THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY (1950) by Helen McCloy

McCloy_Glass-Darkly_dellpbPoor mousey little Faustina Crayle! An apparently mild, self-effacing art teacher with no axe to grind and perfect manners, she has somehow become an object of horror. Everybody, it seems, is frightened to death of her, yet she has no idea why. When she loses her second teaching position in a row in mysterious circumstances, she turns to psychologist and sleuth Dr Basil Willing for help. What he discovers points to both the presence of a doppelgänger and the possibility of telepathy as a murder method.

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Do you realize how this will affect my whole future? People will think I’ve done something horrible. That’s I’m a kleptomaniac or a Lesbian!”

McCloy was one of the pioneers of psychological suspense and in this book she mixes her talents for character observation with a plot that would have pleased John Dickson Carr. Faustina, we eventually discover, is apparently being stalked by a double in a case that recalls an anecdote in Goethe’s memoirs (one suspects that McCloy’s choice of first name for Crayle is not accidental). She is frequently seen in two different places at once and has upset staff, servants and students alike in the process. And now, even though it is Connecticut in 1946 and not the late 18th century, she is increasingly scared because the events are too frequent to be dismissed as a prank and mere coincidence – and legend has it that if you see your double, or ‘fetch,’ then you will soon die. Halfway through the book Faustina is apparently seen killing a mean-spirited former colleague at her old school in Connecticut – except that she was in her hotel in New York City at the same time, with witnesses to prove it.

“Suppose the person’s subconscious mind has access to another person’s subconscious and planted the suicidal impulse without either being aware of the process – that would be murder, wouldn’t it?”

A second death occurs under even spookier circumstances in a once grand penumbral New Jersey cottage and Dr Willing finally comes to a solution of the case, albeit one that is left open-ended, not coming down conclusively on whether it has all been a case of the paranormal, superstitious mumbo-jumbo or something much more venal and down to earth …

“… there are shadowy things you might suspect and be unable to prove. They range all the way from alcoholism to communism.”

McCloy_Glass-Darkly_dellWhile on my hols last month I pulled this one off my old shelf at my parents’ place in Umbria and re-read it eagerly as I had very fond memories of reading it as a teen. This time my appraisal was less favourable and so, after re-reading it, I shared the book with my sister-in-law, a super-smart lady who usually solves mysteries well before the detective on the page or the screen ever does. We both agreed that while the central plot conceit was very clever, the book felt padded and a bit thin – the first death occurs only half-way in, amid several long and repetitive  conversations about the nature of the doppelgänger in art, literature and psychology. Also, the second death is oddly glossed over in terms of the impact it has on the characters. This lack of feeling, we both thought, really weakened the story. We also both felt that matters were not helped by an outlandish subplot connected to the deaths which signals the motive and the method much too clearly without being even remotely convincing. Since then I have re-read the 1948 short story by McClory on which she based the novel (available in the fine Crippen and Landru collection from 2003, The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing, with an introduction by Barry Pike). This has tended to confirm my feeling that the novel is in fact padded as the superior short version contains all the major characters, dialogue and plot, whereas the longer version really only adds a romantic subplot for Willing and the first murder. The additional murder is very neatly done but relies on a whopping coincidence that beggars belief and on the whole only serves to draw attention to just how implausible the motive is – though one should add that the villain of the piece is very well concealed (though one suspects that there are aspects of the plot relating to it that McCloy might have wanted to explore further but probably couldn’t for reasons of, ahem, decorum).

“No one really wants to see himself as others see him.”

In comparing the longer and shorter versions, to me it does explain the rather odd lack of sentiment when the innocent second person is killed – in the short story it all happens so fast you don’t mind, plus the villainy was much more clear-cut. This needed to be amended for the novel but wasn’t, which I think is a shame. Incidentally, I just had to include two of the quotes above as I love the fact that in my Penguin edition, ‘lesbian’ is capitalised and communism not. The equivalent section from the short story reads rather better actually – here it is:

 “What remains? Something libelous you suspect and can’t prove. One of our old friends dipsomania, kleptomania, nymphomania. Lesbianism is always with us. And now there’s communism”

The Dr. Basil Willing series

  • Dance of Death (1938)McCloy_Glass-Darkly_cc
  • The Man in the Moonlight (1940)
  • The Deadly Truth (1941)
  • Who’s Calling (1942)
  • Cue for Murder (1942)
  • The Goblin Market (1943)
  • The One That Got Away (1945)
  • Through a Glass, Darkly (1950)
  • Alias Basil Willing (1951)
  • The Long Body (1955)
  • Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956)
  • Mr. Splitfoot (1968)
  • Burn This (1980)
  • The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing (short stories, 2003)

This is a well-known and much-loved book and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading it, even if it now seems weaker than I remembered. It has been reviewed many times elsewhere – for a really detailed analysis of this book, I would recommend Noah Stewart’s fine (if not entirely spoiler free) review at his Noah’s Archives; Pietro De Palma is even more detailed at Death Can Read; see also Bev’s enthusiastic review at her My Reader’s Block; and Moira Redmond of Clothes in Books has some typically astute observations too.

