Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

Cue For Murder, by Helen McCloy (1942)

129248Author: Helen McCloy (1904 – 1994) came from a writing family and began her writing career as a journalist, first for William Randolph Hearst and then as a freelancer. Her first mystery was published in 1938 to great acclaim and she continued to write 13 novels about her psychiatrist-detective, Dr. Basil Willing, on and off until 1980. She published 16 volumes of non-series mysteries (and there are some posthumous collections of short stories, etc.) Her marriage to Davis Dresser, who as “Brett Halliday” created the Michael Shayne series, lasted from 1946 to 1961. She was the first woman to serve as president of Mystery Writers of America (1950) and received an Edgar award in 1954 for her mystery criticism.

I think it’s safe to say that connoisseurs of detective fiction regard McCloy as one of the best American writers of detective fiction during her career. Her work is uniformly of a high quality; she’s skilled at planting clues and especially at delineating the psychology of murderers and murder suspects. Mike Grost suggests that although Cue for Murder is considered to be one of her better novels, his preference is for her later works and regards her work after 1945 as better than her earlier books; I tend to agree. I have elsewhere reviewed what might be her most famous work, Through A Glass, Darkly (1950).

dell0212Publication Data: The first edition is from 1942, William Morrow. The book was frequently republished in the 1940s, including its first paperback appearance as Dell mapback #212 in 1948, and then appears to have fallen out of publishing favour. Anthony Boucher selected it as one of his World’s Great Novels of Detection series for Bantam (F3027) in 1965, and it doesn’t appear to have been reprinted since. Amazon gives a peculiar listing which suggests that the book will be republished by The Murder Room (a subsidiary of Orion in the UK who’s been reprinting other of her titles) at the end of 2015. No e-book appears to exist.

McCloy’s work was very occasionally adapted for television; “Cue For Murder” was adapted for a French-language television program, “Le Masque”, in 1989. I have not been able to view this production.

About this book:

Spoiler warning: What you are about to read will give away large chunks of information about the plot and characters of this murder mystery. You will probably learn enough here to be able to solve the mystery without really thinking about it. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of this book’s details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

dell0212backThe book begins at an art gallery opening in Manhattan, filled with smartly-dressed women and attentive men. Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who consults to the police department, is attending, and meets Broadway star Wanda Morley and her surrounding players. Wanda’s new play opens that night; we see her with a handsome young actor, Rodney Tait, who stars with her and who is said to adore her. (His erstwhile girlfriend, also present, seems to disagree.) Wanda will share the stage with Leonard Martin, returning to the stage after a year’s illness.

We learn that something strange has happened recently from a tiny snippet of a newspaper story, of the “human interest” variety. There’s a tiny knife-grinding shop sharing the alley with the rear of the theatre (see the map back’s map, nearby, for a better idea of what everything looks like and where it is). Someone has broken into the shop and used the equipment to surreptitiously sharpen a knife — and, before leaving, the mysterious sharpener has released the shop owner’s pet canary, which is found fluttering around the shop.

Dr. Willing decides to attend the opening night. At this point we need to know a little bit about the play itself. It’s a revival of Sardou’s Fédora — not a well-known or especially good play. (Wanda is said to only choose lousy plays as her starring vehicles because her acting looks so much more realistic against the unbelievable events, and this tells you a lot about Wanda and her view of art.) Victorien Sardou is not remembered today except perhaps as the playwright whose original play was turned into the opera Tosca by Puccini, and this work which became the eponymous opera Fédora by Umberto Giordano, which actually brought the fedora hat into popularity for first women, then men. Fédora was written for Sarah Bernhardt; it concerns a young noblewoman (who in the original production wears a soft hat, which ended up named after the play) whose lover, a revolutionary, is brought to her home in Act I, mortally wounded. The lover is attended by a doctor and then discovered by a police officer; he dies at the end of Act I and Fédora vows revenge. (This revenge doesn’t come to pass because all anyone ever gets to see of the play is Act I.)

