I may be knee deep in my monthlong survey of Agatha Christie (the 70’s drop tomorrow!), but I’m still trying to carve out the time and energy to read other authors. Seven months of lockdown have admittedly done a number on me, concentration-wise, so bare with me if after a long fallow period, I attempt to over-compensate a bit.
In choosing what to read from my overstuffed shelves where every fourth book belongs on my TBR pile, I opted to go with an author I have turned to periodically since just after I began blogging. Lord knows we are all inundated with suggestions of “forgotten” mystery authors we simply must sample. For some reason, I had gotten through a lifetime of reading mysteries without ever tasting the joys of Helen McCloy. Somebody – I’ll bet it was Curtis Evans! – cued me in on McCloy, and I lucked out when The Murder Room offered low-priced e-copies of her work and I happened to snap up two of the best: Through a Glass Darkly (considered her “classic” contribution to the genre) and Mr. Splitfoot (an excellent locked room mystery).
While many of the newly rediscovered Golden and Silver Age authors only wrote a few mysteries (alas, Harriet Rutland), McCloy was far more prolific, producing twenty-nine novels and a couple of collections of short stories between 1938 and 1980. Having wolfed down the first two titles, I decided to pace myself with the rest. That’s why after five years of blogging, I’m only now getting to my eighth McCloy (so much to read, so little time!)
Who’s Calling? is also the fourth book she published, and now’s as good a time to tell you that, as a person with a slight case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, I have always been drawn to the numbers eight and four. This has something to do with the sense of symmetry these numbers create in my mind: eight divides into four divides into two divides into one. When I say this, I picture a sort of kaleidoscope image unfolding in my mind; I also get a picture of a Busby Berkeley musical number shot from above.
Now that I’ve convinced you I’m a trifle insane, I want to add that I’m telling you this because it turns out that not only is Who’s Calling? McCloy’s fourth novel – it’s my eighth read! This, to me, would be as much of a good luck sign as touching a doorknob four times or avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. (Another issue entirely.) It all flairs up a bit when I’m under stress. These days, who isn’t? So consider Who’s Calling? symptomatic of a little OCD flare-up . . . and let’s move on to the better news: I think Helen McCloy might have cured me of my OCD.
Because, good omens aside, Who’s Calling? is dreadful.
I picked this one for several reasons: first, I happened upon a copy about 18 months ago in my favorite used bookstore. Not only was it cheap, but it happened to be a Dell mapback, and I love those. Secondly, it’s one of a baker’s dozen cases McCloy created for her only series sleuth, Dr. Basil Willing, the handsome psychiatrist who uses his understanding of the human mind to investigate cases. In almost every case, I have enjoyed Willing’s presence, so why stop here?
Through Willing, McCloy was fond of exploring the concept of the Doppelganger, the mischievous double that, often through supernatural means, can haunt or disrupt our lives. This is used to most impressive effect in Through a Glass Darkly, where we seem to be dealing with an actual supernatural phenomenon. But McCloy takes that concept and offers variations on it in several books, including this one in ways I unfortunately cannot describe without spoiling the whole set-up.
Most of the novel takes place in a tony suburb of Washington, D.C., where a few families have intermarried and interbred in all sorts of ways. The two households of interest here are the Cranfords and their neighbors and friends, the Lindsays. Eve Cranford rattles around in her falling apart country home, relishing visits from her handsome son, Archie, who is studying psychiatry. Mark Lindsay is a senator with a wife, Julia, who operates in true Lady Macbeth mode to ensure her husband is respected and re-elected. They provide a home for Mark’s niece, Ellis Blount, with whom Archie has had a sort of lifelong understanding.
This is all thrown to the winds when Archie brings home for a visit Miss Frieda Frey, a nightclub singer and all-around tootsie, whose presence upsets just about anyone. Frieda herself has a reason to be upset: at home in her New York apartment, she has been plagued with threatening phone calls, warning her to clear out of Archie’s life and to definitely never visit his childhood home in Willow Spring. Frieda defies this threat, but as soon as she is ensconced in the guest room at Eve Cranford’s home, the phone extension in her bedroom rings and . . .
I think this all happens in Chapter One. By the time I was finished with the second chapter, my teeth were already on edge. The set-up to murder seems to take forever, and along the way we are treated to some “stuck in its time” writing that is particularly unpleasant. Eve’s servants (and others we meet along the way) all speak in a patois befitting the slaves in Gone with the Wind. Reading accented dialogue is always challenging, and here it has the added frisson of being offensive. This is underscored when, in a humorous aside, the Senator bemoans the fact that his ancestors’ involvement in the Confederacy is no longer considered an asset.
Then we meet the uninvited guest: Eve’s cousin Chalkley Winchester swoops in, lisping of voice, mincing of manner, working his hardest to be as unpleasant as possible. He’s one of those incredible characters you find in 1940’s mystery novels: the stereotypical homosexual (complete with a gorgeous ex-boxer named Ernesto for a servant), and everyone wonders who he’s going to marry. Chalkley’s presence seems to chafe a bit, but not enough to explain why he would be murdered (by poisoned liqueur chocolates yet!) at the end of an endless dinner-dance.
The day after the murder, Archie sends for the medical school professor who is his idol, Dr. Basil Willing. At this point, I figured that since we were halfway home, things might pick up a bit. However, they don’t. There are a few minor adventures and a lot of talk, much of it dubious psychology spouted by our sleuth. In the end, the solution isn’t a disappointment, although the main clue to the killer’s identity is one that appeared in every third Ellery Queen short story. By that point, however, I was more than eager to be rid of these people and this book. The map on the back is cool, but like so many Dell maps, it proved worthless as a help.
Check out Curtis’ review, as it was written by a far more patient and lucid man. He sees the flaws, but he also found more to like. Meanwhile, I offer you the list of what I’ve read so far. Check out my reviews to see that, Who’s Calling? notwithstanding, Helen McCloy is an author worthy of your attention. Maybe someone well read in her work can steer me to my next read with, hopefully, much better results!
Who’s Calling? (1942)