Dance of Death (1938) by Helen McCloy

Second-hand copies of early McCloy are difficult to come by, so I was pleased to see Agora Books were going to be reprinting some of them. Also pleasingly, it appears that the Agora copies have retained the Dell Map back (?) feature of including persons and objects of interest before the story begins, written in a typically elliptic bullet style of writing which gives a hint of what is to come.

It is December and Butch and Buddy get the shock of their lives, shovelling snow into a truck, when one of their shovels unveils a corpse. This alone would be horrifying in and of itself, but there is more to come. For this corpse, despite being buried underneath the snow is far from frozen and is in fact hot… An initial autopsy says her organs look like those from a victim who has died of heat stroke, but how is that possible in the depths of winter? To begin with they don’t know who she is, but when they do, matters only become more baffling…

Overall Thoughts

Having read a few titles by this author, it was interesting to see her first Dr Basil Willing novel containing two themes which she would return to many times in her work. The first of these is the use of pharmaceutical type drugs. In the case of The Deadly Truth (1943), a woman foolishly inflicts a truth telling serum on her dinner guests, only to wind up dead, and in this book another drug, this time part of a slimming product, is the cause of another woman’s death. This is not particularly a spoiler as such, as in the author’s note at the beginning we are informed of:‘the most important character, thermol, or 2 4 di-nitro-phenol, is taken from real life.’ Though those not well informed on science will be relieved to know that ‘no scientific knowledge is needed for the solution of the crime, beyond that which is given in the course of the narrative before the solution is reached.’ The slimming product aspect of the work, and the tied in theme of advertising, are very well used in the book and I thought they gave the story a modern feel.

The second theme which McCloy perhaps returned to even more was identity, and the potential for misidentification. This is most famously seen in Through a Glass Darkly (1950), in which a woman keeps being seen in places she says she was not, whilst in Alias Basil Willing (1951), the book begins with Basil hearing someone else using his identity and in A Question of Time (1971) there are doubts as to whether a woman is who she says she is. Usually this theme takes up a considerable part of the mystery, yet this is not the case in Dance of Death. It really only concerns the first few chapters. Some aspects are a little too melodramatic, but because they only feature at the beginning they do not derail the plot and instead this area of deception is used to further fuel the puzzle of the book, especially in terms of understanding the suspects and their motivations.  

The initial discovery of the body is engrossingly baffling and surprising with its use of contrasts and it sets up the novel’s puzzle effectively. Once the source of death has been identified there is still much to discover; not only who did it and why, but also how the drug was administered, as for some time certain pieces of information appear to block the most obvious answer.

McCloy is also good at establishing her central sleuth, Dr Basil Willing and the type of role he is to play. His first page appearance sees him listening to the Police Commissioner who belittles the psychological value of detective work: ‘there’s no place of psychology in detection. Police work deals with physical facts…’ Basil himself retorts that: ‘Every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints […] and he can’t wear gloves to hide them.’ Moreover, in the middle of the investigation Basil raises the issue of looking at the blunders the suspects make, and what these mistakes or slips of the tongue might reveal. I felt this was a fairer use of psychological clues as it means they are not hurled at the reader out of nowhere at the end of book. At one point they are even listed as questions, (something other novelists of the era did), by the police and Basil talks through the possibilities. However, I should reassure fans of physical facts that such pieces of information are not lacking – though of course beware of the red herrings!

The fourth rule of Ronald Knox’s Decalogue is concerned with writers not using unknown poisons, nor using ones which require a very long scientific explanation and looking back on this book, I think McCloy’s story is an excellent example of how to use a science component, without alienating or boring the reader. The information tends to be given in bite sized pieces and you find out the facts at the same time as the detectives who are discussing the case. I felt this meant the detective did not steam ahead of the reader leaving them miles behind and I also think the information we are given is focused on being relevant. We are not given lots of extraneous detail.

I was not wholly surprised by the final solution, as it is one which dropped into my brain early on during one of the police interviews. It was one of those moments where you just notice the inclusion of a piece of information and you think hmmm I wonder…? However, it was not an idea I was fixed on, and being typical me forgot all about it until the end. The solution I had considered was no certainty in my mind and I think the book keeps you guessing. The motive has its unusual aspects, though a central component is one I have seen before.  

So all in all, like the Puzzle Doctor, I think this is a very strong first novel, with its interesting puzzle and plot features and I definitely look forward to trying more. This is a great place to start your McCloy reading, if you are new to her, and thankfully Agora have now made this title a far more accessible one to track down and buy.

Rating: 4.5/5
Source: Review Copy (Agora Books)

9 comments

  1. Of course it’s the best place to start! It’s the very first mystery she wrote and the very first of the Basil Willing books. These briefly appeared from Orion in eBooks about ten years ago when I sang her praises in the inaugural year of my blog. I had plans to reprint her books, too. I had gotten the OK from her daughter who I was a real estate then (she may still be) living in New York. But the indie press I was working with let the whole thing fall apart. Ugh. Glad to see McCloy’s books are finally get the long overdue attention she deserves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like this one – partly because lots of nice clothes detail and a chance to bring out evening dresses of the era. Helen McCloy is always a very good fit with Clothes in Books…

    Liked by 1 person

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