I submit this review as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘academic’ category:

023-Vintage-McCloy

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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46 Responses to THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY (1950) by Helen McCloy

  1. Perhaps not perfect, Sergio, but a very interesting premise for a story. And given that quote you shared, quite the product of its day. I’m glad you found some things to like about this.

  2. Colin says:

    Another nice choice. I think I like the book a bit better than you do – I wouldn’t disagree with you on the weaknesses you’ve highlighted as I think the points you made are entirely valid. I guess I found I was able to overlook them more easily, or at least to allow the atmosphere (which is so well developed) to carry me along.
    I wasn’t aware there was a shorter version of the story and that’s welcome information as I think I’d enjoy tracking it down to see if the tightening up of some of the more superfluous elements works for me.

    • Fair point Colin – there is much more time dedicated to the atmosphere in the novel, inevitably, so you’ll probably prefer it, but… well, it’s just that realising that the first 100 pages were in fact very little but that made me slightly downgrade my earlier apprasal. Liked it a lot in fact.

      • Colin says:

        I know what you mean. If I were to reread the book right now, I’d probably feel the same about the long buildup – that kind of technique never works as well when you come back to a book already knowing the basic plot – it’s the kind of thing which is easier to forgive, or, maybe enjoy more, on first readings.

        • Very true – and in fairness I might have marked it more highly had I not gone and read the short story, though it is undeniably padded!

          • Colin says:

            Oh no question there’s padding. I’m keen to read the short story at some point now to see how it goes as a more stripped down mystery.

          • The role of the Guardian / lawyer is altered in the short story. It is both more conventional and more credible in some ways … (he said elliptically 🙂 )

          • Colin says:

            I’m guessing the (rational) solution is the same in both the long and short version?

          • Yes, definitely – in fact, what the short story lacks is any hint of ambiguity, which normally I would prefer but I wasn’t convinced by how McCloy handled it in the novel – I think because although the motive and method is so unlikely (in Carr the impossible crimes are not usually by design but rather attempts at creating alibis that go wrong, which to me makes a lot more sense that a murderer, the one with the most obvious motive, coming up with a massively long-term plan that hinges on a very unlikely set of circumstances all falling into place).

  3. Noah Stewart says:

    Thank you for the referral to my blog, Sergio, always appreciated. I also wasn’t aware that there had been a shorter version of this story; that would be interesting to see. And I agree 110% that I would have loved to see the novel tightened up — perhaps squeezed down a bit but with more attention and time spent on the basic elements — and, at the same time, adding the exploration of certain aspects which relate to, ahem, decorum. (Very well put, sir!)

    • Thank you Noah – having to be well-behaved in terms of spoiler does have some disadvantages here and I do wish that the seconf murder, the one from the short story, had been handled more from the point of view of the victim – but then, that is the standard complaint with so many Golden Age (ish) novels (a massive genralisation and Curtis will probably smack me in Facebook for saying that 🙂 )

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    Though Willing gives a rational explanation for the seemingly supernatural events, it is left open-ended. I was reminded of Carr’s The Burning Court.
    Regarding padding, I am presently reading another book by the author Two-Thirds Of A Ghost and that too is heavily padded. Perhaps padding is a natural feature of her books !
    I note that you have included this novel in your top 100 mysteries !

    • Thanks Santosh – yes, with sadness I am going to have to remove it from my top 100 – I really want to get hold of her hard-to-find novel Mr Splitfoot, which apparently is quite remarkable.

      • Santosh Iyer says:

        I have finished Two-Thirds Of A Ghost. Plot-wise this is better with a more plausible motive. In addition to a mystery, it is a satire on the publishing world. Basil Willing is married here (to whom, you know).
        I’ll now read Mr. Splitfoot. Though it is difficult to get a reasonably priced paperback edition of this book, it is available in kindle edition at Amazon.

