Who’s Calling? by Helen McCloy

This is the fourth novel in American mystery writer Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing series. I have read and enjoyed all of the previous three – Dance of Death, The Man in the Moonlight and The Deadly Truth – but it’s not necessary to read them in order as each mystery stands alone.

Who’s Calling? was first published in 1942 and begins with a young doctor, Archie Cranford, becoming engaged to Frieda Frey, a glamorous nightclub singer. Although he knows his mother won’t be happy to hear the news, Archie arranges to bring Frieda home to Willow Spring, near Washington, to meet his family and friends. Just before Frieda sets off from New York, she receives an anonymous phone call warning her not to go to Willow Spring. Deciding to ignore this threat, she goes ahead with the visit only to find herself the victim of more sinister calls, as well as other strange phenomena. Could this be the work of a poltergeist or is there a more rational reason for what is going on?

At a dinner party held by the Cranfords’ friends, Senator Mark Lindsay and his wife Julia, a murder takes place which may or may not be connected with Frieda’s ghostly experiences. It’s time to call in psychiatric consultant Dr Basil Willing in the hope that he can solve the crime and identify the murderer.

This is another entertaining Basil Willing mystery – although Willing himself doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the book. The first half is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the characters, the most memorable being the Cranfords’ cousin, Chalkeley Winchester, an annoying, self-absorbed man described by the others as a ‘spoiled child grown up’ and a ‘male old maid’. I also found the relationship between the Lindsays interesting, as we soon discover that Senator Lindsay is bored and disillusioned with his work and that it’s actually his wife Julia who is the driving force behind his political career.

McCloy begins each of her books with a list of ‘Persons of Interest’, briefly describing the characters who will appear in the novel, and then a second list of ‘Objects of Interest’ – in other words, some of the clues or significant happenings you need to look out for. In this book the objects of interest are particularly intriguing and include ‘a loud KNOCK on the front door – and nothing more’, ‘a BEAD CURTAIN which rustles for a while after a murderer passes’ and ‘a KNITTING BAG that moves without being touched.’ Being given this information in advance doesn’t help at all with solving the mystery, though, and doesn’t really have much purpose other than to add a bit of fun to the book!

I quickly narrowed the suspects down to two, and then correctly guessed which one was the culprit, but I couldn’t work out exactly why they had done it. The solution relies on Basil Willing’s psychiatric knowledge and I don’t think it’s something that would occur to most readers, so I was left feeling that McCloy hadn’t been very fair to us this time. Still, I did enjoy this book and will look forward to reading more from the series.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Deadly Truth by Helen McCloy

First published in 1941, this is the third book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series. Although I’ve been reading the books in order so far, it’s really not necessary and you could start anywhere. I think the first one, Dance of Death, is still my favourite but this one comes close.

The Deadly Truth begins with biochemist Roger Slater being visited in his laboratory by the glamorous Claudia Bethune and telling her about a new drug he is developing: a ‘truth serum’ based on scopolamine. After Claudia departs, Roger discovers that one of the tubes containing the drug has disappeared; aware of Claudia’s love of practical jokes and of the drug’s dangerous properties, he sets off in pursuit but, by the time he catches up with her, it’s too late. Guests are arriving at Claudia’s house for a dinner party – and are about to be served a very special cocktail.

Later that night, Dr Basil Willing, who is renting a beach hut on Claudia’s land, thinks he can see flames through the window of the Bethunes’ house and decides to investigate. It turns out there is no fire, but what he does find inside the house is just as shocking – Claudia, slumped at the table, strangled by her own emerald necklace. As the details of the dinner party begin to emerge, Basil learns that, having had their drinks spiked with the truth serum, each guest had revealed truths about themselves that they would have preferred to keep secret. Now that the effects of the drug have worn off, can Basil separate the truth from the lies and identify the murderer?

Helen McCloy’s novels all have such unusual and intriguing plots! They may seem far-fetched and unlikely at first, but really the murder in each one is just a starting point for McCloy to introduce some fascinating psychological and scientific themes and ideas; in this book, as well as the discussions of truth and lies, there’s also an interesting exploration of sound and deafness. As a New York psychiatrist, Basil Willing solves the crimes through his understanding of the human mind, looking at personalities and motives rather than spending too much time on technicalities such as alibis, and this is the kind of mystery novel I prefer. Basil does have some specialist knowledge which plays an important part in the solution of this particular mystery, but even without this knowledge the clues are there for an observant reader to pick up on. Unfortunately, I was not observant enough and allowed the red herrings McCloy drops into the story to lead me away from the correct suspect!

