Helen McCloy: Cue for Murder (1942) – Meta-narratives and scripts for death

‘The murder mystery at the Royalty Theatre was solved through the agency of a house fly and a canary. The fly discovered the chemical evidence that so impressed the jury at the trial, but the canary provided a psychological clue to the murderer’s identity before the murder was committed. Basil Willing is still troubled by the the thought that it might have been prevented if he had read the riddle of the canary sooner.’

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So opens Cue For Murder by Helen McCloy, her 5th Doctor Basil Willing mystery, and in my opinion an unsung treasure from the Golden Age of detection. As always I will be talking about elements of plot, character and set up, there will be no solution spoilers, but if you aim to read this book fresh then come back after reading!

Dr Basil Willing is a psychiatrist working for the DA’s office, but is more than helpful on the crime scene when things get complicated. McCloy uses Willing as a vehicle to explore the psychology of the criminal at work, asking why they would behave in a certain way, and looking at what the crime says about the kind of person who could have perpetrated it. And in Cue For Murder, Willing is presented with a psychological mine field.

A re-staging of the infamous nihilistic play Fedora by Victorien Sardou is taking place at the Royalty Theatre in New York. Willing knows the costume designer for the play, Pauline, and receives a ticket for the opening night. But during the first act tragedy strikes. At the back of the stage set there are a set of double doors opening onto a little alcove. When these doors a flung open during the play they reveal a corpse, lying prostrate and still, staring with dead eyes out to the crowd. This corpse however, is the actors role, and part of the corpse is usually played by a friend of the cast, made up with corpse paint to look as dead as possible. But when the curtain drops for the end of the first act the actor doesn’t move, and when the bed sheets are pulled back, the man has been stabbed in the chest with a surgical blade.

There were only four actors on stage, and only three of them approached the alcove. But when examined, none of them know the man, assuming each other had invited him to play the part. The problem then becomes how a murderer managed to stab the unidentified corpse in front of a full audience, but also why they went to such lengths.

What I love about this set up, and how McCloy uses it, is the growing layers of meta-writing she pulls off. Shortly before the play begins, Willing finds himself backstage, seeing everything from the other side. The back of the luxurious room as appearing from the audience, revealed to be chip board and stage paint. Willing then comes through a door into the audience which McCloy calls ‘the frontier between reality and illusion’. This frontier becomes the meta-narrative of the whole book.

This is further emphasised when the script is analysed, and acts as a literal script for the murderers actions, revealing the multiple moments when each of them could have done it (literally their ‘cue for murder’), a constant blurring between the fake and the real. This then leaks into every aspect of the case, with chief inspector Foyle reflecting in chapter four: ‘Its a world of make-believe–false names and false faces! How can I tell which one of these is playing a part?’ And this ‘playing a part’ is what Willing tries to untangle and decode, leading to wonderful observations about character, motive and identity. We see the struggles of fame and money, actors on the way up or the way down, and the hidden desires for appreciation.

And on top of all of all of this is the maddening clue of the canary, which Willing is certain relates to the whole case. A burglar broke into a knife-grinding shop, just next to the theatre, but didn’t steel anything, but only freed the owners canary from it’s cage:

 ‘Why risk incurring the severe penalties for burglary by breaking into a shop without stealing anything? Why prolong the risk by lingering on the premises to free a canary from it’s cage?’ 

The canary becomes a touch stone throughout the whole book, and it’s presence haunts the crime, revealing more each chapter.

The thing that most impressed me most over all about this book was why the killer went to such lengths to murder someone on stage, and what is says about their psychology. And with that the motive is an absolute punch in the stomach when all is revealed.

Criticisms? I could say that the book gets off to a slow start (but that might just have been me) and the whole thing clocks in at longer than your usual GAD novel, so could have been cut down in places, but I’m not going to fault McCloy for that really. Because, as with my thought in my last review on Christianna Brand, McCloy is another writer who seems simply to love the process of writing, and loves filling the pages with deft observation after deft observation.

There were some thoughts from a panel discussion at the Bodies From the Library conference at the British Library earlier this year, in response to a question about why so many women flourished in the detective writing genre. The panelist said that so many women became writers of detective fiction because in some ways ‘it wasn’t taken seriously’, therefore that women were ‘allowed’ to write this sort of thing. This now deeply outdated world view, in a wonderful subversion of itself, of course gave women the agency of writing which they used to excel, express and subvert that very claim, and you can see and feel McCloy using that to it’s absolute maximum. Giving us a deeply intelligent, rich novel, with quotes from classical literature, psychological and philosophical study and historical references at every turn, with a few satirical comments about ‘novel’s written by men’ thrown in too.

