A Meeting of the Criminal Minds: A Joint Review of Alias Basil Willing (1951)

helen_mccloyIntroduction

I’ve been singing the praises of Helen McCloy ever since I discovered her novels last year. I’ve read and reviewed four or five of them and am excited that she wrote 28 novels and a number of short stories, about half of them featuring her series sleuth, New York psychiatrist Dr. Basil Willing. So when my blogging buddy Kate over at crossexaminingcrime told me that she had picked up her first McCloy, I jumped at her offer to write a dual review. And what a fun experience it has been: two teachers trading ideas back and forth across the ocean about a mystery novel we both enjoyed!

 

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Plot Summary

From the very start of the novel we are told that the case Dr Basil Willing (who works at the District Attorney’s Office) becomes involved in is not a ‘routine’ one, but a ‘personal adventure.’ At the local tobacconist’s shop, Willing encounters a man who behaves in an erratic manner. What makes this man and his oddness particularly interesting to Willing is that the man uses Willing’s own name when giving a taxi driver instructions. Instinctively Willing follows him to the smartly furnished brownstone of a fellow psychiatrist named Max Zimmer where a social gathering is in progress. There, Willing comes face to face with an old acquaintance, Rosamund, who is now married to Thereon Yorke, a night club owner. Unsure what sort of event he has entered, Rosamund’s cryptic remark of ‘I’ve always associated you with the other side of the fence’ leaves him puzzled, as does the conspiratorial behaviour of a blind and lame old lady named Katharine Shaw, who seems to have expected Willing to show up.

Things come to a head when the imposter finally appears and, when unmasked by the real Willing, begs him to leave the party so he can explain himself in private. However, as the imposter is about to reveal all, he collapses and dies. Of course, his death is not due to natural causes – he has been poisoned. But who was this man really? Returning with the police to Dr. Zimmer’s residence, he learns that the psychiatrist hosts dinners every Friday evening and that all the guests are his patients, each of whom brings a spouse or other relative to dine in order that the doctor may improve their treatment by observing them in a natural social setting. An important clue leads to the police wanting to interview Katharine Shaw, but this plan is thwarted by Shaw’s death in her sleep. Was her death murder as well? With one source of information inconveniently terminated, Willing turns his attention to the other guests at Dr Zimmer’s party, but it is not until Dr Zimmer resumes his weekly gatherings and further suspicious circumstances occur that Willing solves the case. This is a story where feelings of guilt and fear silence those who know the truth, and within this seemingly innocent collection of dinner party guests there is an increasing realisation that you can’t trust those closest to you…

OUR THOUGHTS

The opening chapter

The opening chapter may only be a matter of pages but it certainly gave us food for thought…

Kate: The techniques for setting the scene in this chapter are reminiscent of film writing, with sights and sounds intermingled, feeling like a moving scene. The narrative voice retains a sense of wry aloofness in the way it describes characters such as when a characters’ lips are described as ‘The lips, tightly closed, pulled the mouth out of shape, petulantly. Weakness? Worry? Or merely a bad bone structure?’ Is this a narrator who is a fly on the wall or is the narrative encompassing Willing’s own thoughts?

Brad: I agree that McCloy really knows how to show us an environment or a character in all her works and it comes across as cinematic. For example, the tobacconist and his shop, who appear in only one brief scene at the beginning, are beautifully described, and the false “Dr. Willing” becomes a fully realized character for me in one brief sentence: “He looked (like) the Eternal Sucker who will buy anything or vote for anybody with trancelike obedience to the hypnotic pressure of a strident advertising campaign.”

I don’t know if you knew, Kate, that McCloy is really big on the concept of the doppelganger, that mythological monstrous double of each of us who roams the earth seeking a chance to usurp our lives. She explores it a lot in her books, with scary consequences. Here, it’s a minor sort of thing in that there seem to be two Basil Willings, but she sorts that out quickly, not only by presenting a character who seems to be the polar opposite of Willing, but in explaining the mystery of his presence rather quickly.

Narrative Voice

Our discussion of the opening chapter led to a wider consideration of McCloy’s use of narrative voice:

Kate: In the opening chapter of the novel it was ambiguous as to whether the narrative voice shared Willing’s perspective or was an omniscient third person narrator’s. But in the subsequent chapter it seems like Willing’s perspective is filtered through the narrative voice such as when Willing is trying to detect the tone people are speaking to him in: ‘An undertone caught his attention. Mockery? Challenge? Or something more subtle?’

Brad: Since McCloy provides all of the characters except Willing with a clear description, I agree that the narrative voice comes from Willing’s perspective, at least when he is in the scene. Later on, however, the author expertly switches perspectives to give us a telling glimpse into the viewpoints of the various suspects. She reminds me a bit of Agatha Christie here: it feels like we’re getting deep into the mindset of her characters, and only at the end do we realize that the true nature of some of their thoughts has been carefully masked.

