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.

Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962) (#003 of 100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #003

Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962)


Linington“Dell Shannon” was the principal pseudonym of Barbara Linington (left), who also wrote as Elizabeth Linington, Egan O’Neill, Anne Blaisdell, and Lesley Egan. Many early hardcover editions of her books made much of the fact that she was a proud member of the John Birch Society, which Wikipedia describes as “radical right-wing” and “a fringe element of the conservative movement” which was actually denounced by William F. Buckley as being “far removed from common sense”. In my opinion, Ms. Linington was a ghastly racist whose political views were a little to the right of Attila the Hun and who used her books as a vehicle for her far-right politics. She was also known as the “Queen of the Procedurals” — I am unable to determine who gave her this title, or precisely why, but it seems to be based on the fact that she was the most prolific female writer working in the genre of the police procedural mystery novel. My contention will be that she merely appropriated the form without understanding its roots, but that will be seen below.

Publication Data:

$T2eC16J,!)0E9s37FbcFBRjGk444nw~~60_3This is the fourth volume in a series documenting the adventures of Lieutenant Luis Mendoza of the LA police department. The first edition is from William Morrow in 1962; first UK edition appears to be from Oldbourne, 1963. A number of paperback editions and book club editions exist. It is ordinarily my practice to display the edition which I have in my hands but the entire internet doesn’t appear to contain a photograph of the 1984 paperback from Mysterious Press; my edition has a tasteful and vaguely Art Deco cover that is part of a uniform edition of a handful of Shannon’s novels. As a placeholder I have given you an image of the first edition but I’ve allowed pride of place to the thin-lipped and censorious face of the author herself, above.

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. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it. 

Lieutenant Luis Mendoza leads a team of detectives working in the Los Angeles homicide squad of 1962. The story begins with a scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend, beautiful red-headed Alison Weir, who owns and runs a charm school. We soon learn that although the police made an excellent case against Allan Haines for the rape and murder of Mary Ellen Wood, and he was tried and executed, his alibi witness came forward some months later and exonerated him.  And since the newspapers are leading an outcry against this error, the detectives must work extra-hard to find the killer.

We learn a little bit about the personal lives of some of the team of detectives as they plod through a routine which is hinted at, but not really described in detail — too boring, one supposes. Mendoza is famous for his poker-playing, his inherited millions, his Abyssinian cats, his beautiful wardrobe, his Facel-Vega sports car and his hunches about how to solve murder cases; this last is a good thing since he seems to do very little actual work. After dithering around for most of the novel getting nowhere, an out-of-town policeman walks in and hands them the solution to the identity of the real rapist/murderer, who is just about to murder, you guessed it, Alison Weir. In what is meant to be an exciting finish, Mendoza ruins his sports car in the process of racing to the crime scene to save her in the nick of time and, one supposes, reconcile with her, since the many further books in the series detail their idyllic married life.

This book was nominated for an Edgar award for Best Novel. As you will soon discover, I suspect this may have been in a parallel universe.

Why is this so awful?

The police procedural is a sub-genre of the mystery novel that consists primarily of a group of police officers who work as a team, doing everything that they do in order to solve crimes. We see good officers and bad officers doing both smart and stupid things, following hot leads and trails that peter out. The officers’ work is never done and they are usually working on multiple cases at the same time; occasionally these cases are less than serious. Sometimes cases remain unsolved. Most such novels describe a number of cases that are in various stages of closure. This is meant to give the reader the flavour of what police work is really like. The best-known practitioner of this school is Ed McBain, whose many novels of the 87th Precinct in a fictional city not unlike NYC have delighted generations of readers.

This novel and its companions in the series are meant to be procedurals, and the author as noted above is known as the Queen of the Procedurals (for some reason, procedurals are very, very rarely written by women or for them, it seems). In fact, these novels are more like romances than procedurals. The author appears to know virtually nothing about how police officers actually behave or work in real life — but then, as soon becomes clear, she appears to know virtually nothing about how human beings actually behave in real life, so this ignorance of procedure is unsurprising.  Frankly, it seems as though at some point many years ago, she spent a couple of days hanging around a police station, listening credulously to bullshitters telling her exaggerated tales of their own excellence, and parlayed that into a long-term career.

What we are presented with, in fact, is a right-wing nitwit’s fantasy about how police should work, unsullied by little things like the rules of court, evidence, and common sense. I realize that it is usually an error to ascribe the social values of 2013 to a novel published in 1962, but the attitudes and mores displayed here as if they were normal and sensible are so disgusting and so disgraceful, so anti-law, that I cannot believe that the citizens of 1962 would not have risen up and replaced their police force to a man had they acted or thought like this.

For instance, an early example from Chapter 5 (page 66 in my edition). The hero — the hero! — says:

“There’ve been thirty-odd cases of rape and attempted rape through headquarters this eighteen months, and in all but seven or eight of them the woman was at least partly to blame, for voluntarily putting herself in danger. And I’m not counting the statutory cases, where it’s legally rape because the girl’s under age — I mean the real thing, sex by force. Thirteen of those cases ended in homicide. Of those thirteen women, six can be called — mmh — respectable. The others had asked for it, just like those where it didn’t end in murder — hanging around bars alone, picking up strangers, or they lived or worked or visited in the back alleys of bad districts.”

