Saturday, June 04, 2011

Danse Macabre

Ever since John over at Pretty Sinister Books wrote an excellent review of Helen McCloy’s Dance of Death, I’ve been intrigued by McCloy, even buying a handful of her books. At last today, during a very long car ride to and from Seattle, I got the chance to acquaint myself with McCloy and her detective, Dr. Basil Willing by reading Dance of Death, her first foray into the genre.

The set-up is brilliant, as street workers shovelling snow come across the corpse of a young woman. But there’s something unusual about this corpse— for one thing, it’s hot to the touch, even though it’s covered with snow and there’s no other footprints around the area. When the doctor is willing to attribute the cause of death as a heat stroke (in the middle of winter), it seems like this book will be an impossible crime. However, this impression disappears soon enough, as the cause of death is established long before you get an inkling of whodunit and why. The method is diabolically ingenious— I recognized it from some non-fiction reading I did, albeit it has been twisted into murder. It’s interesting to read of a fictional treatment of the subject from a 1930s author.

The corpse is identified soon enough, as a relative of the dead girl comes forward with a bizarre story of being forced to masquerade as the victim against her will, to the extent of being kept prisoner in the family’s house. It is a bizarre tale that reminded me uncannily of Arthur Conan Doyle— a sort of fusion between The Copper Beeches and The Greek Interpreter. This surreal sequence, combined with the diabolically ingenious murder method, sealed this book’s fate: I ended up absolutely loving it.

That being said, there was, for me, one major problem, and that was Dr. Basil Willing’s method of detection. First off, I like Willing a lot. He’s a psychologist and a damn good one; McCloy declares him slightly mad himself, as any physician to the mad should be. He doesn’t brand everyone according to their non-existent neuroses, repressions, perversions, etc. In fact, he’s one of the few fictional characters I’ve encountered who can talk about these things with intelligence and not come across as a self-righteous pain in the derrière.

The problem I have is with his method of detection, a highly subjective one, in which he declares that there is no such thing as an accident. Blunders to him furnish subconscious clues which must be decoded by the psychologist. The way he tells it, it sounds all right—it’s only when I think of the implications that I shout “Time out!” Nothing is an accident? As a wise man once said: baloney. Yes, apparently, stubbing your toe is your subconscious’ way of reprimanding yourself. Spilling a bottle of ink on your clothes is a symbolic way for your subconscious to show that it is unclean and defiled. And so on. I entirely disagree with this point of view—accidents do happen, and not everything can be attributed to the subconscious! If I don’t see Bob behind me and I accidentally step into him, is that a sign of my subconscious animalistic instincts kicking in?

Not only that, it exposes my problem with psychology in general: it is so darn subjective. Your subconscious, assuming it exists, is subconscious. How are you to know that it is saying precisely so-and-so? Basil, at least, doesn’t make the fatal blunder of declaring “this is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn.” Maybe I’m being unreasonable, but it bothers me. Apparently, you can be totally happy, but a psychologist will insist that your subconscious is actually hating your life. At times like that, I can see reason in John Dickson Carr’s comment that psychologists treat patients for diseases they never had and let them walk away thinking they still have them. In fact, if you ever really want to depress yourself or convince yourself you’re crackers, just settle down and read a nice psychology paper for an hour. That’ll do the trick.

But back to the story: McCloy writes it in a style uncannily reminiscent to modern day drama, and it loses none of its power despite being removed in time from me by over 70 years. It is a tragedy involving real people, not eccentric group of characters # 763. (Ah, interesting. A 6 following a 7. An obvious symbol of castration.) As clueing goes, the ending is unfortunately weak, with weak clues buried in the recesses of Chapter Eight.

Despite having a brilliant motive, McCloy seems to lack confidence in it, going on and on with psychological mumbo-jumbo about how the motive is deduced as if to explain “This is an actual motive!” when its strength is extremely obvious. In fact, the clue for deducing the motive is given a few pages before the final revelation, and it’s so self-explanatory all the psychological stuff feels unneeded.

However, despite my problems with the book (which show a curious hostility to psychology, an obvious symbol of sexual repression), overall, Dance of Death is a triumph. The plot is breathless, with various twists and turns that keep you compulsively turning the pages (even though my copy is rather fragile). The characters are wonderful, the murder method ingenious, the motive brilliant, the detective likeable… It is a solid debut novel; I loved it from start to finish and will certainly read more McCloy!


  1. You've convinced me; this book is going on the short-list for detectives I want to order and read asunder in the very, very near future.

    Coincidently, I also have a recent blog post highlighting one of Helen McCloy's books, Mr. Splitfoot, which turned to be unapologetically fun book – brimming over with tropes and conventions of the genre. You should put it on your short list if you haven't bought it already (can never tell with you). Oh, I also finally posted that review of that Dutch author I kept promising in that discussion on foreign mysteries.

    By the way, your holiday really did nothing to trickle down your blog activity. You have issues! ;D

  2. Argh, would it really kill me to proof read my comments before posting them?! >_<

  3. I understand your problem with psychology. But there is some good among all the bad. I say to you: avoid Gladys Mitchell at all costs. Her Mrs. Bradley is an avowed Freudian - the worst of the lot in terms of damaging people even further who may not be "all that bad." And far too many of the Mitchell books I've read include a lot of nonsensical "psychological insights" on Mrs. Bradley's part that are absurd leaps of common sense let alone leaps of logic.

  4. @TomCat
    I object- for the week I've been visiting relatives, I've read only two books, and that was spread out during lengthy car rides. All my other books were read during the drive to Oregon, which is when I wrote my reviews (by hand)- all I had to do was type them up. What has suffered is my activity in the blogosphere- I haven't read much of the blogs around, and I'll have to catch up once I get back.

    My usual source hasn't got Mr. Splitfoot, and as far as I can tell, it isn't even in Powell's Books, although I've gotten a huge loot from them already and looking for more would just be me being greedy... I guess I'll throw myself at the mercy of the ILL system.

    Ah, glad to hear my problem with psychology isn't completely unreasonable. As for Gladys Mitchell, I read "Death at the Opera" and I loved it. It didn't contain the bad stuff on psychological insights you warn me about there... But thanks for the warning.

  5. What you (and I) find so off-putting is not psychology, but psychiatry. Very few psychologists now take Freudian or any other kind of psychotherapy seriously, and even professional counsellors are beginning to acknowledge that most of the benefit of counselling comes from giving the client the chance of a friendly non-judgmental conversation, rather than any tricks of psychiatric theory.

    Freudian psychiatry is more accurately regarded as a religion than a science. That's why its conclusions sound so irrational.