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by Bamber Gascoigne

Helen McCloy (1904-1994) - pseudonym Helen Clarkson


American mystery writer, whose series character Dr. Basil Willing debuted in Dance of Death (1938). Willing, the first American psychiatrist detective, believes that "every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints, and he can't wear gloves to hide them." He appeared in 12 of Helen McCloys' novels and in several of her short stories. McCloy often used the theme of doppelgänger, but offered a psychological or realistic explanation for the seemingly supernatural events.

"You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly coloured. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and - you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only - there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die..." (from Through a Glass, Darkly, 1950)

Helen McCloy was born in New York City. William McCloy, her father, was the longtime managing editor of the New York Evening Sun. His family was of Scottish Presbyterian origin. The family of her mother, Helen Worrell McCloy, family was of English Quaker origin. She published short stories under her maiden name, Helen Clarkson.

She was educated at the Friend's School, run by Brooklyn's Quaker community. At the age of fourteen, she sold a literary essay to the Boston Transcript, and when she was fifteen she received a check from the New York Times for verse. In 1923, she went to France, where she attended in 1923-24 the Sorbonne, Paris. She then worked for Hearst's Universal News Service (1927-32), as an art critic for International Studio and other magazines, and free-lance contributor to London Morning Post and Parnassus. McCloy returned to the United States in 1932.

Having read Sherlock Holmes as a young girl, McCloy retained an interest in mysteries and began to write them in the 1930s. Her her first novel, Dance of Death (1938) was followed by several other crime publications in the 1940s. Cue for Murder  (1942) was a story of murder onstage during a Broadway revival of Sardou's Fédora. McCloy did not hesitate to touch political issues, as in The One That Got Away (1945), that explored the psychology of Fascism, which she felt was rooted in the hatred of women. A non-Willing mystery, Panic (1944), was set in a remote cottage in the Catskills and was notable for its use of cryptoanalysis.

McCloy's hero, Dr. Basil Willing, is tall and elegant, comes from Baltimore, but he had a Russian mother. Willing became interested in psychiatry when he saw shell-shocked soldiers during his World War I service. He earned a degree in psychiatry from Johns Hopkins University, and like McCloy, he knows Paris and Vienna, where he continued his studies, acquiring a thorough knowledge of Freudian psychoanalysis. Willing's wife was an Austrian refugee, Gisela von Hohenems, who first appeared in The Man in the Moonlight (1940). They are married in Alias Basil Willing (1951) and Mr. Splitfoot (1968). Later he is widowed; McCloy never reveals details of her death. Willing lectures at Harvard, acts as an adviser to the New York district attorney's office, and lives with his daughter, named Gisela after her mother. Interested in perception and thinking, Willing is determined to find out how the villiain's perceptions are different from other people's.

Willing appeared mostly in novels but also first time in the short story 'Through a Glass, Darkly' which was a retelling of the legend of the Doppelgänger and was expanded into a novel of the same name in 1950. In 'The Singing Diamonds' Willing investigated reports of flying saucers; it became the title story of a 1965 collection of works by Helen McCloy. In Mr. Splitfoot, Dr. Willing and his wife to take shelter at a remote house in New England, where they must lodge in a haunted room. The title refers to the Devil, but Mr Splitfoot is also a symbol for the two sides of our nature (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in Stevenson's famous novel), as Willing points out. The critic and mystery writer H.R.F. Keating listed the work among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. Behind the twists and turns of the story, Keating wrote, "there is a good deal more, and it is this more that makes the book, with some others of the McCloy œuvre if full justice were to be done, one to hang, as it were, in the National Gallery of Crime Fiction." ('Helen McCloy: Mr. Splitfoot,' in Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating, foreword by Patricia Highsmith, 1996, pp. 143-144)

"The true detective story is fun to write and fun to read," McCloy argued. "Perhaps that is why a society still unconsciously puritanical in some things frowns upon it." ('McCloy, Helen (Worrell Clarkson)' by Nancy C. Joyner, in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly, 1985, p. 622) Although McCloy was known primarily as a mystery novelist, she published under the pseudonym Helen Clarkson also a science fiction story, The Last Day (1959),  regarded as the first really technically well-informed novel on the subject. It tells about a middle-aged woman, Lois, who witnesses a nuclear fallout on an isolated island, which in the end gives no refuge. "Is it communism to want peace in a nuclear age?" she asks. Determined to get the scientific details right, McCloy consulted with the editors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The novel was an expansion of her earlier short story 'The Last Day' (1958).

Another masterpiece is the eight Basil Willing novel, Through a Glass, Darkly (1950), a supernatural puzzle in the tradition of Dickson Carr. Anthony Boucher called it probably McCloy's best novel to date and compared her with the best British writers of the Sayers-Blake-Allingham school.  The title was taken from the Bible. (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.)

In the story art teacher Faustina Crayle is dismissed by Mrs Lightfoot from Brereton School for Girls in mid-term "for the good of the school", but she is not given a clear explanation. This time  Willing is brought into the case by his fiancée Gisela, whom Faustina tells about the strange decision. Willing is told that students have seen Faustina frequently appear in places where she couldn't possibly be. Mrs Lightfoot has her own theory: "I was born without faith in religion and I have lost my faith in science. I don't understand the theories of Messrs Planck and Einstein. But I grasp enough to realize that the world of matter may be a world of appearances – not a world of reality. Everything we see and hear and touch may be as tricky an illusion as the reflection in a mirror or the mirage in a desert." Alice Aitchison, the dramatic coach, falls down the steps, breaks her neck, and Faustina is suspected of causing the accident. Later Gisela finds Faustina dead in her cottage. The puzzle is solved without supernatural elements – behind the mysterious events is Faustina's distant relative, Vining, a man, who wants her jewels and has impersonated her.

The double theme was handled also in A Change of Heart (1973). In The Impostor (1977) a woman, Marina, recovers consciousness after a car crash to find herself in a psychiatric clinic. She recalls the accident clearly but she's told that all is her delusion. A man arrives, not her husband, but the get away she accepts the impostor. McCloy used in the story a cryptological double bluff. She had read about it in 1944 when she was writing Panic, but because she was unable to trace the source, she improvised her own version of it.

"'We live in a curious culture today. Everyone wants money and notoriety, but everyone hates the few who actually get the money and notoriety. They immediately become the targets of envy and malice. People watch them for the first sign of weakness the way vultures watch a dying animal. Do you want that?'" (from The Impostor, 1977)

The Slayer and the Slain (1957) dealt with amnesia. The first part is narrated by a young man, Harry Vaughan, who falls down, and loses part of his memory, about half an hour. He feels himself ten years older, suffers from headaches, meets people who know him but he doesn't remember them. He returns to his native city where he meets Celia, his old sweetheat whom he loves but who is married to Simon Thrall, and Lex MacLean, his cousin. Somebody is following his life, a shadow. The narrator receives anonymous letters. Simon, the husband of Celia, is killed. In the second part Harry's hidden personality, Henry, reveals himself through automatic writing. Henry explains that when Celia refused to marry him, Harry suffered a shock and lived in a haze for ten years. In this life he was in war and became an university lecturer. Harry suspect that Henry killed Simon, and also Lex, who started to doubt Harry's sanity. The books ends in a locked-room mystery: Harry is shot dead in a room, where all the doors and windows are locked. Two voices was head from the room before a gun was fired, but only Harry is found.

In 1946, McCloy married Davis Dresser; they had one daughter. Dresser had gained fame with his Mike Shayne novels, written under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. With Dresser, she founded the Torquil Publishing Company, which published the adventures of Michael Shayne, and a literary agency (Halliday and McCloy). Their marriage ended in 1961. Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956), in which Willing solves the murder of an alcoholic bestseller novelist, McCloy deals with the publishing industry – the suspects include Cottle's agent and publisher. The name of the writer, Amos Cottle, was taken from a satirical poem by Lord Byron: "And AMOS COTTLE strikes the Lyre in vain. / In him an author's luckless lot behold! / Condemn'd to make the books which once he sold. / Oh, AMOS COTTLE! ..." (English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 1809)

In the 1950s and 1960s, McCloy was a co-author of review column for Connecticut newspapers and in 1950 she became the first woman to serve as president of Mystery Writers of America. She received in 1953 an Edgar from the same organization for her criticism. McCloy also helped to found in 1971 a New England chapter of the Mystery Writers of America in Boston. The Helen McCloy/MWA Scholarship for Mystery Writing was founded to nurture talent in mystery writing – in fiction, nonfiction, playwriting, and screenwriting. "I feel that Miss McCloy offers readers something more than the usual detective story," wrote her ex-husband in his introduction to a collection of her short stories. "Though every clue is a part of a logical whole and every mystery is capable of a rational solution, there is something more for the imaginative reader. . . . In each there is an element of the uncanny. In each the reader is challenged to go below the surface of what seemingly-is to the submerged currents of what-may-very-possibly-be." ('Introduction' by Brett Halliday, in The Singing Diamonds and Other Stories, 1965, pp. 2-3)

MaCloy once  said that it was not "whodunit" that mattered to her, but "How and why did he do it?" ('McCloy, Helen (Worrell Clarkson),' in World Autors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 901) Helen McCloy died on 1 December, 1994, Woodstrock, NY.

