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”.
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 Abebooks.com 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?
There 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.