The Deadly Truth (1943) by Helen McCloy

I’ve read less than a handful of novels by McCloy and so far it has been a mixed reading experience. One of my favourites to date has been Wish You Were Dead (1958), which is an abridged version of the earlier novel She Walks Alone (1948). On the other hand I was less enamoured with the more famous and well-loved Through a Glass, Darkly (1950). As to today’s read I was unsure how good it was going to be, having recently heard that it is not highly rated. However, before I share whether I found this to be the case or not, we’d best take a look at what the story is all about…

Our story unusually starts at a science research centre, yet we do not stay there for long, as the majority of the book takes place on Long Island. The notorious thrower of parties, and practical joker, Claudia Bethune makes a quick trip to the centre to seek out Dr Roger Slater. It just so happens that Roger has been working on isolating a derivative of scopolamine, a substance that acts like ‘an anaesthetic which dulls pain without obliterating consciousness.’ There is ‘no realisation of pain or fear and the inhibitions created by fear of painful punishment are relaxed.’ Under the influence of such a drug a person is liable to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. It should therefore come as no surprise, (unless you are Roger), that Claudia steals a tube of this drug with the intention of using it at her dinner party that night.

Her dinner party is a small one. Naturally her husband Michael is there, but so is Michael’s ex-wife, Phyllis. She professes that Claudia is still her best friend despite her taking her husband. Claudia has the majority shares in a company of mills, which she gained through the death of her first husband. These are being managed by Charles Rodney, who is also at the party, and Claudia is keen to find out how he is going to end the strikes which are plummeting the company shares. The most surprising guest is Peggy Titus. Since meeting Claudia she has changed, and seems far from happy, yet she is adamant she will keep going to Claudia’s social gatherings. But why? The last minute guest is Roger himself as understandably he wants to get the stolen drug back. Dr Willing, McCloy’s series amateur sleuth and forensic psychologist, also happens to be in the area, being Claudia’s tenant renting her beach house.

Obviously, Roger fails to get back the drug and Michael, Peggy, Phyllis and Charles all imbibe the substance. The truth soon begins to fly, with ever more shocking revelations delivered. Yet the narrative pulls us away from the party to Dr Basil Willing’s evening and it is he who discovers the near lifeless body of Claudia later that night.

Overall Thoughts

McCloy wastes no time in getting down to business with her story, as she deftly provides snapshots of each of Claudia’s guests before they arrive at the party. I liked how within these segments the theme of truth pops up one way or another: anxious parents who do not want to know the truth about the change in their daughter or a pair of women wondering if a string of pearls is real or imitation. In one of the sections a character observing Phyllis says to her friend, ‘The lie is man’s greatest invention – the one thing that makes civilisation possible. Without it we’d all feel like murdering each other…’ and I enjoyed how McCloy then plays around with this concept in the rest of the book. Ironically once the drug has worn off and Claudia is found dead, the guests are unsurprisingly reluctant to tell the truth to the police!

Classic crime is often said to sanitise death, yet I do not think this is the case in this book. It is interesting that McCloy chooses to have her victim not quite dead and through Willing her face is described in quite some detail. Her death is not an easy one, as she has been strangled with her platinum chain emerald necklace, a knife being used as a tourniquet. It might be a bloodless death, but it is far from pretty.

Basil Willing is an enjoyable and effective sleuth to follow, who is able to analyse and observe the suspects with the ‘detachment of a social anthropologist.’ Once the death has occurred, he is the character we spend the most time with. We no longer spend any time alone with the suspects. The reason for this, perhaps leads me on to one of the weaknesses of the book. Willing’s investigation overtly focuses on the possible motives for the crime, yet Basil makes little head way until he brings them together at the end of the book, as the suspects are far from keen to volunteer anything. Consequently, the investigation does make as much explicit progress as you would expect. However, when it comes to motives I did enjoy how McCloy employs a variant one used in Death on the Nile (1937).

The path to proving the guilt of the killer is an unusual one, beginning with an auditory focus. However, I was something of a nincompoop. In my notes for this review, after I reached the point of Claudia’s death, I wrote down a very salient point. To be honest it is the most crucial thing to consider, even if you do not pick up on the other pieces of evidence that Basil does. This one piece nails the killer’s guilt. So what did I do? I wrote the idea down, thought to myself oh if it was that then it had to be so and so, and then promptly forgot about the point and carried on reading, only to then be surprised by the killer, even though they happened to be so and so. This is probably why I won’t be joining Scotland Yard any time soon… (Unlike my fellow blogger Laurie, who should really have her own book or TV series called Laurie of the Yard!)

But if you don’t do what I did, and you latch onto this key point, then the identity of the killer is not hard to figure out. This makes me think the mystery is quite a simple one and that is probably why the book tries to spend most of its time uncovering the motives, rather than the practical side of the murder. It is the imperfections of the plot which brought the rating of this book down a smidge, as I very much enjoyed McCloy’s writing style. I certainly enjoyed this narrative more than Through a Glass, Darkly. I definitely want to read more by McCloy, but I am not sure what to read next. So any recommendations let me know!

Rating: 4/5

20 comments

  1. DANCE OF DEATH, McCloy’s first mystery is higher on the puzzle scale than most of the later ones I have read. Intricate forensics (for the time) and some good satire on advertising/marketing and drug companies.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Laurie at the Yard” hmmmm—pretty good title 🤣🤣.

    I just finished my first McCloy, her first book Dance of Death. I enjoyed the story and the puzzle, just a bit disappointed with Dr. Witting (a bit lacking in character). I’m hoping he gains more depth in future books?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I liked this one – and in fact I think it’s the best McCloy I’ve read thus far. Then again I’ve only read ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ and ‘Dance of Death’. And so I was surprised quite a few bloggers don’t especially like it. Then again I didn’t latch onto the culprit, and so was found the twist satisfying.

    Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I remember enjoying this one very much. I do like McCloy’s style, even when the mystery lets you down a bit. Her premises are often quite outrageous – Alias Basil Willing has an opening that is quite fun, another variation on the doppelgänger McCloy loves, but this time it hits closer to home – and the characterizations and dialogue are so much fun that even if the solution seems almost prosaic after all that proceeded it, I don’t really mind. JJ hated The Slayer and the Slain, but I thought that one was fascinating: great premise, great characters, great insights into 50’s suburban life.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. i am one of the few diehard McCloy fans. I find something to enjoy in all of the early books I’ve read. i have yet to venture into her suspense fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. The only one of the Basil Willing mystery novels I’m not so keen on is CUE FOR MURDER which is well loved by your colleagues. But then of course I’m always a dissenter among the masses, mostly disagreeing with everyone’s opinions and quibbling over supposed flaws. My tastes and the reasons I continue to read vintage mysteries are so far removed from everyone else that I often feel I am not of this earth at all.

    You absolutely must read her locked room mystery MR SPLITFOOT written and published in the 1960s but very much a retro-Golden Age mystery novel. It’s one of her finest books, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve read one of McCloy’s later efforts, A Question of Time (1971). Not a bad book, but probably not one of her best efforts.
      I would like to read more of McCloy’s earlier books, but they are not easily available in print format. Thanks for the Mr Splitfoot recommendation -another one to keep my eye out for.

      Like

  6. I’ve read virtually all of them. I like Dance of Death, Who’s Calling, Cue for Murder. Some of the short stories are very good, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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