Since the part of the dying revolutionary has no lines and is required to only lie there motionless until he is kissed goodbye by Fédora and then expires, Sarah Bernhardt used it as a publicity vehicle; she enlisted her handsome young aristocratic friends to play the role onstage, giving them all the excitement of acting without requiring any actual talent or experience. Edward VII was one of them, and he delighted in having gone unrecognized. The novel tells us that Wanda Morley learns of this and decides to revive the tradition; the producers don’t care who plays the role and are pleased to save the money required to hire a motionless supernumerary. So the casting of her lover is up to Wanda.

Immediately before the play begins, an unknown man who will play Fédora’s lover is seen to make his way to the alcove where he lies down and begins to pretend to be near death, lying motionless. After the curtain rises, the only three actors who have any business near him are Rodney Tait as the doctor, Leonard Martin as the policeman, and of course Wanda Morley who kisses him good-bye before he is said to expire. Act I curtain and the stagehands begin to strike the set; of course, the unknown man is truly deceased. Dr. Willing comes up from the audience to possibly assist with first aid and notices something very odd. Although the dead man is lying in a pool of blood with a surgical scalpel sticking out of his chest, a passing housefly ignores the blood and seems fascinated with the handle of the knife. No one is quite sure why, but a number of witnesses note that the housefly will not leave the scalpel alone, even though the blood would seem to be a more attractive target. We also learn that a mysterious figure in a long dark cloak has been hanging around on a fire escape and no one can identify him … or her.

Basil Willing soon identifies the victim as wealthy young John Ingelow, who is said to have been leaving his wife Margot, aka “Magpie”, in order to marry Wanda. Is Wanda’s romance with Rodney Tait just a publicity stunt? She’s certainly done this before with other co-stars, one of whom was Leonard Martin. Did she truly mean to run away with the victim, or is this merely another example of her desire for publicity? Wanda is constantly saying that she wants to leave all the annoying hurly-burly and glitter of the theatrical life and be merely a homebody housewife … was John Ingelow the man for whom she meant to abandon her career, or was she merely stringing him along for more publicity as a femme fatale?

The investigation progresses, but the public’s demand to see the play now that it’s been involved with murder is so great that the show must indeed go on. A brash young playwright named Adeane seems to be the only person who wants to take the ill-fated role of the dying revolutionary ( so that he can get some attention paid to his unpublished scripts); the theatre is standing room only when the production resumes. And, as the experienced reader will have already guessed, Adeane is found dead in the same position in the same set at the end of Act I on re-opening night, and again only the same three actors have gone near him.

Very shortly after the second death, Basil Willing works out the identity of the murder and, more importantly, the reason behind all the murderous activities. He confronts the killer in an exciting climax, and then explains everything.

n246275Why is this book worth your time?

This is certainly a highly-regarded novel by a well-known and esteemed mystery writer; it’s absolutely worth your time if for no reason other than the collective intelligence of a lot of mystery critics suggests that it is.  It really is a good book.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way; I didn’t like this as much as I might have done — I didn’t even like it as much as I felt I should, given the admiration I have for other critics who think it’s a great mystery. There is some beautiful writing in this book, not just descriptive pieces like showing the reader what it’s like to be acting in a play, or viewing it from the audience. The beautiful writing is also concerned with what people are thinking and why they do what they do, and from that point of view it’s masterful. When McCloy talks to the reader about how shallow Wanda Morley is — selecting cheeseball revivals of lousy plays in which to appear so that critics will say, “Oh, why doesn’t anybody put Wanda Morley into a play that’s worthy of her talents?” — we get it. We get it in a way that adds value to the book because we grasp not only what underlies Wanda’s career, but that McCloy understands the theatrical milieu well enough to give us inside information about it and the motivations of the people within it. Wanda’s tired protestations — about how she’d really rather be a housewife, and yet she never actually does anything about achieving that goal — are both funny and entirely understandable. McCloy (and through her, Dr. Willing) understands human nature and understands how to tell us, and show us, so that we can understand it too.

