Out of Character

"Do you know my friend that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desire and aptitude?"
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Thirteen at Dinner, 1933)
While I have only read a handful of Helen McCloy's novels and short stories, I regard her as one of the uncrowned Queens of Crime, along with Christianna Brand and Gladys Mitchell, but I guess we can place the blame of this oversight solidly on the shoulders of General Washington's triumphant rebellion against the British.

The Goblin Market (1943), Through a Glass, Darkly (1950), Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956) and Mr. Splitfoot (1968) were good-to-excellent detective stories, which were either laced with suspense, furnished with thriller-and spy material or covered with suggestive touches of the supernatural – and always outfitted with solid plots. However, it's been a while since I picked up one of McCloy's mysteries and some rummaging unearthed a copy of Alias Basil Willing (1951), which became irresistible after reading the dedication: "To Clarise and John Dickson Carr, with affection." 

Unfortunately, Alias Basil Willing bears very little resemblance to either the mystery or the adventurous thriller novels by Carr. The only, slight exception was the set-up of the plot, which was very reminiscent of the type of Carrian stories that plunges the hero in a series of ever-increasing bizarre events after a strange encounter in the opening chapter (e.g. The Unicorn Murders (1934) and The Arabian Nights Murder, 1936).

Dr. Basil Willing is McCloy's psychiatrist-detective and usually cases are brought to his attention by the District Attorney's office, but here it's a visit to a Manhattan tobacco shop. A ruffled little man, who bought the same cigarettes as the doctor, is overheard introducing himself to a cabdriver with a very familiar sounding name, "I am Dr. Basil Willing," and that's all the encouragement Willing needed to hop in the next cab in pursuit. What he finds is a strange dinner party thrown by an eminent German-born psychiatrist, Max Zimmer, for his patients and two Basil Willing's gives the party a thirteenth guest – which is considered a bad omen even by the rational host.

Willing manages to pry his imposter loose from the party, but soon comes to the discovery that he's dragging along a delirious and dying man, whose last words were the cryptic mutterings, "and – no – bird – sang..." The fake Basil Willing had died of codeine poisoning and the only place it could've been administrated was during the dinner party. A second death of a guest is discovered the following morning, also from codeine poisoning, but the plot and story-telling weren't able to deliver on its premise – as good as the attempt may’ve been. Yes, that's why I began with the praise.

The problem is that not much of sustainable interest happens between opening and closing chapters. There are some interviews, character-sketches and some nicely written observation about the times, but McCloy left two interesting points in the story underdeveloped. I thought there was something clever about the method for the poisonings, which makes the book a borderline impossible crime story, but more could've been done with it. And, secondly, if more attention (i.e. clueing) was paid to the place where birds don't sing, we could've had a classic of the "Dying Message" on our hands. The motive was good though, but the murderer belonged to a different type of crime story.

So, while Alias Basil Willing has its moments and interesting in showing how the genre had began to transition from plot-oriented mysteries to character-driven crime-and thriller novels, but as part of a series it will always be overshadowed by the previously mentioned titles. I'm glad, judging by the later books, McCloy abandoned this approach.

Sorry for this bad review and poorly written review. I was very distracted and multitasking isn't one of my strong suits.


  1. I've had this one of the shelf for years but always hear bad things about it - sigh! Thanks TC.

    1. Sadly, this is a typical case that's for completists only.

  2. “if more attention [were] paid to the place where birds don't sing”

    The first thought, surely, of anyone who read (or heard) "and no bird sang” would be that the poor cove had awoken and found himself on a cold hill’s side though the sedge had wither’d from the lake, and no birds sang and that, perhaps, he had seen pale kings and princes in the thrall of la Belle Dame sans Merci.
    Does Keats feature in the conclusion?

    1. Nope. It's a statement of fact and has nothing to do poetry, which is why more should've been done with it. The explanation for the dying message was hauntingly beautiful, but not much was done with it until the ending.

  3. What a great posting (and a great site)! I am now on the trail of Helen McCloy's books; I hope I can find some.

    As the new kid on the block among crime fiction bloggers, I invite you to visit and comment every now and then should the spirit move you.

    Here I am:


    All the best from the American south!