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.

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood/Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood, by Ron Backer

Mystery Movie Series of 1930s Hollywood & Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood

Ron Backer, whom the jacket describes as “an attorney who has previously written for law reviews and other legal publications.  An avid fan of both mysteries and movies, he lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania”.

Publication Data:  The 1940s volume is copyright 2010 and the 1930s volume, 2012.  I imagine the delay is because the 1930s volume is somewhat larger and covers more material.

About these books:

I’m at the stage of life where, rather than waste money and effort by buying me a book I read two years ago and already own two copies of, my family and close friends ask me what I want for Christmas and birthdays. I was glad to advise them that I was aware of these two volumes and would they kindly show up under the tree?

I’m glad I asked for them.  This is an area about which I can claim to be well-informed, and to me these volumes were an interesting gloss on my own collection and even extended my knowledge a bit. I think for the less experienced collector they would represent an excellent way of systematically approaching the viewing/acquiring of this sub-genre. And, as the TV pitchman says, “Makes a great Christmas gift!”

bk9901The 1930s volume covers 22 series, including some major series like the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, Charlie Chan, Philo Vance, Nick and Nora Charles, Perry Mason, Mr. Moto, and some decidedly minor efforts like Bill Crane and Barney Callahan. The 1940s volume discusses 19 series, most of which are by now at the B level: series like The Saint, The Falcon, Boston Blackie and Michael Shayne. There is a significant body of work presented in the two volumes. I have to say that Mr. Backer has done an enormous service by not only collecting information about these films but giving us his opinions. To be sure, I disagreed with some of what he had to say. But Backer approaches these films in the same way I do, and so I found these volumes provoked me into deeper thought. Not content to merely passively absorb, he follows the plot and thinks about it afterwards, trying to notice if the plot is taut or holey, if characterization is consistent and believable, even whether the mystery is fair or unfair. Then the reader who has himself seen these films has the luxury of agreeing or disagreeing.

One excellent focus that Backer has brought to the books is that he has gone to some trouble to trace source materials. His observation is that series of the 1930s were usually based on books, whereas series of the 1940s were frequently based on other source material; comic books, radio programmes, even original screenplays. I agree with this and it’s a fascinating little eddy in the broader stream of branded product that was coming into being, the beginnings of characters like Ellery Queen and Simon Templar who existed across multiple media platforms. And of course Sherlock Holmes, the original portable media brand, and we see here one of its most famous extensions discussed extensively here with the dozen Basil Rathbone films using the character.

Backer also has some skill at working out the relationships among films in a series; when he says that such-and-such is the best or worst in its series, he gives reasons and I tended to agree with them. My problems are concerned with the very limited amount of thought he gives to how these series compare as series — there is little or no attempt to compare the merits of one to another, which would have been an interesting exercise.  I think the thing that was the largest stumbling block for me was at the very outset, as I immediately hit the assertion that the Golden Age mystery finds its modern equivalent in the cozy. (I regret that I cannot identify precisely where in the volumes I found this; I was too horrified to make a note.) Sorry, sir; I’m prepared to dispute your opinions about the relative merit or a film, but that assertion is simply indefensible. It’s like suggesting that the tigers of old are the same as the housecats of today; Golden Age mysteries and the modern cozy are two different species entirely. I had to conclude that the author had misunderstood one genre or the other, and that left me a little bit less willing to accept his views on filmic subgenres.

There are also a couple of omissions that I noted — although he excludes non-Hollywood mysteries in a series, I do think Wilfred Hyde-White’s appearance in the lost Philo Vance film The Scarab Murder Case is worth a mention. And there is not the depth of rich detail that I have come to appreciate about the ways in which actors morph and segue within and without such series; there’s possibly a book in itself, tracing the paths of actors like Nat Pendleton, Patricia Morison, or Howard Huber as they appear in many mysteries in different roles. Here he merely observes that so-and-so appeared in two different series, without appreciating how genre-based typecasting meant that Nat Pendleton could appear as different policeman-sidekicks in different series without having to do any characterization work to differentiate himself, because the audience “knew” Pendleton’s image as an earnest, hardworking doofus.

One aspect I really appreciated was the exhaustive research that’s gone into the details of some very obscure films. I have to confess that although I have seen almost all of the films mentioned in these volumes, and lack access to the same handful that Backer was unable to screen, I was delighted to find a reference to a little-known series that I had never heard of, and pointers to the existence of a couple of films in small series of which I was not aware. (I have now completed my Thatcher Colt collection and thank Mr. Backer for informing me of the existence of The Night Club Lady; to me, immediately the best of the series and a darn good mystery to boot.)

Backer restricts his efforts to series containing three or more films, and I can’t say that’s wrong; every author of a reference book has to draw the line somewhere. By and large this policy excludes little of value, but the few mandated omissions of significant films truly seem to me to harm the scholarship. It might have been wise to include such short-run series as Nero Wolfe, whose two films are significant in the early history of mystery films, as are the two Jim Hanvey films. (I add some months after this post was initially mounted that I would like to have seen Mr. Backer take on the 12 mystery short films written by S.S. Van Dine, whose series characters would have benefited from his interest.) I do wish the author had turned his attention to Batman, which franchise seems to me to qualify. It took me a while to come up with the name of a franchise that did well in other media platforms but only generated one movie: Mr. and Mrs. North. I suggest that even this singleton movie might be worthwhile in a book devoted to series. But without thinking hard, I can suggest there are a couple of Western series characters whose films were primarily mysteries with Western trappings and characters, albeit at the general level of mystery of Scooby-Doo and those meddling kids.  Perhaps the crossover mystery movie series of the 1930s and 1940s will be Backer’s next topic. I’d like to see him tackle the light-comedy-married-couple-as-detectives sub-genre in more detail, but perhaps only because I’m interested as of late. He does good scholarship and I’d like to see more of it.

All things considered, if you are interested in mystery film series of this era, these two volumes will form the cornerstone of your understanding. I think they’re currently the definitive work.

Notes For the Collector:

These trade paperbacks were ordered as Christmas gifts for me, as noted above, and cost about $55 each to get from the U.S. to Canada. Abebooks gives a range of 25 roughly equivalent prices for “new” and “as new” copies. Yes, that seems expensive, but over a lifetime of having books come and go through my hands, I have to say that the only books I will now not part with are reference books; they’re always, always worth whatever I paid for them and more.  I can’t imagine that these volumes are scarce at the present moment, but like most such offerings they may disappear and not attain reprint. (There is certainly no prospect of an updated edition since there is almost no chance of new material coming to light.) The publisher is McFarland, a large and well-known company, and I am slightly less sanguine about the continued availability of these volumes because of it. Had the publisher been the author himself, as is more common these days, these might be printed upon demand and available as first editions indefinitely. So if this sort of material is important to your scholarship, I urge you to get these books before you have to pay double their cover price in the aftermarket.