The problem with it considered strictly as a piece of detective fiction is that the murder itself is easy to figure out. My God, is it easy. Let’s face it. There are really only three suspects for whom the murders are physically possible; the murders are committed onstage in front of an attentive Broadway audience and a stage full of actors. Unless you’re prepared to put in a lot of thought considering ways in which people could be dropped in by ropes from the ceiling, or knives thrown 60 feet with unerring accuracy — all of which are stupid and generally impossible, and I’ll tell you right now, they aren’t the answer — there’s only three people on your list of suspects, and they are all three of the principal actors. If you can construct a list of circumstances and conditions that the identity of the murderer must meet, and then hold those three people up against it, it’s childishly simple to figure out whodunit. Even if the title of the book wasn’t telling you exactly which clue was the vital one …

The point of this book is not so much whodunit, though, as whydunit. And that’s a slightly more difficult issue. It is clear from the way the material is presented that any solution to the mystery must explain (1) the fly that buzzes around the knife handle; (2) the repeated liberation of the knife-grinder’s canary from its cage, and (3) the motive for wanting to kill these people in the first place. There’s also a minor physical clue that must be explained away, the circumstances surrounding someone seen in a long dark cloak standing in deep shadow.  (And there’s a tiny point about the nature of an outdoor clock at the top of a skyscraper that today’s reader will not really understand, since analog clocks are out of fashion, but it doesn’t really matter since the time sequences in the book are precise and clear.) For me, the only unclear point was the motive.

That’s because, in the decades since 1942, other authors have manipulated these same facts for the pleasure of the reader. As far as the fly buzzing around the knife handle, well, I might have an unfair advantage since there’s a particular medical condition in a member of my immediate family that is directly relevant. But anyone who has read the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon has seen the same material presented in the same way. The underlying principle was apparently known in Babylonian times. With respect to the liberation of the canary; that’s not really a physical clue but a mental one. If you understand why the canary was freed, you’ll understand the motivation for the crimes and, honestly, the symbolism is a bit tacky. It’s the kind of thing that sounds good in a book, but that I doubt would actually occur to someone. And as far as the person in the long dark cloak — I’ve seen that same idea used as the basis for the central “trick” in a mystery novel by E. X. Ferrars from about the same time period (the wartime blackout in England, as I recall), and I dimly remember but cannot name a couple of other novels that used it too. I’m not saying McCloy didn’t use it first, far from it, but at this remove I’ve definitely seen it used by others and thus it is not really surprising.

The problem is that although I was clear about the identity of the murderer from a fairly early point, due to one of those “casual remarks” clues that I find so easy to spot these days (you know, when one character drops an off-hand remark about the earlier history of another and there’s no real reason for mentioning it), there’s no proof until very close to the end of the novel and that pretty much comes from the murderer confessing the details. Although the murderer’s motivation is lying right there for any police officer who cares to go looking for it, it takes a tiny leap from the facts to the circumstances which apparently no one but Basil Willing is capable of making, even though he doesn’t seem to have done so either. Instead, Dr. Willing pretty much does what I did; creates a list of circumstances and conditions that the murderer’s identity must meet, figures out whodunit, and then starts to investigate the motivation for the crimes.

I mean, let’s face it. The murders are committed in front of hundreds of people; I can’t actually imagine that anyone would hope to get away with it in a plan that has hundreds of ways to go wrong and only one way to go right. I suggest that it’s much easier to acquire a sharp knife in dozens of ways that are easier and safer than by breaking into a shop and sharpening one. If the murderer actually wanted to kill the victims and ruin a third party’s life in the process, I can think of a lot easier ways than committing two murders in the middle of sold-out theatrical performances (a blunt instrument and a dark alley come to mind). What this book is about is a crazy person doing insane things, and mostly for the purposes of making an interesting mystery. And that kind of spoils my enjoyment. For a book that people esteem so highly for containing so much psychological insight, the central psychological issues are pretty much nonsensical.

All things considered, there is a lot to applaud in this book and a small core of disappointment. Like I said, the writing is beautiful. You can see the production of Fédora unfolding before you (in fact, you see it so many times you’ll never need to actually go to see it should anyone be silly enough to mount a production). There are little moments of description that are so evocative and clear that you can see things happening, and take in tiny details of clothing and background. It all clicks because it has a basic rightness about it; the author has seen these things, either in real life or her mind’s eye, and is showing them to you as they are. Nothing is slurred or fuzzed over; if it’s in the book, it’s clear. Essentially everything about this novel is beautifully arranged; if it were a film, I’d be praising things like set design, costuming, and production values. You will believe most of the people are doing things for real reasons — the only exception being the murderer.

