At the risk of making a somewhat unceremonious return… 😉
I recently finished Helen McCloy’s The Slayer and the Slain and was inspired, I suppose (it’s really a marvellous book), to write the following. I posted it elsewhere, but I’ll post it here too; I hope you enjoy it. I will try—I promise!—to get some more blog-posts in, and—JJ—I haven’t forgotten about trying to come up with another solution to The Three Coffins! Anyhoo, in the meanwhile…
Helen McCloy was undoubtedly one of the greatest of all mystery writers and may well have been the single greatest American writer of detective stories were it not for Ellery Queen (and, of course, if we’re counting Carr as British, or at least Transatlantic). So, naturally, no one really knows her name anymore!
Indeed, as a writer, she may be even greater than Queen: her prose is sublime, her images evoking long-forgotten memories as her words plumb our unconscious. In that respect, she’s rather like Fitzgerald, who used lyricism and imagery that approached poetry to evoke—less emotion than a sense of awe, or even haunting, Proustian memory. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”
Her themes are unique, though in some ways recalling Hitchcock—most obviously in both’s use of the Doppelgänger motif. She is intrigued by psychology, and nearly all of her lead characters are psychoanalysts or psychologists: she began with the kind of orthodox Freudianism that was in vogue in the ‘40s, and, while her opinion of psychoanalysis might have changed somewhat throughout her career, it never really left her. Unlike later Rendell, though, she never gave way to the specious belief that we’re all either lunatics or sex-maniacs; and, however faint it may seem, there is still hope and good left in her world.
Of mystery authors, she’s closest to two who are rather unconnected: John Dickson Carr and Ngaio Marsh. In the latter case, one can make even a few one-on-one comparisons between Marsh and McCloy, and in nearly every case McCloy comes out on top (and I write this as a Marsh fan). Dance of Death, McCloy’s remarkably accomplished first novel, cross-references neatly with Marsh’s Death in a White Tie; McCloy’s The Goblin Market with Marsh’s Colour Scheme; and McCloy’s Mr. Splitfoot with Marsh’s Off with His Head.
In all cases, the plots are vaguely similar, the detectives professionals, not amateurs, and the trace of the Van Dine school (blue-bloods, poison, unusual murder methods, carefully-sketched backgrounds) present in both. Yet Marsh clearly delineates the two sections of her books: the pre-murder takes up about 4 chapters or 70 pages (as Mike Grost noted) and then the murder and investigation for the rest of the 200-page book. Because Marsh’s gifts were more for character and light badinage, the investigation portions of her books can seem rather dull in comparison to the openings—so much so that some readers will be very disappointed.
McCloy, on the other hand, is like Carr in this regard: she unites strong prose, dialogue, and characterization, and a fast pace, with the investigation, and she’s so thoroughly bored by that normal bane of the detective story, the never-ending suspect interviews, that she leaves it out entirely. Thus, in some ways both she and Carr unite the thriller and the detective-story by virtue of simply being good storytellers. It’s a remarkable gift and one that, sadly, few detective-story authors had or have. (It was also key for Gladys Mitchell, whose books resemble McCloy’s in psychology and supernaturalism, and mid-to-late Ellery Queen.)
Also like Carr, McCloy loved the concept of the apparently-supernatural, or more accurately preternatural: it brings forth ancient mysteries, beliefs that we would prefer that we’ve forgotten, and scares us with what we continually deny. In this regard, both Carr and McCloy achieve fright with understatement, the most effective means of all—what M.R. James so accurately deemed “a pleasing terror,” atmosphere that engulfs us without a single “shock.” Carr and McCloy both believed that there is more to the world than what Carr called “the thump of the janitor’s mop”; indeed, what are the secrets that our humdrum, conventional lives seek to repress, that tug at the very edges of our consciousness? As Carr put it (in The Burning Court):
We huddle together in cities, we make bonfires of a million lights, we can get a voice from across the ocean to sing to us so that we needn’t feel lonely… But suppose you, Ted, in your apartment in New York… or John Smith in his house anywhere in the world—suppose you went home at night, and opened the ordinary door, and heard another kind of voice. Suppose you didn’t want to look behind the umbrella-stand, or go down to attend to the furnace at night, because you might see something climbing up?
As noted above, the Doppelgänger is central to McCloy’s worldview: the idea of two or more sides to a person unites the psychology and the supernaturalism, and it recurs over and over again throughout her works. In her masterpiece, Through a Glass, Darkly, she writes:
You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly colored. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture are vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and—you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself, only—there is no mirror. So you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die.
Thus the fear of the Doppelgänger, the double-walker, the death-fetch—that which is dually natural and supernatural, normal and abnormal, the self but not the self—you as seen through the sinister mirror.
I can go on further—I originally intended to talk about how much The Slayer and the Slain had points in common with Hitchcock’s Marnie—but I’ve gone on way too much (apologies) and will break off here. I hope, though, that I can inspire some interest in this wonderful writer; she deserves it.