Genre and Novel Structure

Before turning our attention to more specific aspects of the novel, Kate and I took a brief look at the novel as a whole:

Kate: I enjoyed how McCloy ended her chapters with dramatic pieces of information. I also found it interesting when Willing describes his experiences as ‘my adventure turned into a misadventure, the comedy of errors became a tragedy of terrors.’ It seems like an insightful comment as this novel may begin like a comic crime novel with misunderstandings reminiscent of a screwball comedy in the style of Phoebe Atwood Taylor or as Willing says a ‘comedy of manners,’ but the tone of the novel does shift quite quickly after the initial deaths. The style and tone shifts to a more psychological focus, with Willing looking beneath the facades the dinner guests put up and ultimately this leads to the quite chilling ending (though this could have been amped up in my opinion).

Brad: McCloy is an expert at opening with a powerful hook – the idea that you’re coming out of a shop and hear a stranger identify himself as . . . YOU! . . . is really delicious – and following that with one dramatic scene after another that rise to a climax and then propel you into the next sequence. It’s the hallmark of excellent dramatic writing. I’m not sure I found her comedy as screwball as it is satirical. She does a great job portraying the rich in their social climate, all acid smiles and smug politeness. An earlier McCloy novel, The Deadly Truth (1941), does the satire of the upper class social setting one better with a great dinner party scene where everyone gets dosed with truth serum and all their dirty secrets come pouring out. No wonder the hostess of that affair is dead by morning!

Characters

Although our thoughts touch on a number of the dinner guests, Rosamund definitely takes centre stage…

Kate: Rosamund is an interesting character as when she first enters the novel she comes across as a bored socialite wife, who enjoys being unconventional and scandalous: ‘But, as I’m not a lady, you may go right ahead’. At this point you wonder whether she will join forces with Willing as his zany sidekick and there is a brief suggestion of chemistry between them e.g. a spark of romance demonstrated literally when they come close together and part of her skirt flashes under the light looking like a spark. This had a cinematic touch for me. However, such a development does not occur and instead her character seems to deviate quite widely from this and takes on a much more ambiguous stance: ‘Why was there something morbid about Rosamund’s radiance?’ My theory that there may be romance between Rosamund and Willing was not just based on the “spark,” but also by the fact that both Rosamund and Willing’s wife are introduced in a similar way, with a physical description being given first, followed by their name which is then followed by their connection to Willing. In Rosamund’s introduction there seemed to be a greater hint of passion or an air of challenge. Whilst with the introduction of Willing’s wife the atmosphere gave the impression the relationship was more like a comfy pair of slippers. McCloy’s narrative style is a joy to read and I liked her insightful and meaningful descriptions of characters. This one in particular was a favourite: ‘He was like paper which has burned away so slowly that the dead ash retains the shape of solidity yet actually is so fragile that it will crumble to dust at the first touch.’

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Brad: I LOVE that passage, too! McCloy’s way with description really appeals to me. Read The Slayer and the Slain (1957, a non-Willing novel) sometime: the description of the new freeway system will make you wonder if you ever want to get behind a car again! I think Willing creates great characters, especially the women. And they all have such cool names: Perdita, Isolda, Gisela . . . Since I’ve read three or four other Willing books, I knew he was married and that Rosamund didn’t stand a chance! But you are right, Kate: her introduction is incredibly sensual, while Gisela’s is comforting – a little taste of noir there with the good girl vs. the femme fatale. And McCloy amplifies her characterisations with wonderful little scenes of people in action. One pair of suspects, a married couple called the Cannings, are shown in all their alcoholic splendour, first in a satirical scene set at a country club and then in their home, a hideous ode to ultra-modern, nearly unliveable, architecture. One chapter opens with a detailed description of the pair awakening with hangovers. The wife stirs away and looks at her husband: “He looked the way she felt – face creased by the pillow and flushed, jaw slack, mouth a gaping black hole in a stubbly chin. She shuddered and heaved herself wearily out of bed.” The subsequent depiction of their hostile breakfast together is deeply disquieting, even suspenseful, and proves that a great mystery writer can create fully realized characters and still concentrate on plot.

Basil Willing’s Detecting Style

Of course any discussion on a detective novel’s characters must take a closer look at the detective and his investigation style…

Kate: Willing’s style of detection is centred around his medical training and I found it interesting to watch Willing elicit a lot of interesting information by getting people to open up and express themselves rather than just only asking direct crime related questions.

Brad: I think some people complain that McCloy lays the psychologising on thick, and it’s true that Willing’s method of detection in the other books I’ve read often centres on his psychological reading of people. Here, though, Willing’s occupation is one of the main points of the plot, as he and Dr. Zimmer, representing opposing schools of thought on mental treatment, have to forge an alliance to assure the well-being of the surviving guests, if this is possible.