It’s a truism of literary analysis that you have to work with the book you actually read, not the one you want to have read. Helen McCloy is a great writer and, let’s face it, Anthony Boucher thought this novel was worth including in a “Great Novels of Detection” series. Who am I to argue with Anthony Boucher? Well, all I can say is that if this book had left out the silly path from the murderous idea to the actual murderer, and allowed the murderer to act like a rational human, I think I would have liked it better. It probably wouldn’t have been a detective novel. It would have been an interesting crime novel at a time when such a thing was not yet possible (the psychological crime novel was still some years away in inception), because the only flaws in this book have to do with the mystery plot in and of itself. The murderer would have confessed, possibly after the first murder but certainly after the second, because the motivation which is given for the murders would have been completely accomplished and nothing else would have been necessary. Then Basil Willing in his psychiatrist’s persona would have been an interesting commentator on why the murderer did what was done, and this would have been an extremely powerful book. It’s been sacrificed for the puzzle mystery. Now, as a reader who has spent most of his life tracking down and appreciating well-written puzzle mysteries, I can’t say with a straight face that I think this is bad. Helen McCloy wrote good puzzle mysteries and I love puzzle mysteries. I just can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the puzzle mystery had been left out and the sheer intelligence behind this book had been allowed to shine through.

In a way, there’s an analogy with something in the book. Wanda Morley picks bad plays in which to star, because they make her talents look more impressive. It makes me wonder if Helen McCloy wrote a poor puzzle mystery because it makes her beautiful writing look more impressive. It’s kind of a shame that the puzzle per se is the least interesting thing about a book that’s known as a great puzzle mystery … I suggest that you read it for yourself to see if you agree. Whatever she’s writing, Helen McCloy is worth reading.

thNotes for the Collector:

The first edition is from William Morrow, 1942. Other contemporaneous editions exist, including ones from Detective Book Club and World. First paper edition seems to be Dell mapback #212 from 1948 (it appeared in an edition of “Thrilling Mystery Novel Magazine” in 1946, it’s up to you whether that counts as a paperback or not). The Bantam Great Novels of Detection paperback edition, with entries selected by Anthony Boucher, is from 1965.

I note that, as of today, on Abe Books, there’s a copy of the mapback edition that is signed and inscribed; even though it’s only in Fair condition, $30 plus shipping seems like a fantastic price for a copy. I may grab this one myself! The second most interesting copy available is a Very Good copy of the first edition in jacket for $50 plus shipping and this may actually be the one that is of more interest to collectors. I’m very fond of mapbacks, is all. The 1965 Bantam Great Novels of Detection series was a very good series, containing writers like Hake Talbot, Ellery Queen and Christianna Brand, and you could do worse than focus on collecting a set of them.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1942 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; sixth under “G”, “Read one book set in the entertainment world.” Everyone agrees this is one of the great backstage mysteries. I’m surprised I haven’t yet managed a complete line of six books, but I’m getting closer.



Death Demands an Audience, by Helen Reilly (1940)

Death Demands an Audience, by Helen Reilly (1940)


Author: Helen Reilly is a Golden Age mystery writer who produced nearly 40 novels between 1930 and 1962. She is, strangely enough, a member of a very small sub-group of good writers; she has no Wikipedia page. Someone should rectify that, even if only as a stub. Ms. Reilly was apparently born in 1891 and died in 1962, came of a literary family, and her brother (James Kieran) and two of her daughters (Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen) are also mystery writers. I have a handful of books by both her daughters and neither of them has a Wikipedia page either. Is this a plot? Or did Wikipedia have to sacrifice pages to make room for more exhaustive descriptions of Pokemon characters? 😉

Publication Data: First edition 1940, Doubleday Doran of New York under its Crime Club imprint. First paper Popular Library #7, 1943, with a cover by H. Lawrence Hoffman.

