Thursday, June 27, 2013

You'd Better Hang Up! Who's Calling? (1942), by Helen McCloy

Helen McCloy
Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was an American mystery writer who came along at the tail end of the Golden Age, in 1938 publishing Dance of Death, the first of the tales of the adventures of her psychiatrist sleuth, Dr. Basil Willing.

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
Evidently set in Maryland, in a small community of local gentry (including a United States senator), Who's Calling? rather resembles a Leslie Ford novel, although McCloy is not as devoted as Ford to lovingly chronicling the local ways.

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
Archie Cranford soon brings his hero, Basil Willing, on the scene to solve the murder (this is Basil's fourth case).

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.


  1. I tend to be a somewhat erratic reader, going through phases of great passion ans then waning almost as quickly. I read a bunch of McCloy books all in a row after being seduced by THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY but now find it hard to remember any of them or to think of Willing's with any particular fondness - never read this one, I'm pretty sure. Thanks for the great review Curt, really enjoyed it.

    1. Through a Glass, Darkly seems to have gotten spectacular reviews, particularly in England.

  2. Helen McCloy has been a favourite of mine ever since I discovered "Through A Glass Darkly". Great prose style, always something intelligent going on, difficult mysteries that seem superficially easy. I recall, though, in one of her later books she says something mildly disparaging about the Humdrum school! I may have to dig out one you gentlemen haven't analyzed and see what I can do, now that you've sparked my interest. Very enjoyable review, thank you!

    1. Noah, it wouldn't surprise me! I'd liek to see it. Though her cryptography section in "Panic" is more intensive (and puts off more readers, lol) than anything John Street ever did!

    2. I now remember that I owe this observation to Mike Grost: "While some McCloy works take a positive view of mystery fiction, The Sleepwalker (1974) has a brief comment lampooning British Golden Age mysteries of the 1920's for dullness. McCloy claims they have a murder in the first chapter, then nothing more happens." He also suggests in the McCloy page that "popular fiction" is a recurring theme in her works. See

    3. One of the fun things about McCloy is the observations she makes on literature. I wish she had stuck more to the traditional detection format in the 1970s, however!

      Mike Grost likes the Sleepwalker so much, I noticed, I ordered a copy of it. Her latest really first-rate book that I read was Mr. Splitfoot, from the late 1960s.

  3. Enticing well done review even with all the caveats. I find it hard to believe that McCloy would stoop to using any kind of phonetic dialect. I've always thought of her as being more sensitive than that. Disappointing especially for a book in the 1940s. I usaully see that kind of Steppin Fetchit talk in 20s and 30s novels. It can't be as bad as the pidgin English the black characters speak in THE OBEAH MURDERS by Hulbert Footner. Whew! THat was embarrassing to read. (Review of that book coming soon to PSB!)

    I've had a heck of a time finding a copy of WHO'S CALLING? It has come up for sale once or twice on eBay, but I am unwilling to pay more than $6 for any Dell mapback. Then in my reading of McCloy I came across a review that included the plot spoiler that you allude to and the book is now ruined for me. So I'm not very eager to keep up my pursuit for this book -- the only pre-1960s McCloy title I am missing in my library.

    1. This McCloy reads more like a Leslie Ford or HIBK mystery, in terms of the "southern" setting among wealthy whites. It's not really the setting one expects from McCloy, although, oddly, I am looking at The Slayer and the Slain (1957) and it's located in Virginia (and the protagnost is wondering what his black servants really think of him).

      There's not really that much local color in the Who's Calling?, besides the dialect of the servants. Maybe McCloy would say it was realistic, but it reads to me like the typical "plantation speak" you encounter in American mysteries from the period. In any event, this kind of thing simply slows the book down!

      But I didn't want to make too big a deal about the dialect issue. My biggest problem with the book was that the plot was pretty predicatable (except for the one twist, which led to a long stretch of clinical talk from Willing, but still seemed implauisble to me). Also, the characters really aren't that interesting outside of Chalkley, who's a caricature.

      I guess this was a good choice to review then, if you don't have a copy! You've reviewed so many of her books already! I preferred The Deadly Truth, though, despite Mike Grost's criticism that it has so many unpleasant characters (imagine, unpleasant characters in a novel about murder). I'm going to review The Slayer and the Slain next. Reading McCloy again whetted my appetite to read some more.

      I know what you mean about bookseller spoilers. I really wish they would think about this. I had the plot of Virginia Swain's The Hollow Skin ruined for me by L. W. Currey's blasted catalogue desciption. I have to admit that had me seeing red. I wish I had read your review warning first!

    2. Hi Curt,

      I could not find the statement of unpleasant characters in The Deadly Truth made by Mike Grost in his website or Detection pbwiki. Could you please let me know where can I find that statement?



    3. Hi sixret,

      here's the quotation:

      "The Deadly Truth (1941) is one of Helen McCloy's poorest mysteries. The tone of the book is unpleasant, focusing on a decadent international socialite and her mean-spirited activities."