The ever knowledgeable Mike Grost on his writing about McCloy said that this was her most famous book for a time, and that McCloy’s works from this point only got better and better. So I’m excited for the next McCloy and exploring her oeuvre post 1942. This post 1942 list contains of course Through a Glass Darkly, which is one of the best and most creepy impossible crime novels ever, and if you haven’t read it yet go and read right now.

 

 

Miraculous Mysteries: British Library Crime Classics – Locked Rooms and Impossible Murders

The British Library crime classics series, up to 50 books at the time of writing, has been getting better and better. The team have been digging our more obscure titles, and republishing classics that should be better known.

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From what I heard at ‘Bodies From The Library’, the brilliant golden age crime conference this last weekend at the British Library, (which you can read up about here at Cross Examining Crime and Puzzle Doctor) there are some more exciting and forgotten titles on the way.

Editor, writer and GAD encyclopedia Martin Edwards spoke during the conference on his process in deciding what titles to pick for publication. His remit he said, and I paraphrase, was to pick a real variety of stories, from a broad range of sources, and even if the execution wasn’t perfectly realised, that each tale held something of an original and exciting approach to the mystery story. And this is definitely the feeling with Miraculous Mysteries, Edwards’ selection of locked room shorts, which I was thankful to receive a review copy of from the British Library team.

As there are some very thorough and insightful reviews of this new title already out there (great one here from TomCat), I have decided to give you my top 5 (okay, maybe 6 or 7) stories from the 16 on offer, and will give you one thing (okay, maybe two things) that I liked about each story. So without further ado here are my top ten, in order of appearance:

1 – ‘The Thing Invisible’ – William Hope Hodgson
This short takes as it’s supernatural occurrence, the mystery of a haunted dagger, mounted above the alter of a family chapel, that flies from the wall running through any poor soul who dares enter the chapel after sun down. The best part of this story was the scene in which the detective waits over night in the chapel to hopefully witness the event for himself. This waiting scene is so well written, and is absolutely chilling and heart-racing. 

2 – The Case of the Tragedies of the Greek Room – Sax Rohmer
Sax Rohmer was the pen name of the creator of the ridiculous (but for some reason overwhelmingly popular) Dr. Fu Manchu series. It’s popularity is probably down to Rohmer’s story telling ability, which is evident in this short, which sees Moris Klaw, a ‘psychic detective’ who solves mysteries by placing himself at the scene of the crime until he receives and ‘odic photograph’, a mental impression of the last thing eyes of the victim witnessed before death. The ‘Greek Room’ of the title refers to one greek display room in a small museum, which has experienced haunting events, when one of the guards is killed inside the locked museum on night watch. The solution to the locked room and the appearance of a spectre in white, are both absolutely audacious but work simply for the fact that Rohmer committed to them totally. This was also one of only two mysteries that I didn’t guess the solution to.

3 – ‘The Miracle of Moon Crescent’ – G.K.Chesterton
What can I say about this story, it’s just brilliant. There is so much I could say about this, but instead I’ll just say go and read it, and if you haven’t already, go and read the rest of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, which I’ll write about one of these days. The one thing I’ll pick from this story is a clue. This is one of my favourite clues for how it unlocks the solution to the disappearance of a man from a watched room, who is then found 100 of meters away hung from a tree. The clue: why would someone fire a gun, with a blank round, into the side of a brick building?

4 – ‘The Diary of Death’ – Marten Cumberland
The best thing about this story is the brilliant central idea, and I think Cumberland missed a trick here in not making this into a novel as it would have worked for sure. A famous actress, becoming a recluse at the end of her life, in her last days writes a ludicrous and unfounded diary, slamming all the people whom she felt had wronged her. Now she is dead and gone. But when people start to be killed off one by one, each with a torn page of the diary pertaining to them found on their body, it seems as if her ghost is back to take revenge on her enemies. One victim dies in a locked room, and the solution is super neat, and a favourite of mine from this collection. This was the only other solution I didn’t guess. At least not in full. I was half way there, but a simple idea sneaked up behind me, making it all the more satisfying.

5 – ‘Death at 8:30’ – Christopher St. John Sprigg
This is my first foray into Sprigg’s work which has convinced me that I want to read Death of An Airman, his other re-release in the British Library Crime Classics series. This is probably one of the most hilariously water tight locked room set-ups I have come across: 3 layers of doors, 3 layers of guards, an underground vault, two people either side with revolvers, and the target in a bullet proof glass booth with a gun in hand… and he still dies at 8:30 exactly! The solution is fairly simple and revealed about half way through, but it’s how Sprigg uses the solution to get the untouchable killer to confess which is brilliant, and makes for an great closing scene.