According to Stop, You’re Killing Me! (an excellent and useful resource that gives chronological lists of mystery writers’ books for people with my kind of OCD who are too lazy to walk across the room and plough through Hubin) this is Reilly’s tenth Inspector McKee novel. The “cheap edition” in hardcover was Sun Dial, 1940. A couple of paperback editions exist and they are significantly ugly LOL, which somehow makes them more collectible. Someone on the Internet is today offering a Bantam edition which I’m fairly sure doesn’t exist, and Mike Grost of MysteryFile agrees with me (and he knows more than I do about nearly everything); other than the Popular Library first paper, I’m only aware of Macfadden (1967) and Manor (1974) editions. I used the Macfadden edition (#60-473) to prepare this post and so, as is my habit, I used it at the head of this article. The reader should be aware that there are no ghosts or graveyards in the book and I have no idea what the cover is intended to represent.

About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read might discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery and will certainly give away large chunks of information about its plot and characters. 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, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

2196716366The action begins at a department store in New York at 47th and Fifth (today, I believe, known as the Diamond District, although I remember the area as the home of the much-missed Gotham Book Mart). Early in a January evening, a small crowd is waiting outside a display window for Garth and Campbell to raise their latest display window into position. When it rises from the depths of the basement, the window contains a mannequin of a beautiful girl and also contains a man’s corpse. A passing police officer, Todhunter, attached to Inspector McKee’s homicide squad, notices that a young woman in the audience bears a striking resemblance to the mannequin. She sees someone, has a strong emotional reaction, and decides to leave in a hurry; Todhunter follows her for the next hour, apparently convinced that she has something to do with the murder.

The corpse is a window designer named Franklin Borrow, and the vanishing young mannequin-lookalike is Judith Barrow, who will later attest that her father told her that if anything happened to him, she should hightail it to his home and get the contents of a mysterious green dispatch box. Todhunter follows her home and both are bopped unconscious by someone who apparently wanted the contents of the box, which is now missing, and got there first.

Meanwhile, Inspector McKee is investigating the staff and working environment of Garth and Campbell. He soon learns that the victim had an appointment with Luke Cambridge later that day; Luke had sent his brother Gregory to drive to the store to pick him up, since the Cambridge estate is hard to find. Not only Gregory, but his wife Irene, and their daughter Ellen (soon to be married to young Toby Newell) were all in the neighbourhood of Garth and Campbell near the time of the murder. Luke claims to have never met the victim, or to know what was on his mind. Subsequently, however, Luke invites Judith Barrow over for a chat; before he can reveal what, if anything, is on his mind, he’s murdered.

There is much further investigation and another murder attempt (someone tries to set fire to the hotel where both McKee and Judith Borrow are staying). McKee and his staff learn that there is a long-ago connection between Luke Cambridge and Franklin Borrow, who were both at a Colorado hotel in 1912. A creepy subordinate of Borrow employed at Garth and Campbell is murdered. Eventually, McKee realizes the nature of the connection between Cambridge and Borrow, and a crucial relationship (which is both completely secret and highly shocking) that underlies all the subsequent criminal events is finally revealed, which solves all the murders.

UnknownWhy is this book worth your time?

Recently in this blog I published an essay about the origins of the police procedural, found here, which collected further comment from some very well-read individuals who had read both this post and an earlier one on the end of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, found here, where this inquiry into the police procedural began. I foolishly asseverated that the origin of the police procedural was considered to be Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, from 1952; many of my commenters disagreed and pointed me at, among other things, the Inspector McKee novels of Helen Reilly. So when I happened across a copy of this volume in my library, I thought it would be worth my time to re-read it and comment with the police procedural form in mind.

What I found was something like a police procedural, to be sure. If I hadn’t been sensitive to the boundaries of the procedural, I wouldn’t necessarily have automatically assigned this novel to that category; to me, this is more like a very early form of a “woman in jeopardy” aka “femjep” novel, and is a style of mystery I think of as a “brownstone mystery”. To me, a “brownstone mystery” is set among the urban wealthy classes, is addressed primarily to a female reader, and is meant to display the everyday household arrangements of the wealthy class (furnishings, clothing, lifestyle) against a plot background which demonstrates to the reader that wealthy people are not more moral than other classes, and usually considerably less so. Helen Reilly, Frances Crane, and a number of other women writers of this period specialized in this form and made a fairly good thing out of it. (I think of them as “brownstones” because that, to me, is where wealthy people live in Manhattan — and a great number of brownstone mysteries are set in Manhattan.)

