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?
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!