McCloy, Helen (1904 – 1994) [Updated on 12 December 2021]

descargaHelen 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 (1938). Dr Basil Willing features in 12 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. In Mr. Splitfoot (1968) Dr Basil Willing and his wife take shelter at a remote house in New England, where they must lodge in a haunted room. The title refers to the Devil, but Mr Splitfoot is also a symbol for the two sides of our nature, as Willing points out. The critic and mystery writer H.R.F. Keating in 1987 included this title among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. 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 according to other sources she died in 1992.

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).

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)

Helen McCloy’s books and in particular her series featuring Dr Basil Willing have been one of my best discoveries this year. Fortunately Agora Books is re-issuing them. And I’m looking forward to reading soon Who’s Calling? (Dr Basil Willing # 5) that, if my information in correct, will be released soon.


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. Morrow Mystery, US (1942)

The engagement of Archie, a young doctor, to night club artiste Frieda evokes ghostly phenomena when Archie takes Frieda to visit his mother near Washington.
Untraceable phone calls, vandalism – and a murder – all happen before Dr Basil Willing, psychologist-sleuth, takes over and solves the mystery.

Further Reading:

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