As best I can tell, people who assign the McKee novels to the police procedural category are impressed by Reilly’s story structure, where the investigation of the murders at the heart of the plot is carried out not by McKee alone, but by a group of police officers under his command, one of whom is the long-suffering Todhunter. I agree that this brings them exceptionally close to the procedural form (the term “police procedural” would not be invented for a number of years).  To me they don’t “feel” like procedurals; let’s say I’m dubious. The other police officers don’t seem to me to have individual personalities (neither, really, does McKee) — this is not the 87th Precinct, to be sure. I have had it suggested that this series places a reliance upon showing the interaction between police officers and scientific investigators. Well, that may well be true in other volumes; I didn’t notice it particularly in this one. I’m willing to be polite and say they remind me of police procedurals … what they really make me think of is “detective stories” based around the work of a single detective, McKee, directing the work of his subordinates but solving the crime with the effort of his own mind. Kind of like Freeman Wills Crofts’s Inspector French. And, as I said, with a healthy helping of the point of view and stylistic touches of what I call the brownstone mystery.

Men reading this novel (at least upon its first publication, I suggest) would miss or skim over quite a bit of material that is there to interest women readers. Like the works of Frances Crane, to my mind another brownstone practitioner, there’s an awful lot of information about clothes here. It starts with the mannequin in the window cradling the corpse. “Trailing draperies of sea-green chiffon, yards and yards of it, set off the slender long-limbed figure … One white hand, on which a magnificent star sapphire flashed, emerged from ruffles of duchesse point …” (Although why she’s wearing a blue ring with sea-green chiffon is beyond me.) And then a paragraph later, a line that made me chuckle. “Someone else said, ‘My dear — what a negligee! Look at those lines.'” Are you impelled to look up the definition of duchesse point? Try Wikipedia, here; it’s a kind of Brussels lace. I was forced back to reference materials during the extended description of Ellen Cambridge’s wedding dress, to define moyen-âge. Apparently the wedding dress has a kind of “Middle Ages” look about it. Similar attention to clothing abounds. When we learn from a department store salesperson that one of the suspects was shopping for blouses close to the time of the first murder, we also learn that she wants them for a southern climate (what we today call “resort season”, I believe) and we get a brief description of what she liked, and even what it would have meant to the salesgirl to sell them to her.

“Miss Eberhardt said, indicating Ellen: ‘That dame walks up and she’s all smiles. She says, “I want some blouses suitable for Southern wear.” I show her the classics and she picks three of those, white, tan and pimpernel, and then I show her a new French number and a military jacket in silver cloth and she likes them both, and I’m getting down a size sixteen from the shelf — just for a moment I turn my back — and what happens? She’s off. “Thanks very much,” she says, picking up her purse and gloves. “Another time.” And with that she walks away. Absolutely. Leaving me with the stuff I thought she was going to take spread out on the counter.'”

“Pimpernel”, incidentally, seems to be a shade of scarlet. And since Ellen is described by a vendeuse as a little bit wide through the hips, I’m going to suggest that a size sixteen might be appropriate, but it seems very large to my 2014 sensibility in a day when at least one of my female friends wears a size zero. Apparently young brides weren’t slimming down in 1940 to get into their moyen-âge wedding gowns. The point is, though, that the reader is meant to know that Ellen wears a size 16, that she intends to go south on her imminent honeymoon, and that she can afford to buy five garments without worrying about the cost, which I think would not have been the case for most of Reilly’s female readers. (Ellen was her wealthy uncle’s favourite and expected to inherit his wealth.) The fact that Ellen wears gloves on a shopping trip is not unusual for 1940, but it certainly would be for 2014. Overall, there is a lot of information about what women are wearing; note that Reilly is sure that her audience knows what the classics are for resort wear without explaining them.

