Helen McCloy's The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing (2003) is a collection of short stories, originally assembled by Crippen & Landru, reprinted in 2013 as an ebook by The Murder Room and gathered all ten short stories about McCloy's series-detective, Dr. Basil Willing – a psychiatric consultant of the district attorney's office. This volume has all ten short stories, including eight previously uncollected stories, that were written about Dr. Basil Willing. A splendid collections demonstrating McCloy's versatility as both a writer and plotter.
There are stories littered with the conventions of the traditional detective, such as locked room puzzles, impossible crimes and unbreakable alibis, but the post-1940s stories show a willingness to adept to a new world. Resulting in some unusual plots or subject matters. Well, unusual when it comes from a writer so closely associated with the genre's Golden Age.
Most notably, there are not one, but two, stories in this collection dealing with a crime rarely touched upon by classic mystery writers: mass murder. Fascinatingly, there's an extraterrestrial element in both stories and they were penned exactly thirty years apart. So it was interesting to see McCloy revisit these ideas so late in her career and wrote a completely different story around them, but I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's take down these stories from the top.
"Through a Glass, Darkly" is the opener of this collection, originally published in the September, 1948, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM), but this novella has already been discussed in my 2011 review of All But Impossible! An Anthology of Locked Room and Impossible Crime Stories by Members of the Mystery Writers of America (1981). So moving on!
The second novella of the collection, "The Singing Diamonds," was first printed in the October, 1949, issue of EQMM and is a quasi-impossible crime story plotted around the UFO phenomena. There are entire shelves of detective stories with supposedly malevolent ghosts, family curses and rooms that kill, but not that many have handled the topic of alien visitations. McCloy here mixed a flurry of UFO sightings with mass murder, possible espionage and government conspiracies.
Mathilde Verworn was one of the eyewitnesses who saw the flat, elongated squares, "like the pips on a nine of diamonds," flying in V-formation at a great height, emanating "a strange resonance" like the humming or singing of "a high-tension wire in the wind," but in the last fortnight three witnesses have unexpected died – which is why she decided to consult a specialist, Dr. Basil Willing. The plot he exposes is a clever, well executed interpretation of a trick as classic as it's pure evil. But the story as a whole was marvelous. From the premise of the flying diamonds and dying witnesses to Dr. Willing getting "a lesson in the manufacture of public opinion" as a high-placed Naval Intelligence officer shows him how they manipulated and distorted the press reports on the flying diamonds. Easily one of the better and more memorable stories in this collection.
"The Case of the Duplicate Door" is a completely overlooked locked room mystery with an unusual publishing history, which when it was released, in 1949, as a separately printed story in the Mystery of the Month series of jigsaw puzzles. You had to put together a 200-piece jigsaw puzzle and the completed picture was a clue to the solution. This is probably why even Robert Adey missed it when he was compiling Locked Room Murders (1991). However, the story was reprinted in the February, 1965, issue of EQMM under alternative title, "Into Thin Air," with an added paragraph to replace the jigsaw clue.
This is the EQMM version of the story with its original title restored and a reduced, black-and-white reproduction of the assembled jigsaw puzzle. Purely as a locked room story, this is a curiosity that put a false solution to good use.
Matthew Rex, President of the Conservative Trust, has absconded with $80,000 in cash and $300,000 in bearer bonds, but he sends a panicky radio gram from Bermuda that he can "explain everything" and that he'll return the following day by private-plane – police is waiting for him when he lands. But when they storm the plane, they only find a fedora, a pair of gloves and a shot glass half filled with brandy. Nobody had left the plane after it landed and the pilot swears his boss had been aboard, but Matthew Rex had inexplicably disappeared along with a briefcase that had been chained to his wrist. This is the point where the story does something that's as clever as it's frustrating.
A perfectly logical, but incorrect, solution is proposed that turned the inexplicable disappearance into an unfortunate accident. An accident is not the most desirable explanation to a seemingly impossible situation, no matter how bizarre the circumstances, but this was a genuinely good, reasonable and acceptable answer – directly linked to the actual solution. A weak, uninspired solution that looked much better than it was, because it was backed up by the false solution. Dr. Willing figured out the trick when he spotted the flaw in this perfectly acceptable explanation.
So this is an uneven, but interesting, curiosity and the only reason why it never made any of the locked room anthologies is its obscurity. Hey, it would be an excuse to put McCloy's name on the cover and you can't keep reprinting "Through a Glass, Darkly."
The next story, "Thy Brother Death," was culled from a 1955 issue of This Week and begins when Dr. Willing is consulted by an acquaintance. Dick Blount found an anonymous letter, addressed to his wife, in the morning mail with ominous-sounding lines of poetry from Percy Bysshe Shelley. Suspicion has fallen on a village girl, who had worked for them as a maid, but was dismissed after a diamond brooch went missing. Dr. Willing wants a sample of her handwriting and accompanies Blount to his private office to get some canceled checks she had endorsed, but, when they arrive, the telephone is ringing. The caller was his desperate wife, Clara, who called to say "someone was prowling outside the house" followed by scream and a gunshot. And then silence.
