Friday, January 10, 2014

FFB: The Man in the Moonlight - Helen McCloy

Helen McCloy would have made a great writer of TV crime show scripts these days. While reading The Man in the Moonlight (1940), her sophomore detective novel featuring Dr. Basil Willing, I was struck by the abundance of arcane bits of scientific knowledge that made up the clues and evidence in her usual fascinating plot. She introduces biochemistry, anatomy, abnormal psychology, symbology, and even the construction of heating and air conditioning units in to her multi-layered plot. The story of the murder at Yorkville University could easily have been an episode on House or Elementary or any of the dozen of shows in which the plot hinges on little known medical, psychological and historical facts.

Want a sampling? Let's go!

1. Suicide by a gun in the mouth is the most common method of self-destruction among German and Austrian soldiers.

2. There is an abnormal condition of the thymus gland that can result in giving people a youthful appearance not consistent with chronological age.

3. A certain type of lesion in the septum is indicative of chromic acid poisoning.

4. There is a discussion of HVAC construction and its flaws and how it relates to acoustical anomalies that allow the murderer to eavesdrop on private conversations in one room while being hidden in an adjacent room below.

That just scratches the surface. My notes include three other points which unfortunately would reveal a few well deserved surprises. As I've said before McCloy was way ahead of the rest of her mystery writing colleagues in tackling what are now almost routine in plot devices. She was, in my opinion, the first of the truly modern detective novel writers.

Inspector Foyle is visiting Yorkville University and loses his way en route to a meeting with the dean. He runs into Professor Franz Konradi, a research biochemist, who interrupts Foyle as he is looking over a piece of paper. The paper begins with the jarring sentence "I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No. 1." and continues with detailed instructions on how to play the role of the murderer. Prof. Konradi thinks Foyle has found a missing paper in written in his native German, but is as equally puzzled by the instructions when Foyle shows him the paper. Prof. Konradi must hurry back to his lab and leaves Foyle with the cryptic comment that if anything unusual should happen that night Foyle should know that Konradi would never commit suicide. Something indeed does happen that night. Konradi in found in his locked laboratory dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Foyle enlists the aid of Basil Willing, consultant in psychology to the New York District Attorney's office, to help make sense of a murder disguised a suicide. In the process of the investigation Foyle and Willing must uncover the bizarre psychology and behavioral experiments of Raymond Pickett who confesses to using his own children in behavioral pre-trials. His experiment with a "sham murder" was modeled on a mouse in a maze. He tells the police that he turned Southerland Hall (where Konradi is found dead) into "a gigantic maze similar to those we use in animal experiments with only one exit which the animal is compelled to discover under the urge of fear, hunger or sex." It doesn't help matters much when the gun used to kill Konradi turns out to be Prickett's and was intended for use in his sham murder experiment.

As is usual in the early Basil Willing detective novels the field of psychology and its practices are intrinsic to the plot. There is one sequence involving association tests (a much overused device by less informed mystery writers going back to the early 20th century) that for once is actually interesting to read about. McCloy also incorporates a discussion of lie detectors, how they work and their unreliability in police investigations. The use of a lie detector test is part of Pickett's experiment. But perhaps the most interesting point related to psychology is Willing's theory that there is truth in a lie, that creative lying reveals the devious mind of the murderer.

Another highlight that makes this a stand out in mystery novels of the period is the role of German and Austrian refugees fleeing Europe for America and other parts of the world. Basil will meet Gisela von Hohenems for the first time in this book as secretary to Prof. Konradi. Though the police try to make a strong case against her in the course of the investigation readers knowledgeable about the later books in the series will know that she will be in the clear. Gisela, you see, turns out to be Mrs. Willing by the fourth book. But among all these compelling features the most important is the role of capitalism in wartime. The motive for the murder will be tied to the discovery of a synthetic metal and its effects on global economy. As ever McCloy devises an intelligent mystery with a thoroughly original and captivating plot.

14 comments:

  1. Love the cover on that DELL Mapback edition of Helen McCloy's THE MAN IN THE MOONLIGHT! McCloy is very undderated. I really like her short stories, too.

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    1. It continually amazes me that none of her books have been reprinted as often as Stout, Carr, and Queen -- the great American mystery writers with whom she definitely belongs. Even Mignon Eberhart, a much lesser writer compared to McCloy, was reprinted multiple times from the 1970s through the 1990s. McCloy hasn't been reprinted extensively since the '60s. It baffles me. I'm trying my best to win over her daughter who is still alive and well and involved in the real estate business in New York State.

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  2. Sounds wonderful John - thanks, as always. I have read far too little of her work, mainly because there are few of her books around (and I remember not being crazy about ALIAS BASIL WILLING - maybe I should re-read that one ...

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  3. I am also baffled as to why McCloy's work remains so scarce; please add my voice to those who are asking her daughter to allow a new generation of readers to enjoy these mysteries. Dibs on reviewing "Cue for Murder"! ;-)

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    1. I read Cue for Murder a long time ago, Noah, and I have no plans to review it. Anyway, I only remember the business about the canary and the importance of the title. It's one of the best theater mysteries from the Golden Age, IMO. It's all yours! With luck I'll get to the other two Basil Willing books published in the 1940s this year as part of Bev's challenge. This one doesn't count because I read it in mid-December last year.

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  4. This sounds excellent. I love it when I can learn about a period in a book. Her name is familiar but I don't think I have read her books at all.

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  5. John, it's just a fact that the better writers aren't always the most popular! I have a sort of affection for Mignon Eberhart's books, but I'd be the first to admit McCloy in her heyday wrote better books. But then McCloy didn't write for the slicks, did she? I think Eberhart's commitment to the slicks was good for her pocketbook, but bad for her talent. It encouraged her to go for a safe formula. Somehow Rinehart did a better job of rising above the sicks and even she wasn't immune.

    I thought McCloy's Slayer and the Slain was one of the best books I read last year, though I love it when she does true detective fiction. I wish the Willing books could be brought back into print. Her daughter, judging by the baby photos on some of the books, should be comparatively young for a child of a Golden Age mystery writer!

    Noah, I was just rereading Cue for Murder! It was the first McCloy I read. Maybe we could come up with something in tandem! I'll drop you a line.

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    1. Well, I need it for the "entertainment world" category of Bev's challenge. But I'd be very interested to try something in tandem; what might strike you as a basis is that I didn't really enjoy the book all that much, although Anthony Boucher thought I should and I suspect from your tone that you did. Wonderful atmosphere, fascinating background, but, you know, not a very good mystery (far too few suspects). But McCloy even at her worst is better than so many others that "Cue for Murder" is still a book well worth reading.

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    2. Noah, I recall liking it a good deal. That and The Deadly Truth were my first McCloys. But of course you go ahead. There are plenty other McCloys I could take a stab at. In any event I have a date with another lady crime author this Friday. ;)

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  6. This sounds cool. Usually when I encounter science in older mysteries, it's bogus science.

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    1. Kelly, I wish you could read John Rhode or J. J. Connington (the chemistry professor Alfred Walter Stewart) or of course R. Austin Freeman, if you haven't. I love the science in their books. I actually like that better than the lit stuff in Innes, Sayers, etc., I suppose because it's more novel to me.

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  7. I know I've heard of Basil Willing. I mean, how could anyone forget that monker? I love it. But maybe I just read about him on your blog previously, John. I'm adding this title to my list for 2014. I have a feeling I'm going to be reading even more vintage this year than ever before.

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  8. I've not read this particular McCloy, but this great review makes me want to track it down. Thanks.

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    1. Raven's Head Press will be reprinting this book in the coming months, Martin. See my post titled "Able and Willing."

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