The year is 1941, and the shadow of war encroaches on our nation from both sides. Paris has fallen, and in a few short months the Japanese will bomb Pearl Harbor. You wouldn’t know this, however, if you peeked into the windows at Blessingbourne, the Long Island estate where society hostess Claudia Bethune and her third husband Mike are hosting friends for the weekend. Claudia has invented a new cocktail for the occasion. She calls it The Moment of Truth, and it packs quite a kick because the secret ingredient is something called novopolamin, a truth serum she has stolen from one of these so-called friends. After a couple of drinks, a different sort of war ensues, with the end result that Claudia winds up dead at the dining room table, strangled with her own platinum and emerald necklace.
The Deadly Truth is Helen McCloy’s third mystery featuring Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who works with the NYC District Attorney’s office to solve crimes. It’s also my literary contribution to the salute to 1941 crime fiction currently going on at Past Offenses. The two Dr. Willing mysteries I have read and covered so far – Through a Glass Darkly and Mr. Splitfoot – were both thoroughly enjoyable, and I reviewed them here. As Willing himself points out, this is his first “private” mystery where he just happens to be on hand, having rented the Bethune’s guesthouse for a vacation.
All of Claudia’s guests, including Mike’s ex-wife Phyllis and Dr. Roger Slater, a biochemist who once owned Blessingbourne and who invented the truth drug, have some dark secrets they probably would rather not share, so when the drug takes effect, the sparks fly in a wonderfully nasty scene. Claudia herself is a real piece of work: she has fled from the fall of Paris, where her parties were notorious. A local paper refers to her as “Mr. Hitler’s latest gift to New York!” She seems to choose her “friends” for the amount of sadistic pleasure she can derive from watching them suffer and squirm. Dr. Willing sees past her surface beauty and instinctively avoids her, so he is not present during the eventful dinner. However, due to a series of circumstances, he discovers the body and is present to help steer the police in the right direction.
McCloy is a relatively new discovery for me, and I am already a big fan of her writing, particularly her character descriptions and her dialogue. Here’s the entrance Claudia makes to greet her guests. My fellow blogger, Moira Redmond, would eat this up over at Clothes in Books:
“There was no denying her spectacular beauty. It clamored for attention as stridently as a poster. She had changed into an evening dress of heavy corded silk in the most acid shade of jade green. The shrill hue brought out the shining whiteness of her shoulders, the golden lights of her bronze hair and made her wide, almond eyes look pale green instead of turquoise . . . At that moment she extinguished Phyllis as the sun puts out the stars.
“Basil did not believe this was accidental. He suspected that Claudia had dressed early and overdressed for the occasion with the express purpose of putting Phyllis in the shade. The Romans believed that no triumph was complete without the presence of the defeated and apparently Claudia was of the same opinion.”
No wonder everyone is afraid of her!
Even the minor characters are brought to life in quick, funny sketches and play their parts beautifully. Claudia’s butler pretends to speak only French so that he can pick up juicy gossip and sell it to the tabloids. Two society ladies who meet Phyllis before she heads down to Blessingbourne, are referred to amusingly as Printed Crepe and Black Taffeta. The latter openly suggests to Phyllis that she is still in love with her ex-husband. After Phyllis denies this and exits, Printed Crepe says to Black Taffeta, “I wonder if you hit on the truth,” to which Black Taffeta replies, “ Perhaps – perhaps not. The lie is man’s greatest invention – the one thing that makes civilization possible. Without it, we’d all feel like murdering each other . . .”
Printed Crepe Black Taffeta
That comment embodies the theme of this novel in a nutshell, and the prose is imbued with a wonderful sense of modernity even as it drips with the sophistication of 1941 New York rich folk.
Some readers like their Golden Age mysteries neat, heavy on the puzzle with just a jigger of characterization, and they resist modern writers’ insistence on laying on the psychology. I enjoy when an author can delve into the inner workings of a character through actions and conversation. Thus, we start to understand why Claudia is such a monster through this quick exchange between Dr. Willing and Roger Slater:
Roger asks, “’You mean Claudia was killed because of something said or done at that dinner?’
“’When two abnormal things happen to one person in this drearily normal world it’s only reasonable to assume there’s some connection between them.’
“’Claudia and her world were not normal,’ objected Roger; ‘she got her money too quickly and easily. A sudden change of fortune may be as demoralizing as a sudden change of climate. Just as mammals can only live within a narrow range of temperature, the normal mind can only exist within a narrow range of income. Extremes of satiety and starvation produce the abnormal mind as automatically as extremes of heat and cold produce death.’
“Basil studied Roger’s expression. ‘Then you didn’t like Claudia?’
“’On the contrary, I liked her very much. But I had no illusions about her . . .’”
It’s exciting to explore an author of classic mysteries whose prose feels fresh and modern, at the same time that we get a taste of another period and a strong sense of the state of mind of certain Americans as World War II looms. I look forward to hearing from other McCloy fans, and I am excited that I still have many more of her books to discover!