Helen McCloy

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?

Unlike the conservative Carr, however, and like Queen and Anthony Boucher, McCloy was very much a liberal, and she wore it on her sleeve; even so, both Carr and McCloy loved the past, albeit with different opinions of it, and attempted almost to unite past with present (Carr directly in, say, the historical novels; McCloy indirectly through musings on psychology). Even Carr’s beloved swashbucklers return with McCloy’s swashbuckling sleuth Dr. Basil Willing, and it’s intriguing how, in spite of their distinct political opinions, they end up at more or less the same place. I wonder if Russell Kirk would have thought them both Bohemian Tories.

 

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.

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6 Responses to Helen McCloy

  1. JFW says:

    Thanks for the post. 🙂 I’ve only read three McCloy novels to date: ‘Dance of Death’, ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’ and ‘Deadly Truth’. The idea of doubling was certainly present in most of them… I think I liked ‘Deadly Truth’ best in terms of the mystery. 🙂

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    • Of course—thanks for the comment! I haven’t yet read The Deadly Truth, but it’s one that I’d certainly like to read.

      I suppose for these comments I focused on McCloy’s writing and themes rather than puzzle-plotting; it’s entirely possible, in fact, to criticize Through a Glass, Darkly for its lack of a real “surprise!” solution at the end, but the cluing is good, and the ambiguity is masterly (methinks).

      Karl

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      • JFW says:

        I didn’t quite enjoy ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’ – and to be fair I tend to prioritise puzzle and writing, which might explain how I’m on JJ’s side when it comes to Rupert Penny. But yes, I agree that McCloy is one of the better GA writiers. ‘Dance of Death’ was gripping, even if its puzzle wasn’t quite as compelling. Then again, it was McCloy’s first attempt?

        I think with regard to ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’, part of the problem for me was possibly that I’d read glowing reviews of the novel. And so finished the novel feeling somewhat underwhelmed. I definitely recommend ‘Deadly Truth’. 🙂

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      • I can completely understand that, too. Indeed, it’s not the world’s greatest puzzle-plot, and a critic can find a number of holes in it (which might have been part of the point, I suppose…).

        Still, expectations can well play havoc with our opinions; I actually went into Through a Glass, Darkly already having known much of the plot (I’d read the short story years before), and I came away impressed with—well, so many other aspects of it.

        I’ll be sure to let you know when I get to The Deadly Truth; I’m getting two Halters via Interlibrary Loan—wish me much-needed luck! 😉

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  2. Brad says:

    I agree with all you say here, Karl! Helen McCloy is perhaps my greatest discovery of my blogging life over the past two years. I’m reading her books oh so slowly so as to make it last! I thought The Slayer and the Slain did something that many of the classic writers never did, and considering how many twists they all hit, that’s saying something. But like you, I find her prose exquisite, and I’m trying to put into words (and having a hard time of it in a current post I’m working on) how I need more than just a puzzle in my classic mysteries nowadays. Social commentary, character, beautiful writing – any of those help me love a book all the more!

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    • Thank you, Brad. 🙂

      As you know, I have similar (well, mostly the same) problems with, e.g., Paul Halter as you do, and I wonder if one of the reasons we do is because of our respect for “social commentary, character, beautiful writing” as elements just as important as the puzzle-plot.

      I think that I keep returning to McCloy for that exquisite prose and for something of an education about so many different topics. (One of the reasons I wrote those two posts on Carr’s influences/epigraphs is because there’s a lot that went over my head!) I tend to like detective-stories in large part because they’re like adventures, with something magical and mysterious around the corner. That’s a quality McCloy (and Carr) has in spades.

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