I think Helen McCloy is one of the best of the ‘forgotten’ crime authors I’ve discovered recently. She also seems to have been quite prolific; there are ten other Basil Willing novels and lots of standalones, so I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Man in the Moonlight by Helen McCloy

I loved Dance of Death, the first book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series which I read last month, so I was pleased to see that Agora Books have now reissued the second in the series, The Man in the Moonlight. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first, but it was still a good read and it was nice to meet Dr Willing and Assistant Chief Inspector Foyle again.

Helen McCloy (a pseudonym of Helen Clarkson) was an American crime author whose career spanned five decades and included several standalone books as well as the Basil Willing series. The Man in the Moonlight, first published in 1940, is set during World War II and the war has a part to play in the plot.

Inspector Foyle is visiting Yorkville University, where he is planning to send his son, when he finds a discarded piece of paper with the message: ‘I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No 1. Please follow these instructions with as great exactness as possible.’ At first Foyle doesn’t take this too seriously – he assumes it’s part of a game of some sort and doesn’t believe that real killers refer to each other as ‘murderers’ anyway – but he is forced to change his mind when Professor Konradi, an Austrian biochemist who escaped from a concentration camp, is found dead in his laboratory.

Konradi’s death appears to be suicide but Foyle isn’t convinced and enlists the help of Dr Basil Willing, psychiatric consultant to the New York District Attorney’s office. As Foyle and Willing begin to investigate, they uncover some intriguing and unexpected aspects of the case, ranging from a psychological experiment being carried out by another of the university professors to the potential involvement of a group of Nazi spies. As in Dance of Death, it’s Willing’s understanding of how the human mind works that leads to the eventual solution.

This is quite a complex mystery novel and incorporates lots of interesting psychological and scientific ideas. The sort of methods Basil Willing uses to obtain the information he needs include lie detector tests and word association tests and I found it fascinating to see him explain his analysis of these tests to the other characters. The focus on the personalities of the suspects, their possible motives and their reasons for behaving the way they do, is much more appealing to me than reading long discussions of alibis and timelines which often dominate other mystery novels and this is one of the reasons why I’m enjoying Helen McCloy’s novels so much. Most of her books are still currently out of print but I’m hoping more of them will be made available by Agora Books soon.

Dance of Death by Helen McCloy

This is the latest addition to Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series, making long-forgotten crime novels by female authors available again to modern readers. I think it’s probably my favourite so far. Originally published in 1938, it’s the first of several books written by American author Helen McCloy which feature the psychiatrist Dr Basil Willing.

The novel begins with the discovery of the body of a young woman, buried under a heap of snow in a New York street. Bizarrely, the cause of death appears to be heatstroke and the girl’s face is stained bright yellow. The police think they have identified her as Kitty Jocelyn, a beautiful debutante who has become famous as the face of an advertising campaign, but things take an even more confusing turn when they speak to her cousin, Ann Claude, who closely resembles the dead girl and who claims that she had been persuaded to impersonate Kitty at her recent coming out party.

Inspector Foyle begins to investigate this intriguing mystery, assisted by Basil Willing, an expert in Freudian psychoanalysis who provides a very different and, for the time, probably quite modern approach to crime-solving. While Foyle looks for tangible evidence and clues that will point to the culprit, Willing is more interested in the ‘blunders’ people make: a slip of the tongue, a lost item, a forgotten name. “Every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints,” he says, “And he can’t wear gloves to hide them.” I found Willing’s methods of solving the mystery fascinating, whether it was suggesting psychological reasons for the blunders, conducting word association tests or using his knowledge of the human mind to find out the motivation behind the crime.

Apart from Basil Willing, whom I liked and will look forward to meeting again, the other characters in the book are well drawn and believable too, which is important as the psychological angle of the story wouldn’t have worked if the characters had been nothing more than stereotypes. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery myself; although I suspected the right person, their motive came as a complete surprise to me, so I was content to let Willing do the investigating and explain the solution to me at the end. There are other aspects of the novel which I found nearly as interesting as the mystery, though, such as the ethics of advertising, attitudes towards money in 1930s society and the responsibilities of being a public figure. I thoroughly enjoyed Dance of Death and I’m sure I’ll be looking for more by Helen McCloy.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.