Helen McCloy (1904 – 1994)

mccloyHelen McCloy, in full Helen Worrell Clarkson McCloy, was a prolific writer of mystery novels and a major influence on the genre. She wrote as Helen McCloy and as Helen Clarkson.

McCloy was born in New York City, on 6 June 1904 to writer Helen Worrell McCloy and William McCloy, managing editor of the New York Evening Sun. She was educated at the Brooklyn Friends School, run by Brooklyn’s Quaker community. At fourteen, she published a literary essay in the Boston Transcript; at fifteen, she published verse in the New York Times. She lived in France for eight years, studying at the Sorbonne in 1923 and 1924. McCloy was Paris correspondent for the Universal News Service (1927-31) and the monthly art magazine International Studio (1930-31). She also was London correspondent for the Sunday New York Times art section and wrote political sketches for the London Morning Post and the Daily Mail.

After discovering a love for Sherlock Holmes as young girl, McCloy began writing her own mystery novels in the 1930s. In 1938, shortly after her return to the US, she introduced her psychiatrist-detective Dr Basil Willing in her first novel, Dance of Death. Dr Basil Willing features in 13 McCloy’s novels as well as several short stories; however, both are best known from McCloy’s 1955 supernatural mystery Through a Glass, Darkly — hailed as her masterpiece and likened to John Dickson Carr. Although McCloy was known primarily as a mystery novelist, she published under the pseudonym Helen Clarkson also a science fiction story, The Last Day (1959), regarded as the first really technically well-informed novel on the subject.

In 1946 McCloy married Davis Dresser, who had gained fame with his Mike Shayne novels, written under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. In 1948 they had a daughter, Chloe. She founded with Dresser the Torquil Publishing Company and a literary agency (Halliday and McCloy). Their marriage ended in 1961. McCloy went on in the 1950s and 1960s to co-author a review column for a Connecticut newspaper. In 1950, she became the first female president of Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and in 1953, she was honoured with an Edgar® Award from the MWA for her critiques. She helped to establish MWA’s New England Chapter in 1971, and was named an MWA Grand Master in 1990. Her contributions to the genre are recognized today by the annual Helen McCloy/MWA Scholarship for Mystery Writing. Helen McCloy died in Boston, Massachusetts, on 1 December 1994. aged 90. Although, based on other sources, she died in 1992.

Dance of Death features her detective, Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist and an expert in forensic medicine; he appears in many of what are considered her strongest novels. The social satire in such novels as Cue for Murder (1942) and Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956), as well as the fine presentation of New York society in Alias Basil Willing (1951) and Unfinished Crime (1954), suggests, as Erik Routley has indicated, that McCloy is one of those mystery writers in whom “there is a good deal of straight novel-writing.” Anthony Boucher believed McCloy “has always resembled the best British writers of the Sayers-Blake-Allingham school in her ability to combine a warm novel of likeable people with a flawless deductive plot.”

McCloy’s choice of a psychiatrist-detective as hero reveals her interest in psychology, especially in its more paranormal manifestations, as is evident in Through a Glass, Darkly (1949), Who’s Calling? (1942), and The Slayer and the Slain (1957). Her interest in the fragile structure upon which an individual’s personality is based is shown in The Changeling Conspiracy (1976), which deals with political kidnapping and brainwashing. This and recent novels reflect McCloy’s interest in contemporary affairs; The Goblin Market (1943) and Panic (1944), which were written during World War II and deal with problems created by the war, suggest this interest is not new.

In general, critics have preferred McCloy’s novels of detection to the novels of suspense or terror. McCloy herself believed the current popularity of detective stories is related to “some lack in the accepted literary diet.” The “moral understanding of common minds which results in sympathy for common lives” and the themes “that mean so much to the common man—love and death”—are missing from modern novels. In her best works, McCloy’s success in providing interesting characters and themes is matched with her ability in plotting.

