In the nearly twenty years between 1938 and 1956, McCloy published sixteen mysteries, eleven of them Basil Willing detective novels and five of them suspense tales. From 1957 to 1980, her output slowed. She published a dozen crime novels, only two of which featured Basil Willing. The other ten were psychological suspense novels, in the manner of authors like Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin.
McCloy's almost complete abandonment of Basil Willing in the 1960s and 1970s seems to reflect the decline of the traditional detective novel in that period and is something much regretted by me.
There are also, I should add, two McCloy short story collections, including a relatively recent one by Crippen & Landru, The Pleasant Assassin.
Though largely forgotten today, McCloy, like so many worthy older crime writers, maintains a following among crime fiction connoisseurs. She was an early prominent employer of psychiatry in detective fiction (many mystery writers of the period tended to ridicule it) and she has the literate style that today so many people tend to associate almost exclusively with the English Crime Queens Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. In an ideal world, McCloy would feature more prominently (or at all) in genre histories of detective fiction, because she was a notable practitioner within the genre.
For today I was going to review the Basil Willing novel The Deadly Truth, which I read over a decade ago and quite enjoyed, but I noticed that John Norris has already done so, so I will be writing about Who's Calling? (1942), which, unfortunately I didn't like as much.
|no one in the novel, Dell readers|
may have been disappointed to learn,
actually is sent a severed ear in a box
McCloy even includes some black servant characters who talk in heavy "stage" dialect, which I tend to dislike, in part simply because reading significant snatches of such dialogue is just plain tedious (of course there's the whole racism question as well).
Did the readers of seventy and eighty years ago really enjoy this kind of heavy dialect, thinking it quaint and colorful? In English mystery writing of this period we are similarly subjected to heavy stage Cockney among working class characters. The writer back then with a really good ear for dialect writing seems to have been lamentably rare.
This minor matter aside, McCloy offers her usual solid and literate mystery in Who's Calling? In a situation rather reminiscent of P. D. James' Cover Her Face, the little community of Willow Spring is thrown into an uproar when Archie Cranford (the surname probably was deliberately chosen to suggest the Elizabeth Gaskell novel), a promising young psychiatry student, becomes engaged to nightclub chanteuse (and scheming hussy) Frieda Frey and brings her home to visit mother, in this case Eve Cranford, a widow who supplements family revenues (and pays for Archie's education) by writing romance novels.
There's a bit of nice satire on the romance novel angle, although this is soon dropped, sadly. The other key characters are Eve's cousin Mark Lindsay, the U. S. senator; Julia Lindsay, Mark's nouveaux riche wife; Ellis Blount, Mark's nice young niece, who loves Archie (naturally); Chalkley Winchester V, another cousin of Eve's; and Ernesto, Chalkley's tough manservant.
As portrayed by McCloy, Chalkley Winchester is an effeminate, sybaritic wastrel. Spoiled by his mother as a boy, he is a character whom everyone today likely would read as a timeworn homosexual stereotype, though in fact the most McCloy ever does here is have other characters referring to him as an "old maid." Chalkley is probably the most memorable character in the book, although rather over-broadly satirized, in my opinion (one of the funny thing McCloy does with Chalkley is have the press misspell his name as "Chalkley V. Winchester," misplacing the "V" as an initial rather than a numeral, which positively infuriates him).
Chalkley also serves as the novel's murder victim, getting dispatched with a box of poisoned miniature chocolate liqueur bottles (Chalkley is a glutton for expensive chocolate).
|the deadly landline|
Like other Basil Willing cases, psychiatry is involved, for someone has been terrorizing Frieda Frey with weird and threatening phone calls. McCloy definitely provides the reader with an involved murder case, though I can't say any of the twists really surprised me.
The most original aspect of the novel, which I can't discuss, seemed rather improbable to me, though it is somewhat reminiscent of a twist in a later Margaret Millar novel (it's not exactly the same, but there's enough similarity there that one must wonder whether Millar read this McCloy novel).
There are moments in Who's Calling? of sharp satirical social observation concerning the public's taste for salacious news of the rich and famous, which certainly has relevance today:
It had been a contested divorce tried in New York City, a classic case, a veritable collector's item that "had everything"--suit and countersuit, charges and countercharges, three libel suits arising out of the testimony, physical violence in the courtroom on two occasions, incriminating letters, financial difficulties, a "love nest," a prejudiced judge, a drunken husband, a photogenic wife, a correspondent who denied everything, three famous lawyers, six private detectives who seemed to have spent the last year in other people's bedrooms....
Unfortunately, this brouhaha is all over and done with when the novel starts!
These comments from Basil Willing are interesting in light of everything that goes on with the internet today:
"News--a polite word for gossip--is flashed from one end of the earth to the other without even the formality of wires and cables. Today exposure really means something, for the worst is printed all over the world and the printed word has a hypnotically suggestive power...."
"There isn't a potato patch or a hog farm in the country that doesn't know who slapped whom at the Crane Club last night."
Just ask Paula Deen about this!
Who's Calling is the sixth Basil Willing novel I have read and probably my least favorite of the bunch, but despite that it's still an above-average mystery. I think most readers would enjoy it, and they should by all means look up Helen McCloy.