A good, old-fashioned detective story with more emphasis on the how, rather than the who, which hinged on a clever, but ultimately simple, alibi-trick reminiscent of Christopher Bush. A note of warning: the solution is harder to anticipate for readers today, because the hinge of the alibi-trick is specific to that period in time.
"Murder Stops the Music" was first published in This Week in 1957 and Dr. Willing is tasked with solving the murder of a famous concert pianist, Gertrude Ehrenthal, who was stabbed to death during a village square dance for local charity when the place was suddenly plunged in darkness. I think murderer moved around a little too easily in a pitch-black room with people standing around, but the double-clue of the ill-mannered dog was smartly handled. A good, but minor, story.
"The Pleasant Assassin" was originally published in the December, 1970, issue of EQMM and Dr. Willing is consulted by Captain Aloysius Grogan, of the Boston Police Department, who needs his help with ensnaring a respected academic, Professor Jeremiah Pitcairn. Apparently, the professor is deeply involved in the drug trade and capturing involves a quasi-locked room problem of a warning message being transmitted from a closely observed space (c.f. Edmund Crispin's "A Country to Sell," 1955). However, the plot is paper-thin to the point that it barely exists, but stands out for its open, liberally-minded opinion on marijuana and Captain Grogan even endorsed its legalization ("as long as marijuana is illegal it brings young people it brings young people into contact with the criminal world"). Not what you would expect from a Golden Age mystery writer, but good to see McCloy tried to keep up with the times.
"Murder Ad Lib" was originally published in the November, 1964, issue of EQMM and is an unusual poorly plotted detective story. Dr. Willing is only present as a sharp-eyed, quick-witted spectator. Lt. Carson Dawes, of the Los Angeles Police, knows the murderer's identity and that his alibi has crumbled to pieces, but the murderer is blissfully unaware of these development. So all the police lieutenant has to do is sit back and "let him talk himself into the gas chamber," but he allowed a close friend of the suspect to be present and this person managed to give him a warning message. Dawes is the only one who misses the moment when this happened. The reader can only spot this painfully obvious moment, but decoding the message is impossible. So this is the practically inescapable dud you come across in nearly every short story collection.
"A Case of Innocent Eavesdropping" was originally published in the March, 1978, issue of EQMM and is more of a domestic crime than a puzzle detective story.
Mrs. Jessie Markel is an elderly lady who moves in with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson, but her daughter-in-law, Maggie, exploits her from all sides. Maggie has taken full control of her income and has her "scrubbing all the pots and pans that can't go into the dishwasher," running the vacuum cleaner, polishing the silver and babysitting her grandson – which gives her little time or energy for anything else. Maggie tells her friends Mrs. Markel needs this work "to recover her identity." There is, however, something sinister going on the Markel household and Mrs. Markel learns a terrifying secret that ends in murder.
However, the only thing Dr. Willing has to do here is exonerate an innocent man by destroying a lie from a cantankerous, dishonest eyewitness. I didn't dislike this story, but hardly one of McCloy's best works.
"Murphy's Law" is another minor, but enjoyable, story originally published in the May, 1979, issue of EQMM and the structure of the plot recalls Edward D. Hoch's short stories about his thief-for-hire, Nick Velvet. The story begins with Gerald Murphy and Professor Allerton plotting to steal "a small album" of ten ancient Greek coins from a notorious collector, Sammy Bork, which have an estimated value of half a million dollars. Naturally, everything goes wrong and Dr. Willing has to exonerate one of them from a potential murder charge. A good short story with multiple, intertwined plot-threads.
This collection ends strongly with the unnerving "The Bug That's Going Around," originally printed in the August, 1979, issue of EQMM and opens with a covert challenge to the reader. In most of Dr. Willing's murder cases, "the essential clue has been some scrap of rare information," but this time, he solved it with common "scraps of knowledge" accessible "to everybody who bothered to read newspapers." The extraordinary problem here is another quasi-impossible puzzle of a scientific nature and the story is in more than way related to "The Singing Diamonds."
The backdrop of the story is a convention of microbiologists at the Forum Hotel, but an inexplicable epidemic has left five people dead and even Dr. Willing's five-year-old grandson has fallen ill. A bizarre micro-organism has been found in the bodies of everyone who died or fell ill at the hotel, but the problem is that the micro-organism appears to be "a new species," violating all "the laws of evolution by appearing too suddenly," which makes the thing a monster – something literally out of this world! So are these micro-organisms "silent, invisible micro-astronauts," who don't need spaceships, because they can survive "all extremes of heat, cold and distance." An alien killer! And if this is the case, how did they get in the air-conditioning system of a Boston hotel?
Dr. Willing finds a logical and rational explanation for "an impossible micro-organism," which he deduced from a doodle on a telephone pad found at the scene of a murder. A genuinely good, slightly unnerving story of mass murder and a potential extraterrestrial threat. A great closer to a great collection!
So, on a whole, The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing is an outstanding collection of McCloy's short fiction that opened strongly with an all-time classic, a highly original novella, a virtually unknown locked room mystery and good alibi story. After these four excellent stories, the quality tapered off a little bit and had one dud, but McCloy returned to form in the last two stories. Highly recommended!