Poor 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.”
While 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)
- 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: