Cue for Murder – Helen McCloy (1942)

CueForMurderMy first encounter with Helen McCloy was through the highly touted Through a Glass, Darkly.  The story may be most well known for making position #12 in Ed Hoch’s 1981 collaborative list of top impossible crime novels.  I personally didn’t see what justified that ranking, as I can think of 12 novels by John Dickson Carr alone that I’d rank ahead of it.  I’ll concede that if you’re looking to create a list diverse in both author and types of impossibility, the novel is worth noting.

For my second McCloy, I decided to jump to another of her better regarded novels – Cue for Murder.  I spent a long time holding out for the Dell map back edition of this book, but finally succumbed to a well priced 1965 copy by Bantam Books.

Helen McCloy lays out her cards plainly with the opening lines of the story.

“The Murder Mystery at the Royalty Theatre was solved through the agency of a house fly and a canary.  The fly discovered the chemical evidence that so impressed the jury at the trial, but the canary provided a psychological clue to the murderer’s identity before the murder was committed.”

It’s a strange, though lovely, start to a mystery – to have the actual key pieces of evidence laid bare long before ever encountering them in the story.  It provides the reader with an understanding that these clues are significant each time they make an appearance, without exactly grasping how.  In that sense, McCloy is able to add auxiliary puzzles to the core mystery of a murder in a theatre.

The theatre in question is the Royalty Theatre, and it’s opening night for a revival of Victorien Sardou’s 1882 play Fedora.  McCloy’s series detective Dr Basil Willing is in the audience and witness to a tragedy that unfolds on stage.  Throughout the first act of the play, a character lays dying in a bed tucked into an alcove at the back of the set.  As the curtain goes down, a grisly discovery is made – the death was no act.  The part of the dying man was played by an actor that nobody seems to know, amplifying the obvious question of why anyone would have stabbed him through the heart with a scalpel.

CueForMurder2The circumstance of the crime creates an intriguing question about the type of mystery we’re dealing with.  Evidence suggests that the victim was alive at the time that the play started, and only three actors came near him during the performance – pointing to a closed-circle crime with a remarkably small cast.  It must be a closed circle crime, because the setting of the alcove in which the body is discovered is completely sealed off with the exception of the opening to the stage – suggesting the possibility of an impossible crime if we were to rule out the obvious suspects.  Early on, Basil Willing proposes an intriguing theory – an act of alibi by camouflage.

“As a rule a murderer tries to escape detection by dissociating himself from his murder with a false alibi, and that is often the very thing that leads to his detection.  This murderer realized there is safety in numbers.  Instead of giving himself an alibi, he has merely obliterated the alibi of two there people.  Instead of dissociating himself from the murder, he has contrived to associate other people with it on the same terms as himself.”

Although it takes a while to get to the crime, Cue for Murder somewhat starts with a bang given this excellent set up.  Unfortunately the rest of the book is a slightly dry affair.  McCloy is a decent author and Basil Willing is a tolerable enough detective, but for some reason neither quite gel for me.  Perhaps there’s a bit much in terms of 1940’s era psychology sprinkled throughout McCloy’s books for my tastes.

Willing goes around and interviews all of the suspects as you might expect from this sort of story.  It’s fine – never verging on boredom – yet a bit laborious nonetheless.  Multiple references to canaries and flies litter the text enough to trigger alarm bells, but man, it gets kind of old when every character has something that ties them to that damn canary and fly.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the midsection dealt with some historical details.  The book is set in New York City during WW2 and the entire area is being prepped for blackout conditions to protect against attacks from sea.  We get a brief glimpse at the impact the remote war had on the coastline, and even on the philosophy towards civilian crime.

“Of course there’s no time for murder…  With scores of men dying at sea every day to say nothing of Europe, Asia, and Africa why should we care who murdered this John Ingelow?”

Still, the one hundred or so pages between the crime and resolution are mostly forgettable.  In fact, the resolution itself is forgettable.  Despite a tempting set up to the crime, there’s nothing particularly clever waiting at the end of the story.  McCloy provides a thorough enough explanation that makes sense, but that’s about it.  “Yes, I suppose that makes sense” isn’t exactly the sensation I’m waiting for at the end of a mystery novel.  I wanted more.  I wanted something really clever.

The hook to the story invited it.  A murder by a seemingly closed circle of suspects in front of a theatre full of witnesses had maddening potential.  There are shades of John Dickson Carr’s Seeing is Believing in the setup.  While Carr’s novel was ultimately a let down when it came to the finale, the same solution would have been a jolt of adrenaline to Cue for Murder’s bland fare.

Not everyone shares my opinion though.  In the introduction to my Bantam Books edition, Anthony Boucher raves of how intricately clued the story is.

“Indeed one can, surprisingly, flatter it by saying that you should not be surprised by the answer.  The clue structure is so careful and so fair that you should deduce (not guess) the answer at approximately the same time as Dr. Willing himself.”

I don’t know, that’s kind of over-hyping it a bit.  I’ve been there before solving the mystery along with the detective – Christianna Brand’s Fog of Doubt comes to mind at the moment as being one of my favorites – but this wasn’t one of those super satisfying ones.

I’m sure I’ll be returning to Helen McCloy eventually, but probably not for another year.  After this book I’m just not really excited about her other material, although I’m still a bit curious about the much lauded Mr Splitfoot.

My edition

I wasn’t thrilled about my copy of Cue for Murder when I first got my hands on it, but it is a respectable 1965 Bantam edition.  It turns out it’s part of a run of “The World’s Great Novels of Detection” put together by Anthony Boucher.  Others in this series are Rim of the Pit, Cat of Many Tails, and Green for Danger.  I realized that I actually have the Bantam editions of Green for Danger and Cat of Many Tails.  The books all have a similar style of art, but somehow I hadn’t but two and two together until I read the back cover of my copy of Cue for Murder.

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15 thoughts on “Cue for Murder – Helen McCloy (1942)”

  1. [T]he one hundred or so pages between the crime and resolution are mostly forgettable.

    This is, in essence, my problem with McCloy. Her ideas sound great, and she has a talent with capturing characters very neatly, but man dos her prose ever just wander around on some sort of gentle stroll rather than powering through to some exciting, deliberately-staged revelation. I had this one on a very back burner for some future point, but maybe I’ll pass it up altogether for another decade or so.

    Also, re: Fog of Doubt — no way in hell are you or anyone else solving that alongside the detective. Time and again Brand drags you up to the point where you think she’s going to show you something relevant, only for her to duck away at the last moment. No-one deduced the ending to that book — it’s simply not possible from the information provided, no way in hell — and anyone who says they did needs to look up what “deduction” is.

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  2. I liked this one more than both you and JJ, although I have to say that the explanation for the canary thing is totally ridiculous. I also guessed the identity of the murderer, possibly because the situation reminded me of an iconic (non-mystery) novel published about 15 years before this…I wonder if McCloy took some inspiration from it? But the rest of the book is good, especially the Holmesian deductions that Willing uses to figure out the identity of the victim.

    Sadly, that Bantam reprint series only lasted for five books…the fifth one was A BLUNT INSTRUMENT by Georgette Heyer, which is supposed to be her best mystery and one which I should get around to reading some day.

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    1. I figured out the motive for the murder, although I still felt like any of the suspects could have ended up being the killer. Each suspect had a motive, each had a clue linking them to the fly and the canary, and so come the conclusion, it kind of felt like McCloy could have selected a person at random and said “aha, this is the correct one.”

      Thanks for the tip on the Heyer novel, I hadn’t realized there was a fifth in the series.

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    2. A BLUNT INSTRUMENT cannot possibly be Heyer’s best mystery novel. The solution should be obvious to veteran mystery readers the moment the body is discovered. But I guess there are hundreds of people who are easily fooled by a very old and tiresome trick. I’ve only read three of her books and ABI was my least favorite.

      CUE FOR MURDER is an admirable effort, not at all my favorite of the Basil Willing books, but surely one of the best theater mysteries written in the Golden Age. McCloy understood the disconnection from reality that many people in theater suffer from, or rather, choose to cling to. One of the best clues is the title itself.

      You ought to find a copy of MR SPLITFOOT and read that. Perhaps that will finally change your opinion of McCloy as a masterful detective fiction writer. It should deliver the goods for anyone who demands real detection and genuine surprises with flourishing finishes.

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      1. I did feel that the theatre aspect of Cue for Murder was the most successful part. I tend to be a bit leery of theatrical plots, as they have a tendency to overdo a few some of the elements, but this was spot on.

        Mr Splitfoot has proven elusive so far, although I won’t give up on tracking it down.

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  3. I’m gutted you didn’t enjoy this one as much. Agreed that there are slow elements to this book for sure. But in a way I like her pacing here. And this book still has my favourite motive of any GAD books I have read. It felt like a totally real and deep motivation. I also have a gorgeous copy of this!

    Splitfoot is another one in this category. Some incredible ideas, and some aspects of the impossible solution are just lush, but there are wanderings. I have a few theories about those wanderings myself but maybe I’ll leave that for another post/comment.

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      1. Yes, I do have a review of Through a Glass Darkly from about a year ago. For the most part I’d put it on par with Cue for Murder, but I think it ended on a much better note. The impossible crime that occurs near the very end was clever (although questionable), and it finished on a haunting note. As such, I’d rate it higher than Cue for Murder, although I think it gets more attention than it deserves.

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  4. Hmm. My take on “Cue” is pretty much the opposite of yours: Each individual element (the prose, the plot, the sense of time and place, the pacing) is only somewhat better than average, but—for me—the sum of those parts makes the book a minor classic of American detective fiction. Then, again, I’m a sucker for a smart tale about smart, mid-century Manhattanites.

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    1. I think that I was more hoping for a gimmick of some sort. You know, the kind of misdirection with a kick that you’d get from a Christie, Carr, Brand, or hey, even Through the Glass Darkly. The story seemed well set up to invite one, but I suppose McCloy wasn’t going for that here. Foiled by expectations again!

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