts (The Sleeping Sphinx), or whatever the pseudo-supernatural bunkum is that surrounds the plot. I believe that generations of readers have found this enjoyable, where the writer creates a spooky premise, builds it through the book, and then reveals its basis in reality at the climax.

And that’s the pattern here. McCloy spends a lot of time and effort building the doppelganger theme and making it work in a realistic way into the plans of the murderer, who discovered that an unintended resemblance to Faustina Crayle could be used to mystify proceedings and divert suspicion. In other words, it comes about almost by accident; the murderer seizes upon their resemblance and weaves it usefully into a plan. Honestly, I find it easier to believe that murderers could work like this than they do in the works of Carr, with mind-boggling intricacy.  Think of, say, conceiving the idea to fire a crossbow through … well, let’s just say The Judas Window.  Would you like to bet your freedom on the chance that you would be able to execute the mechanical activities necessary to make that idea come together? I wouldn’t. I admit there is one coincidence in Through A Glass, Darkly that strained my suspension of disbelief; the idea that staid, matronly Mrs. Lightfoot in her moleskin camouflage would prefer a cologne generally used by men called vervaine (I believe this is the modern vetiver). But I forgive this easily because the work is so good, and because the mechanical part of the murderer’s plot which underlies the climax is based on simple materials available at the five-and-dime (I believe this is the modern dollar store). I am far more willing to believe that McCloy understands how people really commit murder than Carr.

Mike Grost, in his Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection, suggests that doubles and impersonation are a common theme in McCloy’s work. I am indebted to him for this suggestion — not so much for his observation that “dramatic or surreal” events often underlie the events of her books (or rather, I agree with him but I think he has failed to appreciate why this is so, the “hook” is an elementary writing technique for people who hope to sell their work). If doubles and impersonation are a common theme, this has to be the most significant example of it in McCloy’s oeuvre. Through A Glass, Darkly is certainly a well-written book with a great deal of creepy atmosphere, effective and subtle characterization, a good deal of interesting observation of the minutiae of dress and ornament of the late 1940s in the US of interest to social historians, an intelligently conceived plot and a theme that is woven through the action of the book. I highly recommend this novel to you.

Notes for the Collector:

As noted above, MW Books of both New York and Ireland has copies of this, in an undistinguished Collier paperback edition, at about $100 each. Then a VG copy of the first edition is $90, and you can get an autographed copy of the Dell first paper (which I think is perhaps the most collectible, due  to its artwork by Robert Stanley, the signature and this book’s membership in the earliest numeric run of Dell Publishing) for $30. A paperback republication from 2012 will set you back as little as $2.59 plus shipping.