I really do think that this book was written for a female audience for more reasons than the clothes, though. Quite a bit of that suspicion is based on a central romantic relationship of the novel. I’ve chosen not to be precise about it here, but I found it rather shocking for 1940. And I went back and looked at the initial description of one of the participants in that romantic relationship as that person is introduced. I truly believe that a woman would get something different from the description than a man, as it occurred to me upon re-reading; quite a bit from the description of clothing that is indicative of personality. It’s hard to say anything further without spoiling the surprise, but if and when you read this novel, go back and look at the characters’ introductory moments and try to imagine what you are being told about their personalities from their clothing — and by whom you are being misled. The revelation of this romantic relationship, by the way, was a complete surprise to me, and that’s not a good thing. There was no sense that any kind of romantic relationship existed that would underlie or motivate some of the events in the book; there doesn’t seem to be any natural affinity between the two characters that is displayed in any way, and really I think it’s just been made-up in order to make some of the actions of the book more believable.

There’s another curious point to this novel where I’m not on as firm ground; the geography. Certainly in the opening chapters of the book you can follow the progress of some of the characters on very specific subway lines, and I attest that they do go where they are said to go. Less solid is the geography of the homes of the extended Cambridge family; as near as I can tell, it’s meant to be a kind of pocket that hasn’t yet been developed, but that today must be completely swallowed by urbanity. We see the house clearly, and the neighbourhood is sketched in. But Reilly goes into a great deal of detail about who goes where and precisely how they get there … to me, this is a more “masculine” style. I’m not solid on this idea, but I thought I’d put it out there to see if anyone else had noticed that Reilly goes into this kind of detail in other books.

There is a great deal of detail throughout the novel, and some of it certainly contributes to the idea that this series of novels is an early example of what would later become the police procedural. McKee is constantly getting reports from his subordinates about the activities of suspects; where they go, what they do, and there is even informative detail about why they’re probably doing it. For instance, one character is trailed to three banks where he fails to get a loan for $2,500, and the officer observes disdainfully that he next goes to a loan shark known for extortionate interest rates; apparently the officer knows this from previous cases. (I’m sure the police wish it was still 1940; privacy legislation today would have kept the loan applications entirely in the dark until much later in the case, I’m sure.) But there are some crucial elements of this novel that are not detailed in any respect at all, it seems. We are told second-hand about the events of 1912 at that Colorado hotel, and we are given nothing at all to make the unexpected romantic relationship to which I’ve referred above even remotely believable. (Unless you count a moment when the characters greet each other and one of them smiles in a friendly way.)

One big issue in this novel is the identity of the murderer, and I’m not going to try to defend Reilly’s choices here. There is very little sense to the activities of the murderer in this book, especially when you consider that person’s lack of knowledge about some crucial facts. This is merely an example of the author pulling a motivation out of her ass to tie off the book at the end. Yes, the identity of the murderer is pretty much a complete surprise. But no, it’s not foreshadowed, it’s not well-clued, and it makes very little psychological sense. There are at least two other people who actually could have a better motive to commit the criminal acts; either of them would have been more believable as a murderer. But the choice of this particular murderer makes a strongly ironic point at the end of the novel, and perhaps that’s Reilly’s only reason for arranging things this way. If the murderer had only sat tight, they would have benefited much more than they actually did by committing murder; and the final pages of the book are a mass of had-I-but-knowns. (“He [McKee] said, ‘Queer, isn’t it, to think that a little thing like this, if what it really says had been known, would have prevented three murders?'” That’s a HIBK if I ever heard one.)