Depiction of American society

Our examination of McCloy’s characters led to us looking at the dinner guests as a whole, in particular the section of 1950s American society that they embody…

Kate: By focusing on a party of dinner guests, McCloy’s narrative looks mostly at the richer members of society who seem bored and unhappy for various reasons and who often use alcohol for example to alleviate this. In a way this reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), where the majority of the characters are in a similar situation. This strata of society comes across as very materialistic, particularly Hubert Canning who suggests anything can be bought: ‘There are mighty few things… that intelligence plus money cannot do in the modern world. If you have the money and know your way around, you can have a man killed just as easy as you can buy an abortion or an ounce of cocaine.’ Canning as a character is said to have had dubious political dealings and this combined with his big intake of alcohol and dysfunctional relationship with his wife, makes me wonder whether him and his wife can be seen as a variation of Tom and Daisy Buchanan (a key couple from The Great Gatsby). A line I felt was still applicable for our own culture was when a newspaper was described as ‘Now news and comment were simply faithful pack horses that carried the precious burden of advertising,’ which emphasises society consumerism.

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Brad: The Cannings certainly represent the darkest side of the American Dream, although Isolda has none of the surface charm or loveliness of Daisy Buchanan. As I mentioned above, they would fit into any novel about U.S. society people. I thought Thereon and Rosamund Yorke contrasted nicely with them, since we see such overt loathing on the part of the Cannings while something more complex bubbles under the surface of the Yorke’s marriage. The cast is really quite large for a mystery, and it’s to McCloy’s credit that we get to know most of them quite well, that some of them are as loathsome as they seem while others possess hidden depths that Willing peels back as the investigation unfolds.

Solution/ Ending

No discussion of a mystery could be complete without sparing a thought for the solution/ ending, though of course we’ve left our comments spoiler free! Both Kate and I agreed on the chilling and shocking nature of the ending, though our opinions (at long last!) diverge on other aspects of the solution and how it was reached…

Kate: The solution to this tale is a chilling and unsettling one, with the motivation behind the crimes being an unusual one. Although I feel that, due to the ending perhaps being a bit rushed and finishing abruptly, certain psychological aspects of the solution were not fully explored or developed. Due to the focus being on character psychology I don’t think this is a solution the reader can easily arrive at by themselves, but due to the high quality of the narrative style and characterisation this issue seems a minor one – though some readers may find one element which is instrumental in Willing discovering the truth a bit convenient.

Brad: The ending was incredibly timely – given that this book came out in 1951. It’s hard to explain more than that without going into spoiler territory, but oh my! It was chilling. There’s even a dying message, and when you find out what that means, you can’t help but shiver. Christie has her own take on this solution in one of her later books. While I think Christie’s version is fun, this one resonated far more with me on an emotional level, for reasons I’ll be happy to discuss with anyone after they have read the book. I also think that sometimes McCloy’s books read as much as general novels as they do mysteries, so it becomes almost a pleasant shock when they turn out to be such good “fair play” specimens. There are clues aplenty here, both obvious and quite subtle, and I was especially struck by how Willing’s final recap shows readers how much or how little we truly understood the characters.

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Our Ratings:

Kate: 4.5/5 Overall I thought this novel was a superb read, with a narrative style which takes you on an enjoyable journey and provides an unusual solution. Willing is an engaging protagonist and I definitely want to read more of McCloy’s work in the future.

Brad: 4.5/5. I thought this one was scary good fun, with an excellently realized large cast of characters, a quick moving plot, and a disturbing finale. I’m glad your interest in McCloy was sparked by this, Kate! I think you’re in for a lot of fun with her other books, and I’ll be right there along with you!

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7 thoughts on “A Meeting of the Criminal Minds: A Joint Review of Alias Basil Willing (1951)

  1. Reblogged this on crossexaminingcrime and commented:
    Really enjoyed reading my first Helen McCloy novel and it was great to review it with veteran McCloy fan Brad Friedman, who brought up a lot of ideas that I hadn’t thought of myself when reading it. His ideas are so great I decided to re-blog our post here.

    Like

  2. As with every author ever, I’m intending to get to more McCloy having found much to admire in Splitfoot an the slightly unlikely …Glass Darkly. The Slayer and the Slain will be next, but given such high praise from two such reputable sources this will doubtless follow soon thereafter. Many thanks, guys!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For reasons I won’t go into here, I wonder why The Slayer and the Slain wasn’t dubbed “the classic McCloy” rather than TAGD. I enjoyed the latter novel, but I think I’ve liked most of the other McCloy’s I’ve read better. And I think she was trying something very interesting with Slayer. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it, JJ.

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    1. Another person with good taste, Santosh, who has probably had that banner a much longer time than me! I found it, as one usually does, by searching the Internet.

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