6 – The Haunted Policeman – Dorothy L. Sayers
After two atrocious stories in a row, it was endlessly refreshing to come to this Sayers short, and showed how good a writer she really was. The thing I liked about this one was the originality of the set-up. A policeman on his night round hears shouting and cries for help coming from a long row of houses down a narrow side street. A ruffled looking man runs to the door before the policeman looking through the letter box to see what’s wrong. Beckoning the policeman over, he looks through to see a man lying in the corridor with a knife through the back of his neck, fresh blood on the black and white tiled floor. The policeman bangs on the door of Number 13 to no effect when he notices that the shabby looking man has run away. He pursues him up the street, but doesn’t catch him, and decides to run back to the crime scene. But when he gets there, house number 13 has gone, only even numbers show on the doors, and after knocking on every door on the street none of the houses look like the one he saw through the letter box, even though the other residents heard the cries for help, and saw him and the mysterious man running down the road.

7 – ‘Beware of the Trains’ – Edmund Crispin 
As a massive Crispin fan I was really happy to find a story of his in this collection, and to see that more of his work is going out to the masses. I do think there are better locked room shorts from Crispin, The Name on the Window for example being a miniature masterpiece. However on reading this again for the first time in a while I think I under estimated it, and the level of joy and exuberance coming from Crispin here shows that he was at his prime when writing this. The story concerns the disappearance of a train driver between two watched and surrounded stations, and my top thing from this short are these few hilarious lines which show off Crispin’s wit and revelation of character at it’s top form. The passage concerns station master Maycock angry that he hasn’t been told about a police presence at his station:

‘Mr. Maycock, clearly dazed by this melodramatic intelligence, took refuge from his confusion behind a hastily contrived breastwork of out-raged dignity. ‘And why,’ he demanded in awful tones, ‘was I not hinformed of this ‘ere?’
   You ‘ave bin informed,’ snapped the second porter, who was very old indeed, and who appeared to be temperamentally subject to that vehement, unfocussed rage which one associates with men who are trying to give up smoking…
…’And it wouldn’t ave occurred to you, would it’–here Mr Maycock bent slightly at the knees, as though the weight of his sarcasm was altogether too much for his large frame to support comfortably–’to ‘ave a dekko in my room and see if I was ‘ere?’ 

However, there are one or two duds in the collection (in fact only two) and so, as an addition to this list I want to give the award for, in my opinion, the worst story in the collection to….

‘Too Clever By Half’ – G.D.H and Margaret Cole.
For me, this story is so atrocious that I couldn’t go without mentioning it. It seems that even Martin Edwards didn’t think of them very highly, saying in his introduction that they saw detective fiction as a ‘trivial’ side line to their more ‘worthier’ political work.

I went from anger to laughter with how bad this was, as it seemed to fall into every bad writing and poor detective trope I could think of. The bad writing is too much too number, literally saying things like ‘…I could not rid my mind of the feeling that there was something wrong than a mere suicide’, but in terms of the story, lets take this for instance: The great detective is sure that a suicide note is in fact a note taken out of a letter, with the top and bottom cut off, when the doctor says it could possibly be read that way he states:

“Of course it can,” I insisted. “Once that occurs to you, you see it can’t mean anything else.”

It can’t mean anything else. Wow! This is the classic bad trope of a detective telling the reader what is true, without any evidence, that we are expected to believe. This is the kind of thing that Berkeley so sharply satirised and criticised in the Poison Chocolates Case, which I wrote about in my last post. Here’s another quote for good measure:

‘But I doubt if I should have convinced Inspector Cox of their [my deductions] correctness at that stage if it hadn’t been for that opportune discovery of mine about the colour of the ink.’ 
‘Yes that was the goods,’ said someone. ‘Just like a bit out of a detective story–only there they’d have analysed the ink, and put down a lot of unintelligible stuff about it having the wrong chemical composition.’ 
Ben Tancred laughed. ‘We managed without that,’ he said. 

The covering of the fact that again the ink could have had multiple meanings and reasons for being a different colour, by saying that in a detective story it would have been ‘a lot of unintelligible stuff’ is just so lax it’s hilarious. And what’s even funnier about this, is that it is the exact point that is satirised in The Poison Chocolates Case, even down to ink pots as an example. In saying all this, it is possible that the Cole’s were not trying to create a puzzle for you to solve with the detective, but if that were the case I think it would have had a very different feel. Have a read and let me know what you think.

Well, over all an enjoyable collection with only two real duds that I could speak of. This isn’t a revolutionary set of locked room mysteries, but what Edwards has managed to do with this collection is to give you the experience of each story being so different and consistently interesting, pulling out obscure and forgotten titles along the way, and therefore the collection is great to read as a whole.

I hope there is a second one! (And I hope that one has at least once Carr story in it!)