      And here's the link:

      I guess, strictly speaking, he says the "tone" is unpleasant, because the book focuses on decadent socialite's mean-spirited activities.

      Unless those two first sentences are something of a non sequitur, it seems to indicate the book is poor, in Mike's view, at least in part because it has an unpleasant tone. Of course there are people who prefer cozier stories and to each his own, but I think sometimes mysteries should be unpleasant in some ways. Murder ain't pleasant.

      That said, I regret if I made it sound like I was disparaging Mike Grost's work. I enjoy it, in fact. After I wrote my Who's Calling piece I looked up Mike's take and was pleased to notice we made some similar observations.

    4. By the way, I urge you to look up John Norris' review of The Deadly Truth (linked in the article), which I emphatically agree with. This is the McCloy I was going to review, but I felt it would be redundant now! I hope I'm not quoting too much from John's review, but I loved the opening paragraph, which will really captures the book:

      "The ultra urbane New Yorkers of Helen McCloy's detective novels are beginning to remind me of similar sophisticated Manhattanites of the 1920s in the S.S. Van Dine series about Philo Vance. But whereas Vance is the only one who seems to be extremely well read and eager to make literary allusions as often as the wind changes direction in McCloy's world everyone acts like Vance. Was there ever really a New York like the one we find in The Deadly Truth (1941)? Did people really spice up their language with frequent quotes from historical figures and obscure authors? Did mini lectures about chemistry and literature and the science of audiology take the place of regular conversation? I doubt it. Unlike Willard Huntington Wright who to me always seemed to be showing off in the guise of Philo Vance, Helen McCloy makes her erudite characters fit naturally into her mysteries. Her lectures are intrinsic not intrusive to the story."

      I think John really nails it here.

    5. By the way, anyone know how I can do clickable links, lol.

  4. I enjoyed most the McCloy novels I read, but I can't remember if I read this one. I probably did. I think I read everything she wrote in the forties and fifties. I need to go through my disorganized collection and see if I have it, and give it another read if I do.

    As I recall, my favorites were Panic and, of course, Through a Glass, Darkly.

  5. Every time I read that phrase "unpleasant characters" as a criticism in any piece written about any crime novel I just roll my eyes. Says more about the reviewer than the work, IMO. Like you say - imagine! Oy vey.

    Sorry about The Hollow Skin. The book is a lot of fun even if you do know the final and very bizarre surprise. BTW - Currey's catalog descriptions are filled with stuff like that. What a jerky thing to do. Supposedly it's done to show off knowledge but I think most of the time it's done to disparage the work itself.

    I'm hoping to get DANCE OF DEATH and THE DEADLY TRUTH reprinted through Raven's Head. Cross your fingers. We have three books in the works right now! Announcement coming soon on my blog.

    1. Oh, I wish you luck. I know McCloy had a daughter, I would love to interview her sometime.

      That twist is Hollow Skin, though, wow! I'm mad I'll never have a chance to get thrown for a loop by that.

      It's like when someone says how "cozy" Christie is and then they mention something like Sleeping Murder, which has some real sickness at the heart of the plot! I don't believe Christie always was "nice"--and I'm glad she wasn't! Nice is nice in real life, but in crime books it can get boring!

  6. I've just read it and would like to add my very belated two cents.

    As you know I tend to like McCloy's non-series mysteries better than the Basil Willing ones - the only BW book I really liked is The One That Got Away, probably because he features so little in the story as to make it almost a non-series item. Who's Calling won't be the one that makes me change my mind, but I found it a good book overall and an interesting entry in McCloy's catalogue as it hints at the future evolution of her work. If we agree that we enter suspense territory when the focus is on the people affected by the crime rather than those who solve it then Who's Calling is a transitional work much as Hilda Lawrence's Blood Upon the Snow was roughly at the same time. The investigation takes place mostly offstage, and the story is told from the viewpoints of the suspects, not Willing's. The plot is not a purely rational, dispassioned affair: the atmosphere is one of permanent danger and the characters have every reason to fear for their safety. It's not yet psychological suspense, but it's no longer "straight" detective fiction.

    Now for the book's intrinsic virtues. Having previously read the same author's The Slayer and the Slain I saw the main twist coming early, though I was wrong regarding the "Who". Psychology has evolved - well, kind of - since then so we may find some of Willing's deductions and theories a bit outdated, but they are coherent and the reader is given all the clues, either psychological or material. I disagree regarding the characterization which is not that bland - I suspect McCloy put a lot of herself in Eva's character and her conflicting feelings about her writings. I agree however that Chalkley is a caricature and I was relieved that -- well, you know what I mean. As to the "Negro dialect" - as Harry Reid famously put it - I found it more annoying than offensive and like John I was surprised to see so intellectually sophisticated a person as McCloy resorting to it. Did she ever do it again?

    1. Not that I know of. Hope not! I always seem to enjoy McCloy fairly well, but this grabbed me least of her books from that period. Maybe I need to take another look at Eve!