‘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.’
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.