Tuesday, November 08, 2011

"`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe..."

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
— 1 Corinthians, 13:11-12

Helen McCloy truly had wonderful talent. Earlier this year, I reviewed her first book Dance of Death. It had flaws, as many first mystery novels do, and although I liked the character of Dr. Basil Willing, I found his method of detection, which relies heavily on Freudian psychology, highly subjective. However, the book was overall a triumph, with a clever murder method, plenty of social commentary that still rang true over 70 years later, and a brilliant motive for the murder. All this made me eagerly anticipate reacquainting myself with McCloy and Dr. Basil Willing, and at last I’ve done so with her 1950 novel Through a Glass, Darkly.

Our story revolves around Faustina Crayle, a young teacher at Brereton School, who is suddenly dismissed by Mrs. Lightfoot, head of the school. Although just a few weeks ago Mrs. Lightfoot seemed happy with Faustina’s performance, she now insists Faustina must leave the school. She offers no explanation and refuses to give her a good reference in the future. Faustina is obviously distraught by this news, and she confides in the only friend she has at Brereton, Gisela von Hohenems. After Faustina leaves, Gisela gets in touch with her old friend Dr. Basil Willing, who comes back to America from Japan to look into the matter.

Dr. Willing comes to Mrs. Lightfoot and demands to hear the story. She is at first reluctant but finally gives in and summons several witnesses to strange events at Brereton. It seems that for the last few weeks, Faustina has been at the centre of a series of mysterious events. She is seen one moment at the top of a set of stairs, but the next moment, she downstairs, insisting she has not been upstairs yet. She is seen painting outside but simultaneously, two girls see her inside resting in a chair. While the doppelganger is seen, Faustina’s movements are slow and languid, as if she was moving in slow-motion… or as if her energy was being channelled elsewhere…

McCloy takes this intriguing premise and runs off with it. Briefly put, this has got to be one of the best “supernatural” mysteries ever written. McCloy achieves dazzling effects thanks to understatements, ambiguities, words that are unspoken but clearly intimated… Her atmosphere is dark and oppressive, and the events themselves are of such a nature that no rational explanation seems possible! The reader begins to doubt in reality, wonder whether this time, there won’t be a clear-cut rational explanation…

This book shows a confident author using her skills excellently. The clueing is far stronger than in Dance of Death; in her first outing, McCloy’s clues weren’t very strong, with the really major ones being dropped pages before the solution. Here, she manages to cleverly conceal evidence throughout the story that leads to a ladder of clues that point in one direction. Overall, the solution is quite satisfying, and it is revealed in a brilliant final confrontational scene which ends on a curiously ambiguous note.

This is a supernatural mystery in the very best tradition of John Dickson Carr, and yet, some marvellous effects have been spoiled thanks to the progress of science. In one passage, McCloy has a character muse about the possibilities of the mind that are uncovered by science… and it’s just the author’s luck that she chooses an example that science can now more or less explain! McCloy seems to have been fascinated by psychology, and Basil Willing is one of the few fictional psychologists who can talk about their profession and not sound like an arrogant pain in the derrière. However, some of the psychology is likewise rather outdated.

There are a few cures for these minor problems. You could just skip the psychology passages, but that’s rather unwise in any mystery, since you could be skipping over a vital clue. You could try ignoring these effects, but consciously trying to ignore them might only serve to make them more prominent. Finally, you could try doing what I did, and regard this book as a period piece. Simply forget all about Facebook, cell phones, the 21st century, modern science, etc. Allow yourself to be sucked into the world of the early 1950s as described by McCloy. Believe me, with a master storyteller of McCloy’s calibre, this approach is very easy indeed.

These really are my only reservations about the book, and really, that’s through no fault of the author's. This doesn’t seriously affect the quality of the plot or its resolution, and that’s why I’m willing to call Through a Glass, Darkly a masterpiece. It’s such a pity I didn’t read it in time for Hallowe’en—the timing would have been perfect. It is a frightening tale of ghostly doubles that seems to have no rational explanation until the ending. I unhesitatingly recommend it.

3 comments:

  1. This is a great, atmospheric mystery and an original approach to the impossible crime problem. But that's also its greatest weakness: just like the enigma of vanishing houses and trains, there are only a few possible solutions to explain away a doppelgänger. The shorter version of this story is also great (reviewed it somewhere on my blog).

    I'm still amazed at your ability to crank out these reviews one after another. I just wrote an introduction for my next post, but I'm too tired to finish it now. Hopefully tomorrow.

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  2. You're perfectly right, but there are some ways of addressing this problem. Edmund Crispin simply runs all the way with his central impossibility in "The Moving Toyshop", which is a much more fun, high-spirited, and satisfying read than Christopher Fowler's "The Victoria Vanishes", which contains a similar premise.

    McCloy runs with this idea as well, but in a very different way than Crispin. None of Gervase Fen's general madness will be found here-- no alcoholic hijinx or literary references that would confound 90% of readers. So even though there's such a limited number of explanations, McCloy doesn't let that fact bother her and the storytelling so much smoother.

    Did I make sense there? I hope so. I could go into a long-winded justification over the rapidity of my last few reviews, but I think that'd be a futile exercise in the end. I just noticed that I have managed to eclipse your blog in terms of posts-- a considerable achievement since you set off on your blogging journey a good month ahead of me!

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  3. Yeah, you made sense there, however, no matter how you dress up the problem of the doppelgänger, comical or serious, the fact remains that the possible solutions are very limited.

    But you're absolutely right that McCloy run with the idea very well. She did it so well that probably nobody else attempted to match her with this plot idea. At least, I'm not aware of other detective stories involving doppelgänger.

    I'm glad you passed me in posts. Maybe people will finally stop staring at me as if I'm the obsessed, raving mystery enthusiastic here. Or at least not the only one.

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