I’m sorry to say that there’s a big logical hole in the plot, at least from my point of view. The book is full of police officers who can come up with information about who was where at what time (for instance, Miss Eberhardt at the blouse counter testifies about Ellen’s whereabouts and activities; another character is trailed on a path through three banks and his loan applications are immediately revealed). But at the very beginning of the novel, when we are shocked by the corpse in the display window, we are also told that Judith Barrow recognizes the body of her father and immediately takes off for his house in a taxi in order to get hold of the green dispatch box — followed by Todhunter. They take public transportation to the Bronx (Van Cortlandt Park Station) whereupon they transfer to taxicabs. And there’s a line that piqued my attention: “Intent on the chase, Todhunter didn’t notice the third cab creeping along in the rear.” (A classic HIBK phrase, by the way.) This would be the murderer, who is about to hit both Judith and Todhunter over the head when they arrive at the victim’s house and remove the box of documents. How did the murderer’s taxi get there first? Why doesn’t Todhunter notice the murderer’s footprints in the snow? And even after these events, why do the police completely ignore the possibility that the murderer took a taxi and try to trace people’s movements? Nobody seemingly goes out questioning dog-walkers and neighbours for someone who’s seen a person carrying a green dispatch case, although that seems to be something that would be remembered. And I can’t think of why the murderer didn’t merely remove the contents of the box without taking the box away; we learn later that it’s been opened with the key, so the murderer takes the chance that someone will notice the box as it’s being carried away and it’s entirely unnecessary. Of course, if the police had paid attention to this part of the case, the book would possibly have ended about page 75, so I can see that that’s a blind spot that’s necessary to the story. (And honestly, there is no real reason for Todhunter to take off after Judith Barrow when there is a fresh corpse sitting in front of his eyes that could use his professional attention.) Really what it makes me think is that Reilly came up with the story hook of the body in the display window rising out of the floor and then had to deform the logical activities of the murderer, police, and other characters in order to make it work. And that’s a little unfair.

All things considered, though, I did enjoy this novel; perhaps not for the reason that it’s a difficult puzzle-mystery. In fact it’s not really possible to solve this mystery upon first reading unless you make a huge logical leap and infer a romantic relationship between two characters who have not given you any reason to think they are involved. And as I’ve said, the murderer is pretty much the Least Likely Suspect; I don’t mind that, I just don’t think it’s a very interesting way to end the book without giving much in the way of a hint that the murderer is the kind of person who might do these things. But I liked the writing. I liked the accretion of detail so that it became difficult to separate actual clues from mere background. I liked the characterization where there was any, particularly of the icy Judith Borrow. And I particularly liked the details of everyday life in the New York of 1940, with all the masses of information about what women were wearing. I don’t really mind that the book is a hybrid of a proto-procedural and a “brownstone”; I like both those genres. I liked the inexorability of the plot; one really does feel that McKee and his large staff of minions will succeed no matter what. And I would certainly like to go back and read the remainder of the series, so Reilly has enough skill to hook me. And if you’re relatively uncritical (and especially if you’re interested in women’s clothes) you will enjoy this novel too, I think.

Popular Library 7

Notes for the Collector:

As of today, a Pennsylvania bookseller wants $525 (plus $45 shipping!) for a VG first edition in a repaired dust jacket, and a Californian dealer wants $250 for a VG+ first in VG+ jacket. But a Texan bookseller wants a mere $30 for a VG first in a Good+ jacket. Even making allowances for the difference in states, at least one of these prices has to be somehow wonky. I think the Californian is closest to reality at $250. But my candidate for most interesting copy of this book is Popular Library #7, from 1943, pictured here (the skull behind a little house behind a long row of fenceposts). I see a copy available for $17 plus shipping and that seems about right for this very early number from a significant paperback publisher. I wish I could have seen the cover in 1943 when the ink was fresh and bright; all PL titles of this vintage have washed out to some extent and the few copies I’ve seen of this particular title have not held up well. My own volume is a beaten-up reading copy that looks like it went through a lot of hands, and it might be worth $5 as a placeholder in a Popular Library collection.

The first edition seems to be the only jacket that actually shows a scene from the book (although the corpse is placed incorrectly). PL #7 shows a farmhouse that implies a rustic aspect to this book which is entirely lacking, and the ugly MacFadden Bartell paperback from 1969 that I used to write this appears to show a phosphorescent ghost in a graveyard — and makes a significant error about the contents of the novel on the back cover. “The third [victim] breathed his last in a crowd of people coming out of a theatre.” Well, um, no, that doesn’t happen in this book. I’m pretty sure it’s a different Helen Reilly novel, but the title is maddeningly escaping me.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1940 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; sixth under “N”, “Read one book set in the U.S.,” which in this book is New York City and its environs. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.