For further reading:  'McCloy, Helen (Worrell Clarkson),' in World Autors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); 'McCloy, Helen (Worrell Clarkson)' by Nancy C. Joyner, in Twentieth-century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly (1985); 'Helen McCloy: Mr. Splitfoot,' in Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); 'Women of Mystery' by Robert Allen Papinchak, in Mystery & Suspense Writers, Volume 2, edited by Robin W. Winks (1998); 'Helen McCloy (1904-1992)' by Anita G. Gorman, in American Mystery and Detective Writers, edited by George Parker Anderson (2005); 'Helen McCloy and Dr. Basil Willing,' in Doctor-Detectives in the Mystery Novel by Howard Brody (2021) - Mystery writers from Quaker backgrounds: Raymond Chandler, Stanley Ellin, Helen McCloy, Rex Stout.

Selected works:

  • Dance of Death, 1938 (UK title: Design for Dying, 1938)
  • The Man in the Moonlight, 1940
  • The Deadly Truth, 1941
    - Tappava totuus (suom. Roland af Hällström, 1943)
  • Who's Calling?, 1942
  • Cue for Murder, 1942
    - Mikä on tarkoitus? (suom. Aarre Merilä, 1946)
    - TV film: En scène pour la mort, 1989, dir. & sc. Pascal Goethals, with François Perrot (as Basil Willing), Roger Dumas (as Inspecteur Foyle), Françoise Viau (as Wanda Morley) , Isabelle Carré (as Léonard).
  • Do Not Disturb, 1943
  • The Goblin Market, 1943
  • Panic, 1944
  • The One That Got Away, 1945
  • She Walks Alone, 1948 (US title: Wish You Were Dead, 1958)
  • Through a Glass, Darkly, 1950
    - TV film: Through a Glass Darkly, 1959, in 1959 Saturday Playhouse, adapted by John Hopkins, with Andrew Osborn (as Dr. Basil Willing), Diane Clare (as Faustina Crayle), Julia Arnall (as Gisela von Weber), Joyce Heron (as Mrs. Lightfoot).
  • Better Off Dead, 1951
  • Alias Basil Willing, 1951
  • 20 Great Tales of Murder, 1951 (ed. with Brett Halliday)
  • Unfinished Crime, 1954 (UK title: He Never Came Back, 1954)
  • The Long Body, 1955
  • Two-Thirds of a Ghost, 1956
    - Kolmannesta vaille vainaa (suom. Aaro Vuoristo, 1959)
  • The Slayer and the Slain, 1957
    - Tappaja ja tapettu (suom. Pauli A. Koppero, 1959)
  • The Last Day: A Novel of the Day After Tomorrow, 1959 (as Helen Clarkson)
  • Before I Die, 1963
  • The Singing Diamonds and Other Stories, 1965 (contains 'Chinoiserie,' 'Number Ten Q Street,' 'Silence Burning,' 'The Other Side of the Curtain,' 'Surprise, Surprise!,' 'Through a Glass, Darkly,' 'The Singing Diamonds,' 'Windless'; UK title: Surprise, Surprise!, 1965)
    - TV drama: The Other Side of the Curtain, 1957, in Suspicion, prod. Shamley Productions, dir. James Neilson adaptation James P. Cavanagh, with Donna Reed, Jeff Richards, Herbert Anderson, Harold J. Stone.
  • The Further Side of Fear, 1967
  • Mr Splitfoot, 1968
    - Pukinsorkka (suom. Riitta Kallas, 1971)
  • A Question of Time, 1971
  • A Change of Heart, 1973
  • The Sleepwalker, 1974
  • Minotaur Country, 1975
  • The Changeling Conspiracy, 1976 (UK title: Cruel as the Grave, 1977)
  • The Impostor, 1977
  • The Smoking Mirror, 1979
  • Burn This, 1980
    - Vaarallinen talo (suom. Timo Keränen, 1948)
  • The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing, 2003 (introduction by B.A. Pike)

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