        • I like the sound of Ghost, thanks – but then you would hope the detail would be authentic as McCloy ran a a publishing house and agency with her then husband, Brett Halliday. Sadly I’m not an e-reader yet – sooner or later a paperback will come along that I can afford, hopefully … 🙂

          • Santosh Iyer says:

            I have finished Mr. Splitfoot. It is quite good, best of the 3 I have read. However, it suffers from the same problem: padding!

          • Thanks Santosh – OK, glad to hear it’s a good one, despite the padding – I guess we’re stuck with that then! 🙂

  5. Yvette says:

    Sounds interesting, Sergio – the doppelganger idea, I mean. It’s like the good twin and the evil twin you used to see in movies with Bette Davis or maybe Olivia De Havilland. At any rate, I don’t think I’ve ever read any books by Helen McCloy, but for minute I had her confused with Helen Reilly, a writer I discovered recently but didn’t like much. Thanks for another terrific review, I’m adding the title to my TBR Vintage list.

  6. McCloy is one of the GA authors that I keep hearing good things about but that I’ve never read. Thanks for the prompt.

    • Definitely worht a look chum – I realise I have been critical but that is only a question of degree in comparison with a) my earlier view and, b) the original short story it was expanded from,.

  7. Graham says:

    I think the comparison to Carr is apt, both because of the almost Gothic atmosphere, which was very well done, and because the ultimate solution is pretty preposterous. But I did enjoy reading it.

    • Thanks Graham – I think Carr would have done a lot more with it but it is well done and McCloy deserves a lot of credit for the strong plot and interesting premise. I still think the short story works better though … 🙂

  8. I’m with you on the original short story. It’s a classic. The novel version suffers by comparison.

  9. Good review. Thanks for comparing novel vs. short story.

  10. tracybham says:

    From the description, this did not sound like a book I would like, and your criticisms don’t encourage me. But that Dell paperback cover is great; I would go for that any day. I do want to read some Helen McCloy, either the series or stand alone books. The short story sounds great.

    • Well worth a look and I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression. It’s a Golden Age mystery that considers the possibility of the supernatural but the detective remains rational throughout, as is his convincing solution to the murders.

      • tracybham says:

        I do want to try the author’s books but hope to start with something a little different than this one. It is actually more the doppelgänger element that doesn’t appeal; the supernatural element would not bother me so much. I have looked and I have none in my TBR piles, but there are some great paperback covers available at Abebooks.

  11. Bev Hankins says:

    Now I’m eager to find the short story for comparison. It is a shame that we can’t always return to books we loved and find them to be as good as remembered. Of course, part of that is that we’re not quite the same person who read it the first time. That’s why I always approach rereads of books I haven’t read for a very long time with trepidation–it’s hit or miss whether I’ll still love them when I’m done (but it has happened).

    Thanks very much for the plug for my review!

    • My pleasure Bev. I did enjoy going back to this but, yes, was less convinced this time round. But then, I’m not the person i was when I read this in my early 20s (for good or ill).

  12. Sergio, I have never read Helen McCloy or much of psychological suspense either. The idea of a ghostly double as a plot element in this novel certainly sounds intriguing.

  13. TomCat says:

    Great review, Sergio, both of the short story and novel-length treatment of Through a Glass, Darkly are worthy of their reputation, but my favorite McCloy novel remains the wonderful Mr. Splitfoot.

  14. Thanks for the shoutout Sergio – I think I liked it better than you did, but I found your review very illuminating. I did 2 posts on a different McCloy book while you were away – you should take a look, because the question of a Fedora looms large! It’s too hard to do a link on the device I’m on, but it should be easy to find, the book is called Cue For Murder.

  15. Anne H says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Helen McCloy’s novels and found a Mr Splitfoot many years ago lurking in a secondhand shop, cost, about 40 cents. One of my favourites is Alias Basil Willing, comparatively short with no question of padding. Thanks to the internet, once I had my own computer I was able to collect all of hers that I hadn’t previously found, including the fascinating (to me) story Chinoiserie. Incidentally, another novel with a seemingly supernatural element that leaves it unresolved in an open ending is The Smoking Mirror.

  16. Anne H says:

    Today I happened to be reading about Helen McCloy and ended with a long series of entries about her works by Mike Grost. It seems the short version of Through a Glass Darkly was prepared for Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine, and published first, but taken from the novel which was actually issued a year later. (1948 / 9). A real chicken and egg situation.

  17. Anne H says:

    I agree – and always assumed the short story aka novella was expanded into novel length.

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