The Dr Basil Willing Mysteries: Dance of Death (1938) (UK title: Design for Dying); The Man in the Moonlight (1940); The Deadly Truth (1941); Cue for Murder (1942); Who’s Calling (1942); The Goblin Market (1943); The One That Got Away (1945); Through a Glass, Darkly (1950); Alias Basil Willing (1951); The Long Body (1955); Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956); The Singing Diamonds aka Surprise, Surprise (1965) short stories; Mister Splitfoot (1968); Burn This (1980); and The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr Basil Willing (Crippen & Landru, 2003) short stories, some of which originally appeared in The Singing Diamonds.

Other Fiction: Do Not Disturb (1943); Panic (1944); She Walks Alone (1948) aka Wish Your Were Dead; Better Off Dead (1949); Unfinished Crime aka He Never Came Back (1954); The Slayer and the Slain (1957); Before I Die (1963); The Further Side of Fear (1967); Question of Time (1971); A Change of Heart (1973); The Sleepwalker (1974); Minotaur Country (1975); Cruel as the Grave (1976) aka The Changeling Conspiracy; The Impostor (1977); and The Smoking Mirror (1979)

Recommended Short Stories: “Chinoiserie” (1935); “Through a Glass, Darkly” (1948) later expanded into a novel of the same name in 1950; “The Singing Diamonds” (1949); “Murder Stops the Music” (1957); and “Murphy’s Law” (1979).

Further reading:

In his introduction to a reprint edition of Cue for Murder, Anthony Boucher recalled the reception of Helen McCloy’s first novel, Dance of Death (1938): “Few first mysteries have received such generous critical praise, as the reviewers stumbled over each other to proclaim [the author] a genuine find … combining a civilized comedy of manners with the strictest of logical deduction.” (Mystery File)

Though largely forgotten today, McCloy, like so many worthy older crime writers, maintains a following among crime fiction connoisseurs.  She was an early prominent employer of psychiatry in detective fiction (many mystery writers of the period tended to ridicule it) and she has the literate style that today so many people tend to associate almost exclusively with the English Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh.  In an ideal world, McCloy would feature more prominently (or at all) in genre histories of detective fiction, because she was a notable practitioner within the genre.” (Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp)

“Helen McCloy is arguably the best American detective writer. (As I’ve said before, I see Carr as a British – or at most trans-Atlantic – writer.) I’ve only read a handful of her books (Design for Dying, The Goblin Market, Through a Glass Darkly, Mr Splitfoot, Cruel as the Grave and the excellent C&L short story collection The Pleasant Assassin), but there wasn’t a dud among them. Her books are subtle and well written, using morbid psychology, obscure historical facts and literary allusions to unsettle the reader and to fuel the extraordinary power of her plots. Through a Glass Darkly, for instance, is among the top twenty best detective stories ever written, both for the way in which its horror arises almost entirely from Jamesian understatement (suggestion and the incongruous presence of the normal create the feeling of something terribly wrong) and for the ambiguous solution.” (Nick Fuller on Helen McCloy)

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(Facsimile Dust Jacket, Morrow Mystery (USA), 1941)

Product Description: When Dr Basil Willing rents a small shack for a vacation on Long Island he becomes embroiled with his landlady, Claudia Bethune. Claudia wants to learn the secrets of her relatives and friends, so she steals a truth serum and holds a dinner party for her nearest and dearest. In the early morning hours, as Dr Willing returns to his cottage, he sees what he thinks is a fire and investigates. He finds Claudia near death at the table and hears footsteps fading up the stairs. Someone didn’t want Claudia to learn the truth about them, and soon Dr Willing finds himself a suspect in murder. (Source: Amazon and The Murder Room)

The Deadly Truth has been reviewed, among others, at Pretty Sinister Books, The Grandest Game in the World, Vintage Pop Fictions, Crossexamining Crime, and Jason Half :writer.

Updated 09/04/2021