HELEN McCLOY. Dance of Death (1938).

03 May

This deceptively light novel, a début for McCloy and for her detective hero, the psychiatrist Basil Willing, is very much a book of its time. Character types from the mystery and comedy genres of the 1930s abound: the charmingly cynical young newspaperman; the talentless charlatan who practices art in a “sur-realiste” mode; the international munitions magnate; the snuff-chewing, literal-minded police inspector; and, at the center of the tale, the flighty débutante, her greedy stepmother, and her plucky but impecunious cousin. Period-typical plot points are equally thick on the ground. DanceDeathBig.jpgThere is a case of mistaken identity, an exotic drug-smuggling racket, a cocktail-fueled coming-out party, a “mislaid” pair of eyeglasses, a “lost” gold ring, a “misplaced” cigarette case, and lots more.

Yet the core situation is one that a 21st-century writer might easily have “ripped from the headlines” of yesterday’s newspaper. A trim celebrity falls victim to an overdose of Sveltis, a diet pill—here it’s called a “reducing compound”—and the investigation into her death plays out as an indictment of the way that unregulated pharmaceuticals and dishonest advertising conspire to prey upon weight-obsessed womankind. As for Willing, his use of Freudian psychology comes across as quaintly retrograde in some instances. He speaks of “psychic fingerprints,” he conducts word-association tests, and he asserts without irony that no slip of the tongue or of the hand is ever “just” a mistake. (Hence those scare-quote marks, above, around “mislaid,” “lost,” and “misplaced.”) In other respects, however, he displays a technique that seems considerably more advanced than one would expect from either a shrink or a sleuth of his era. He solves the murder in this case, for example, through a method that we would now call “criminal profiling.”

Like several other mysteries that McCloy wrote over the following decade, this one is a period piece that goes far toward transcending its period.

Leave a comment

Posted by on May 3, 2010 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: