Sunday, June 30, 2013

Psyched: The Slayer and the Slain (1957), by Helen McCloy

a serious jacket design
for a serious crime novel
Helen McCloy's The Slayer and the Slain appeared in 1957, after a mid-1950s succession of worthy books: the thriller (a sort of Moonstone homage) Unfinished Crime and the Basil Willing detective tales The Long Body (1955) and Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956).

Between 1958 and 1966 nothing appeared besides the novel Before I Die (1963) and a story collection, The Singing Diamonds (1965).

Then in 1967 The Further Side of Fear appeared and between that year and 1980 Helen McCloy published ten crime novels.

Why that long, relatively unproductive gap after The Slayer and the Slain?  Perhaps Helen McCloy felt she achieved her masterpiece with Slayer.

The Slayer and the Slain deals with a lot of thematic preoccupations in McCloy's work (it's really a summation of them), but it's a challenging book to talk about without giving away too much of the plot.

Unacceptably, the ending of Slayer is given away on the Helen McCloy entry on the Gadetection wiki.  This entry appears to have been substantially edited down from the entry on, which gives away the entire plot of the book without even a spoiler warning--really inexcusable.

So be careful about looking for internet discussions of this book.  A more responsible review is found on the (an interesting blog), although even this review, I feel, gives away more of the plot than is ideal for virgin readers.

Victor Gollancz used this
"best butter" blurb for years on
McCloy dust wrappers
I'll just say that Slayer is about Henry Vaughan*, a psychology professor at a New England university who, shortly after getting the thrilling news that he has received a large inheritance from a deceased uncle, slips on icy steps outside his house and hits his head.

At least this is what people tell him must have happened after he is discovered lying on the ground, unconscious.

Recovered from his accident, Vaughan resolves to retire from teaching (though still a young man) and return to his home town of Clearwater, Virginia, to live a pastoral life raising horses and perhaps even to rekindle his romance with Celia Arabin, daughter of Eugene Arabin, local old money bigwig.

But things don't go at all like Vaughan planned. Strange events begin occurring in Clearwater....

Although a violent death does not take place until about 60% of the way through the book, throughout the entire novel the reader is held in the sinister grip of the narrative.

Someone coming to the book today, fifty-six years after it was published, may anticipate some of the developments, but even after McCloy herself makes a major revelation a good way before the end of the novel, interest only increases. This is the definition of "psychological suspense."

A book that must be read to the very last page....

*(the review at femmenoir, by the way, gives his surname as Deane; was it changed in the English edition I read, possible due to the resemblance to the name Carolus Deene, Leo Bruce's English detective?).


  1. An awesome book, its author's finest in my opinion. McCloy borrowed the title from Charles Baudelaire's poem "L'Héautontimorouménos".

  2. It's tricky avoiding spoilers with this book, isn't it, Xavier? I felt somewhat frustrated with my review, because I had to keep it so minimalistic. I actually went back and revised it a bit just now.

    Apparently John Norris is working on getting some of the McCloy novels reprinted; I hope he succeeds and gets this one as well. I would like to see all the Basil Willing tales reprinted, as well as some of her suspense books, several of which are among the best in suspense fiction, I agree.

  3. Your great reviews of Helen McCloy have piqued my interest and I selected a copy of "Through A Glass, Darkly" from my shelves; if you're interested my comments are at I've usually found earlier McCloy novels more of interest, possibly because I'm an aficionado of mapbacks and she was well-represented in them, but you make "The Slayer and The Slain" sound sufficiently interesting that I will now be on the outlook for a copy!

  4. Thanks, Noah, I'll check that out. By the way I realized I don't have your blog linked here, so I corrected that (also added femmenoir). I just checked and it appears The Slayer and the Slain was never reprinted--seems odd, but explains the rarity today!

  5. Thank you, sir! I can tell that your greater popularity has driven my traffic up already, and I'm grateful. I seem to remember having the Gollancz editions of her later books pass through my hands, but not this particular one.

    1. Victor Gollancz does seem to have been a McCloy fan. And I do hope people who come here peruse your "Books to Die Before You Read" series. Brilliant concept!

  6. I bought a copy of this book while on vacation in New Orleans last April. So Xavier thinks this is her masterpiece? Wow! Maybe it'll move ahead of THE MAN IN THE MOONLIGHT which is the next McCloy I was going to read/review for PSB. Thanks for plugs for my blog and the kind words on that other post, too.

    OH! and I am starting to read Noah's "Books to Die..." series and they are a riot. The one about Elizabeth Linington had me laughing out loud.

    1. I have to also offer thanks for the kind words and the plugs for my blog. My traffic has increased dramatically and it's all due to you and your readership!