HELEN McCLOY. Alias Basil Willing (1951).

01 Jan

A case of imposture swiftly becomes a case of murder for the eponymous hero of this mid-career novel of not-quite-middling quality. Early one evening, Dr. Basil Willing overhears his name being used by a nondescript little man who is hiring a taxi near Willing’s home on the East Side of Manhattan. Willing hires his own taxi and follows the man to a house on West 11th Street where a dinner party is under way. Playing host is one Dr. Zimmer, a psychiatrist, and the guests includes several of his patients. One odd circumstance leads to another, and before the night is out Willing has a new murder to solve. Another killing occurs soon afterward, and in both cases the victim had attended the Zimmer party and had died of a codeine overdose. AliasBasilWillingAs is typical of McCloy’s work, the list of suspects draws heavily from the cultured and monied ranks of New York society, and Willing’s investigation consists largely of observing and interviewing these characters in their native habitats.

In broad outline, the Willing series appears to fall in the same tradition of American crime writing that includes the work of S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen. Stories in this British-inflected tradition feature a genteel sleuth who functions as an amateur, even if (as in Willing’s case) he enjoys an official connection to the police; a murder, or maybe a pair of murders, that seem essentially bloodless; and a closed circle of suspects who mostly hail from the upper reaches of a class hierarchy. Yet McCloy’s attitude toward her material echoes the sensibility of a different American tradition: Like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and others who write in a hardboiled vein, McCloy casts an icy-cold eye on the mid-century American scene. (Perhaps not coincidentally, McCloy at the time of writing this tale was married to Davis Dresser, who spun yarns about the hard-driving private eye Michael Shayne under the name Brett Halliday.) A highlight of this book is a suite of corrosive pen portraits that introduce readers to Dr. Zimmer’s guests. There is Rosamund Yorke, a vain socialite married to an aging nightclub owner. There is Brinsley Shaw, the cowardly and craven nephew of a wealthy widow. And so on. Similarly, the plot here is replete with signs of social and spiritual corruption—from Zimmer’s practice of gestalt psychotherapy, which McCloy presents as a vaguely fraudulent operation, to the booze-drenched milieu of a suburban country club.

The resolution of this plot combines conventional fair-play aspects—aspects that a reader might divine from clues honestly presented and cleverly concealed—with elements that no reader could deduce from the events that McCloy narrates. (One such element hinges on an obscure literary reference that Willing happens to know. He mentions the work in question, but no ordinary reader will recognize its significance.) When the final twist arrives, it has a freakish quality that renders it mildly shocking, rather than genuinely (or ingeniously) surprising, and the novel ends up resembling a pulpy thriller more than it does a drawing-room puzzler. As a consequence, Alias Basil Willing fails to meet the high standard of fictional detection that its namesake established in his previous adventures.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 1, 2021 in American, Novel, Puzzle


One response to “HELEN McCLOY. Alias Basil Willing (1951).

  1. dfordoom

    June 23, 2021 at 9:02 AM

    I’ve only reads one of McCloy’s books (THE DEADLY TRUTH) and I was a bit underwhelmed by it. Not quite my cup of tea.


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