PUBLISH OR PERISH: Helen McCloy’s Two Thirds of a Ghost

I have just come off reading Noel Vindry’s The Howling Beast: very French, very chauvinistic, and very 1934 puzzle-beats-all. That means that the characters were basically cardboard cutouts, and there’s no good bemoaning this fact, it’s the way things are with most Golden Age detective fiction. If you want more focus on character, you need only move forward in time to the Silver Age and beyond, and voila!

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Helen McCloy is one of those authors who bridged both periods. She debuted in 1938, but was most prolific in the 1940s – 1950s, and her novels have always had a more modern, “Silver Age” feel. In those featuring psychiatrist-sleuth Basil Willing in particular, the psychological analysis of her characters is a major factor in reaching a solution.

You have to hand it to McCloy, who to my knowledge received no medical training, that this aspect of her writing always seems based on prevailing psychological theory. I’m currently re-reading an Agatha Christie classic in preparation for . . . well, let’s save that news for later. Now, you know me, folks: Christie is my goddess, and I rarely come down hard on her. But I get so annoyed whenever she espouses something about the workings of the mind because it all sounds like trash talk to me! (I’ll go into more detail about this in a week or two.)

Dr. Willing’s abilities serve as major tools to his solving of cases, and McCloy makes his job even more interesting by populating her novels with complex men and women whose inner lives really matter to the case. In Alias Basil Willing, the suspect list was actually made up of therapy patients, but this is rare. McCloy offered a range of fascinating settings and backgrounds for her novels, and nowhere is this put to more fascinating use than in her 1956 title,Two Thirds of a Ghost. With her husband, Davis Dresser, (whose writing moniker was Brett Halliday, creator of the one and only Michael Shayne), McCloy founded the Torquil Publishing Company. This experience serves her well in Two Thirds of a Ghost. The book provides a hilariously biting satire of the publishing industry. It also lands several laughs at the expense of Hollywood and show business. And to top it all off, it’s a fine mystery as well.

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The story centers around Amos Cottle, who in record time has become the wunderkind of the writing world. The four novels he has published in four years have been huge best sellers and have made a fortune for his publisher, Tony Kane, and his agent, Gus Vesey. But success comes with a price: Cottle is a complicated man, a self-described “genius housed in a frail vessel” and a recovered alcoholic with such marked insecurities that Kane has moved him to a cottage in Connecticut right next to his farmhouse and acts as boss, best friend and babysitter all rolled into one. Kane’s wife, Philippa, a blue blood from New York’s Upper West Side, is even more devoted to making Amos happy . . . if you know what I mean.

We get glimpses of Cottle’s work throughout the novel, and it looks absolutely . . . rotten! But then, McCloy seems to be using this situation to comment in her role as publisher on the sorry state of affairs of current American fiction. At one point, Gus Vesey is talking to his wife Meg, who helps him out by reading down his slush pile (and who can take credit for having discovered Amos Cottle):

  • “What is it?” (asks Meg.)
  • “Short story. Hard-hitting, well-written, fascinating background material, vivid characters.”
  • “What’s wrong with it?”
  • Gus groaned aloud. “It has a plot.”
  • “Then why should I bother to read it?” cried Meg indignantly. “Send it back at once.”
  • “I know.” Gus shook his head. “I’ve told that guy again and again that there is no market anywhere now for a story with a plot. But he seems to have some sort of neurotic compulsion– he just can’t write a story without putting a plot in it.”

 

This notion about “modern” fiction appears again and again in the book, and it crosses into some very funny discussions about McCloy’s genre of choice – the mystery. One character remarks, “Today a plot is indecent anywhere outside a mystery, the last refuge of the conservative writer.” In another passage, Tony Kane tries to explain to a character the difference between a “real” writer and a mystery writer:

“A mystery is not a book, Vera. Anyone can write a mystery. It’s just a job like carpentering or plumbing. I’ve always maintained that a mystery writer should not be paid in royalties at all, any more than you would pay a carpenter or a plumber royalties. He should be paid a modest lump sum, and any money that comes in from subsidiary rights should go to his publisher who has been put to a great deal of expense to publish his book and who can only just break even on the trade addition with costs what they are today and mystery sales so low in hard covers.”

At one point, when Tony and Gus aren’t watching hard enough, Amos gets married. Vera Vane is a most inappropriate choice, voluptuous and vicious. For three months, Amos writes nothing and hits the bottle again, until Tony lures Vera to the West Coast with the promise of a Hollywood career. Thus, for a while, the marriage resembles that of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller until Vera reneges on her studio contract and returns to Amos, hoping to capitalize on his financial success.

It all culminates at a posh dinner party, where the Kanes and the Veseys try to tear Amos away from Vera’s clutches. Among the other guests are two rival literary critics, one of whom loathes Amos’ writing and the other, Maurice Lipton, who champions it. Also present is Dr. Basil Willing and his lovely wife Gisela. A good thing, too, because in the aftermath of a party game, one of the guests keels over dead.

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The party game, like the novel, is called Two Thirds of a Ghost, and the play of it actually contributes more than one important clue toward the solution of the crime. As Willing investigates, he uncovers some pretty intriguing secrets about each of the characters, and we approach the solution in a layered series of reveals that bring about a most satisfying denouement. I’d venture to say that the solution plays fair, but you have to possess a lot of esoteric knowledge in order to solve it. I’m happy to say that, being as ignorant as the next man, I remained clueless until the end . . . and that’s the way I like it.

Along the way, I laughed a lot about the pretensions of publishers and producers. McCloy’s books are always set in the real world, so actual movie stars are mentioned a lot (and horribly miscast in the movie versions of Cottle’s novels). And, in a salute to my blogging buddy Moira at Clothes in Books, I can’t close this without mentioning the clothes. (Honestly, I immediately checked to see if Moira had reviewed this one since it is right down her alley. And she had!)

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They say clothes make the man. In McCloy’s world they offer a great deal of information about women. While I can’t say I’m particularly observant about what people wear myself, I learned a lot here about how a woman’s character can be reflected in clothes and make-up. Men have fewer options, the increased informality of the times has stripped us of most of these: the hat, the cufflink, the boutonniere, even the power tie is disappearing. I suspect most women today are less likely to adorn themselves – or wear uncomfortable shoes – unless they feel like it. But the women of 1956 take great care with their appearance, and McCloy provides interesting sensory details about their ornamentation.

It’s always nice to mix things up on my TBR pile. Two Thirds of a Ghost provided a wonderful contrast to Vindry’s novel. It wasn’t lacking in plot, but it balanced all the trimmings of a classic mystery with a modern psychological twist. I won’t wait so long to give Helen McCloy another visit. But next up for me is a return to the 30’s, as I slip the Prius into the carport and take a little ride in a classic Carr, followed by one of Christie’s most talked about titles. Just in time for the holidays!

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18 thoughts on “PUBLISH OR PERISH: Helen McCloy’s Two Thirds of a Ghost

  1. interesting, isn’t it, Brad, how some authors simply don’t get the notice today that they might. And, yet, they made some real innovations. McCloy is one of those interesting authors who added to the genre, and pushed it forward. And, yet, we don’t hear about her work the way we do some others. I’m glad you profiled her.

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  2. I just bought Through a Glass, Darkly yesterday and I have A Cue for Murder on my To Be Purchased list. Any other recommendations for McCloy?

    Hmm – taking a ride in a classic Carr just in time for the holidays? You must be referring to The White Priory Murders. If so, I’m definitely looking forward to your thoughts. Plus, the footprints in the snow mystery will go perfectly with that foot of fresh powder that you no doubt have in the Bay area right now…

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    1. Looks like Brad is not recommending. So I’ll just barge in and give you some titles.

      Knowing your tastes you’d probably be most at home with MR. SPLITFOOT: a brilliantly constructed impossible crime, a haunted room with a daring bet to spend the night inside it alone (a la Carr), ghost legends, etc. I also recommend all her early books with Basil Willing. Anything from the mid 50s on will be a suspense thriller and not a detective novel. My favorites of the Dr. Willing books in no particular order are THE DEADLY TRUTH, THE MAN IN THE MOONLIGHT, DANCE OF DEATH, and MR SPLITFOOT (written in the 1960s, but a genuine throwback to her Golden Age plotting). She wrote an effective Hitchcockian pursuit thriller called DO NOT DISTURB that is one of the better American wartime crime novels. Creepily paranoid atmosphere pervades the book in way that you don’t really find until the Red Scare era. McCloy was ahead of her time in many ways. That might prove worthwhile if you’re open for a change of pace. There’s an element of the detective novel in that one, but it’s not really a “whodunit.”

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    2. I think John has read more McCloy than I have. I also loved THE DEADLY TRUTH, ALIAS BASIL WILLING, and THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY (that’s her classic, but not necessarily her best.) Unlike JJ, I was very fond of THE SLAYER AND THE SLAIN; it’s the only non-series book of hers I’ve read, and I think it’s major trick is wonderful for its time. I haven’t read DANCE OF DEATH yet, but I want to. The only Willing title I’ve been disappointed in was THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY.

      McCloy’s output was so much smaller than, say, Carr’s, so I’m parsing her out. And, as John mentioned to you, the later books are much more thrillers than whodunits.

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      1. Oh yeah, I forgot to add MR. SPLITFOOT! It’s the first McCloy I read, and it’s marvelous! However, I did get the ending of that one!

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  3. Following The Slayer and the Slain, McCloy has taken a bit of a back seat for me — I completely get what you mean about the “Silver Age” plotting, and I just don’t think it’s my thing at present. However, I’ll keep this and Cue for Murder in mind should I ever have the time/motivation to dive in to her writing for another go around…though given the state of my TBR that’s unlikely to be for a while…!

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  4. I totally agree with how modern and well written then psychological elements are in the Basil Willing books. She always balances the psychological analysis against the plot so that it doesn’t come out like ludicrous exposition, but weaves itself naturally, and as you say actually drives home clues.

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    1. It’s a whole new kind of detective for me: one whose talents are specific and actually drive cases. No eccentricities, a private life that is interesting without grabbing too much space, and no sense of formula in the varied cases he investigates! Good stuff!

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