Thanks to a sale on Kindle, I snatched up about a half dozen titles by Helen McCloy and have been enjoying them like literary bonbons ever since. I previously reviewed two of her titles, Through a Glass, Darkly and Mr. Splitfoot, here. Both of these novels feature her sleuth, Dr. Basil Willing, a psychologist, allowing McCloy to explore her fascination with morbid psychology, a central feature in many of her mysteries.
Dr. Willing is nowhere in evidence in The Slayer and the Slain (1957), but the protagonist, Harry Vaughan, teaches psychology at a New England University and has a bright future as an academic and a researcher. Yet, when an uncle dies and leaves him a fortune, Harry chucks his job and moves back to his hometown of Clearwater, Virginia to raise horses and renew his acquaintance with the beautiful Celia Arabin, the one who got away and ended up marrying another man.
A great deal of the suspense in McCloy’s work comes from her exploration of human doubles, so beautifully explored in Through a Glass, Darkly with the notion of the doppelganger. The same preoccupation appears in different form here, as Harry finds that the people who surround him – including Celia and her family, the woman he has hired as a cook/housekeeper, and his cousin, a smarmy journalist – are multi-faceted characters, capable of different sides to their personalities. It doesn’t help that, before coming to Clearwater, Harry suffered a fall that resulted in a serious concussion, which confuses his perceptions. Or that a mysterious prowler is haunting the houses and streets of the town, or that this person’s actions seem to have a sinister intent toward Harry himself.
I feel like the less said about the plot from here on in, the better, but the mysteries within this novel fall much more into Barbara Vine territory than Ruth Rendell. I felt a little challenged because, for most of the time, I was convinced I knew what was going on. In fact, I was so certain that I became somewhat restless. Surely others must see what was so clear in my mind, I thought. So I spent much of the time enjoying McCloy’s prose, and she really does write beautifully. She creates beautiful character sketches that speak concisely about a person’s appearance and inner life. Here is a description of the journalist’s wife, Molly: (my apologies to Moira Redmond and her wonderful “Clothes in Books” blog – this is really her territory!) “A full skirt showed off the narrowness of her ankles and the arched instep of her high-heeled shoes. Her blouse was one of those loose affairs that slide off the shoulders with every shrug. Her face was still firm enough for her to wear her hair girlishly long without looking like mutton dressed as lamb. The general effect was mildly wanton, like that imaginary portrait of Salome in the Metropolitan, but if you looked closely you saw that the cosmetic mask and lacquered nails and load of conspicuous jewelry were all more feminine than the woman who wore them.”
This leads to some interesting and controversial psychological postulations about housewives by Harry – and, perhaps, McCloy: “The servantless housewife who spends a great deal of her day performing such tasks of the untouchable cast as cleaning out toilet bowls and garbage cans revolts by making herself look as much as possible like an idle temple prostitute in the evening. But her air of luxurious decadence is all on the surface. Underneath she is the executive in the home, the business manager of the family.”
McCloy also writes potent commentary on how the changing landscape of America affects the mindset of its citizenry. As Harry drives from down the coast to his home town, McCloy describes the new phenomenon of the American highway:
“It was one of those crowded arteries where everyone drives at the top of the speed limit or a little beyond. If anything goes wrong with one car, three or four others must crash as well. There just isn’t time to stop. All the drivers must have known this, but apparently none of them cared . . . The virus of the speed infection was in their blood, blinding them to everything else around them. They had become machines like the cars they drove, surging along in a state of automatism with the tinkle of popular songs from the car radios in their minds.”
Exactly three quarters of the way through this novel, McCloy reveals its central conceit, and I discovered whether or not my suspicions had been correct. (I’m saying nothing about that!) The reveal is done in a fascinating way, and there is still a ways to go. The final quarter of the story twists and turns like a knife, right down to the final sentence.
I can’t say that The Slayer and the Slain represents the same kind of traditional mystery that my colleagues in the Golden Age of Detection group covet as much as I do. But it is a fascinating, well-written psychological mystery well worth your time.