The corollary, of course, is that because the rapist in this particular case is not a badly-dressed drooling degenerate, or a Negro — the two are pretty much equivalent to this author in later cases — the police are baffled and the public is outraged. Later on (page 75), Mendoza says, in conversation with his second-in-command, “… can any man say there hasn’t been a time he didn’t have the impulse to violence with a woman — to let her know he’s a male creature? Or with some men, to repay her for being female? Tell the truth to yourself if not to me.” Sergeant Hackett replies, “Like they say, touché.  It’s a thing in us, if we’re men at all.”  The incredible part is that of course this is being written by a woman about an imaginary police officer, whose job seems not to be to serve and protect but rather to sit around in his office and make moral judgments. Wikipedia and other sources are silent as to whether Linington ever married or had children or anything approaching a relationship with a normal human, but I’m suspecting not. Nor, I suspect, was she ever the victim of a crime that she felt to be “her fault”.

The police procedure in this novel is nearly non-existent. Unlike the classic procedural, the entire police force seems to work on a single case here. Officers apparently decide what to do by divine inspiration and then go and do it — very rarely are they actually directed, they are merely said to be directed. It seems as though the author feels as though the routines of police work are far too boring to be dwelt upon, even though this is actually the basis of the procedural. The police specifically deprecate “head doctors” as having useless opinions in cases like these. My instinct is to suggest that this is because any psychiatrist worth his salt would lock up half these policemen as being misogynistic psychos after a few minutes of conversation. (Immediately after opining that head doctors are useless, Mendoza muses about the blonde with whom he apparently had casual sex  the night before.  She is nameless. “A silly female. Just, in effect, a female — compliant — and obtuse. Nobody to talk to, to enjoy being with, just for herself. You might say, on a par with the waitress who fetched you a meal when you were hungry. That kind of thing.” One wonders why the female readers of 1962 did not rise up en masse and insert these volumes into the author’s vagina sideways.) And in fact, the boring police work is depicted as being just as useless as actually, you know, bothering to research it for the edification of the reader. Instead, Mendoza is constantly said to have “instincts” that have led him to promotion over his fellows. And the out-of-town police officer who comes in while on vacation in LA and identifies the killer does so because he had a “feeling” that this individual killed a girl in his home town. How can someone be Queen of the Procedurals who doesn’t know much about police work and doesn’t think it’s worthwhile anyway? Bah, it’s all rubbish. These police officers threaten reporters with violence for reporting the truth and having an anti-police attitude — Mendoza punches one and there are no consequences. They bemoan the interference of the ignorant public and the counterproductive justice system, all of whom collude to prevent the police from administering the rough justice that they alone know how to dish out, to anyone whom they decide is guilty. And these men are the HEROES of this novel.

The other disgraceful part of this novel is the author’s attitude towards her fellow human beings.  And here, I have to say, she constantly works the same trick. Essentially she selects a minority whom she dislikes — and believe me, that’s all of them, because this lady only likes upper-class well-spoken well-dressed white people who are God-fearing, obedient and Republican — and creates a character who is NOT as bad as she implies the rest are.  Mendoza, for instance, is probably Mexican (his internal monologue appears to imply that his grandmother pretends to be descended from the pure-blooded Castilian settlers of long ago, in order to raise her social class) but he is wealthy, well-dressed, a professional, etc.  And so when other characters imply that he is a “dirty Mex”, because this is a perfectly natural attitude for a member of the white middle-class hoi polloi, Mendoza allows himself to reflect on how misguided they are. Similarly, in later books in this series, there is a kind, sensible, family man who is, as they were called back then, a Negro police officer. This gentleman doesn’t raise a finger to stop his fellow officers from bullying and occasionally beating other Negroes, and occasionally allows himself a God-fearing regret that they don’t know better than to have too many children, but he himself is the kind of Negro whom whites should respect and pat on his woolly little head. Grr. Certain types of people are irredeemable; I think the author is incapable of believing that a Communist or a homosexual could ever be a “good person”, and all such in her books have metaphorical horns and tails. The lower classes are all lazy scum who breed too frequently all except the occasional one who works her way out of poverty by dint of keeping her skirts long and her knees together and her nose to the grindstone. (Alison Weir’s comments about the girls from whom she takes money to teach them manners are absolutely outrageous. She seems to believe that, without her gentling influence, they would all be makeup-caked whores teetering around on four-inch heels having sex with anyone who asked.)

There’s a moment in this novel that made my blood boil. Chapter 14, page 193 in my edition, Mendoza is having a difficult time solving the case by intuition, and police work isn’t helping, so he decides to go out and get drunk at lunch.  Yes, seriously.  He goes to a restaurant where he is known, and a kindly black waiter who notes that he’s drinking much more than usual and not touching his food generously offers to make him food more to his taste, and suggests that he cut back on the drinking.  To which Mendoza replies, and I quote, “Hell and damnation … are you trying to wet-nurse me, boy? If I don’t get served here, there’s a bar three doors down.” Boy, indeed. What a disgrace to the badge.

Of particular note in this volume is the author’s attitude towards women — this book is, in a sense, about women, because the “psycho killer” at the heart of it all has been driven off the deep end by finding out that the woman he loves is a slut.  (It’s hard to say exactly why, but I suspect she indicates that she is willing to have sex before marriage with him, so he strangles her and all other women whom he decides are sluts.) One character, the slatternly Madge Parrott, is a case in point. Her best friend and fellow slut — sorry, waitress of easy virtue/roommate — was killed by the killer because she was willing to have sex with him, it seems.  They used to laugh at him for being unsophisticated and thinking that they were virgins. Madge is entirely willing to cooperate with the police, of course, but makes no bones that she would fuck the bejeezus out of Mendoza or any other nice guy if it got her a wedding ring and a ticket out of waitress-dom. In the meantime she will insist upon being plied with daiquiris before she gives out information, and you know that’s the sign of a bad girl. A middle-aged women who is driven by economic necessity to rent rooms in her house is presented as a fool. There are no women police officers in the homicide squad, of course. (Later in the series one is added and it turns out that the men are too timid to suggest that she type their reports, which is precisely why she’s there.  In fact, she longs to BE their secretary and is sad that they reject her typing skills.)

And Alison herself rejects most ordinary men because she has been spoiled by the ultra-macho Mendoza; it’s only when she decides to subordinate her red-headed wilfulness to his masculine superiority that he can save her life and end the book.  In the meantime, she accepts a date with a polite nonentity (the killer, of course) because she is single, and heaven forbid she should stay home on a Saturday night alone. So she spends a weeknight  redoing her nails in copper to match her new skirt, so as to please a man about whom she doesn’t care a scrap. The book is full of such nonsense.

Other than ridiculous characterization, a complete ignorance of police procedure and a plot that is based on coincidence, the other dire aspect of this novel is the writing style. And here, other than a reliance upon cliches about race, class and gender that are horrific to the modern eye, there are two main issues that grate tremendously upon the reader’s ear.

The first is that Mendoza, in order to give him a character beyond the trappings of his money, cars, cats and lack of integrity, constantly speaks in Spanish words and phrases. This rather feels, to quote Dashiell Hammett describing Philo Vance, “like a high-school girl who had been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary.” It is constant and unrelenting, and I found it very hard to take. At the end of the novel, when Mendoza is racing across town insanely in order to save Alison from first the fate worse than death and then death, he seems to lose the ability to speak English at all. This book is putatively written for an English-speaking reader, and much like Dorothy L. Sayers including a dozen pages entirely in French with no translation in Clouds of Witness and expecting the reader to get the point, it is incredibly annoying. I don’t know what the Spanish is for “Go fuck yourself, you bigoted hag,” but I would have liked to scream it into the writer’s ear.

My long-time loathing of Linington’s writing began in my early teens when I became aware of a stylistic tic of hers that drove me crazy. It’s connected with the word “the”, misused in place of “a” or “an”. She puts this idiosyncratic use of the word into the mouths of all sorts of different characters as if it were common parlance for everyone, and it drives me crazy.  For instance, and I found this almost by opening the book at random: “… the most respectable high-minded women, nine times out of ten they’ll feel the animal attraction to the big male brute, never mind if he’s the plumber or the garage mechanic or whatever …” (page 69 of my edition).  What’s wrong with “an animal attraction to a big male brute”, etc., just like the rest of the world says it? And it’s so constant and consistent, in all her novels regardless of the pseudonym she’s using, that it’s like a signature. For me, it’s like a sore tooth that she keeps biting in my mouth.

It is astonishing to me at this remove that this writer was so popular in the 60s that she published dozens of novels under a handful of names. But I take a great deal of pleasure in the fact that her work is almost completely out of print today, mostly because she is racist, sexist, misogynist, a terrible prose stylist and completely ignorant of the requirements of the form in which she was working. I hope I have persuaded you to avoid her work completely in the future.

Notes For the Collector: offers an inscribed and signed 1st edition from a UK bookseller for the unusual price of $102.48. A Good first in jacket will set you back as much as $40 or $50, and a reading copy in paperback might cost you $5. There are no noteworthy editions, to my mind, and even the paperbacks do not have the cheerful vulgarity that marked so many of their fellows during this period. Many, many book club editions exist — she was a profilic contributor to their lists — and since these editions are nearly worthless, you should have to pay nearly nothing for them. If you truly feel you must read these books, I recommend you pay as little as possible for them.

As I have commented elsewhere, good books by good writers hold their value and even increase. Therefore, on that logical basis, someone would have to pay me to accept a copy of this book. I seem to have paid $2.50 for mine, which means I’ve wasted $2.50 that no one will ever give me back.