Tuesday Night Club: Helen McCloy

Helen's Month
The Tuesday Night Club is a group of Golden Age crime fiction fans, writing on a different theme each month. A frequent contributor, and one of our founder members, was the wonderful Helen Szamuely, who died in April. There’s an obituary for her here, and a personal memory from someone who obviously knew her well here.

At the TNC we all, I think, knew her only through our communal love for Golden Age Detection fiction, but that was an enduring bond, and we all have our own Helen-based memories. She was a wonderful character – argumentative, knowledgeable, full of ideas. She had very strong political views, and looking at her online presence you can see that in the crime fiction forum she was much more mellow than in the rest of her life: we can hope it was a relaxing change from her other activities.

We have decided to nominate May as a tribute month:

Helen's Month

Posts could feature an author or a character called Helen; or be involved with her great interests in life: Europe, History or Russia; or any other connection that works.

We hope Helen's friends and contacts will spread the word, read the posts, or join in - all are welcome. Please comment below or on Facebook to contact any of us.

Bev Hankins has done the splendid Helen logo for us.

I am collecting the links this month, so check back here to catch up on the other posts.

Kate over at Cross-Examining Crime is looking at Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder this week, with an important character called Helen.. 

Last week, I did a post on a book Helen Szamuely had recommended to me: Murder a la Mode by Eleanore Kelly Sellars.

This week I’ve gone in a completely different direction, to choose a book by Helen McCloy – yet somehow the books aren’t all that different, and both had splendid clothes opportunities for me: so thank you Helen S.


Two Thirds of a Ghost by Helen McCloy

published 1956 in US, 1957 in UK


Two Thirds of a Ghost 2
[From opening page] More than one glance followed Meg Vesey through the dusk as she stepped across Madison Avenue…. Flakes from the light snow flurry frosted her furs and the Christmas packages in her arms. Her chin was firmly rounded in profile and luscious as ripe fruit.

Two Thirds of a Ghost 4[Chapter 2] When Christmas shopping brought Philippa Kane to town, she usually arranged to meet her husband so they could go home on the train together…. She was wrapped in a voluminous cloak of fur. An enormous alligator handbag matched tiny alligator shoes. An unbelted dress of black jersey sculptured her torso to the new Grecian line, and a speckled pheasant’s breast gave her turban the new width.

Two Thirds of a Ghost 1

[chapter 6] Her dress, long and straight was the odd shade of off-black with a bluish cast that they called gunmetal, cut low to show off the whiteness of her shoulders and arms.

Two thirds of a ghost 3

[chapter 7] Philippa came into the room, trim and fresh in slacks and sweater. Meg was suddenly conscious of the silk pyjamas and robe that Philippa had lent her, all a little too large for her figure and too bland a shade of green for her colouring.

commentary: What a great title! Who wouldn’t want to know what this book is about? The phrase refers to a parlour game played at a very awkward and difficult dinner party, one that ends in murder. And in the end the title is even more relevant than it at first seems.

It has many tropes that I very much enjoy: a setting amongst publishers (always a favourite, see this post for a discussion); the 1950s and the clothes to match; and the glimpses of the married lives of various couples. Series sleuth Basil Willing has a wife who does not join in with the detecting – but still the atmosphere is something like the Jane and Dagobert series by Delano Ames; and the book in its setup very much resembles John and Emery Bonett’s No Grave for a Lady.

The plot concerns a mysterious author, whose background can’t be traced, a reformed alcoholic who may be about to take up again with his Hollywood actress wife. His agent and publisher are key characters, and various literary critics also turn up. The book goes into some detail about the world of publishing, both at the financial and accounting level (contracts are given a going over) and in intellectual enquiry about what makes a book good, and what makes one a bestseller. And what happens to books when they are adapted – one of my favourite lines was:
Hollywood turned [the war novel] into a memorable film starring Spencer Tracy as a Catholic chaplain and Rita Hayworth as a Japanese geisha, characters who did not appear in the original story.
But if that sounds long and painstaking, it’s not, it’s a short snappy book that knows what it is doing and where it is going, and is very entertaining. The POV wanders a lot, and can throw the reader, and I doubt it many people guessed the full setup that led to the murder, but it was a highly enjoyable crime story.

And, the book is full of wonderful clothes. As well as those above, there is
Philippa, in grey velvet and emeralds… trailing a chiffon stole of pale green. 

Vera in...an ice-blue satin gown with silver mink collar [this is worn for breakfast, it is a negligee, how I wish I could find a picture…]

.. and there is a ‘wide fur turban’ – words to set off a Two thirds of a ghost 5Pavlovian reaction in me, see this entry.

Another continuing blog interest is housecoats and housedresses, and in this one a New York apartment dweller ‘always slipped a coat over her house-dress and went down in the elevator’ with her small daughter in the morning, to make sure she gets the school bus.

(Helen McCloy has housedress form on the blog: see this post for a discussion of her use of the item in her great book, Through a Glass Darkly.)

A woman goes to see a single man in his apartment: she thinks to herself that this is just about acceptable (this is 1955) so the doorman is ‘still deferential and incurious’, but that this is a change in manners over a generation. It would have been scandalous in the recent past for her to visit a man alone.

There are two fleeting characters in the book called Girzel, a vanishingly unusual first name I’d have thought – it is a Scottish variant on Grizelda. I looked up to see if there were many book characters called this: the only recent one I could see is the heroine of a quite different book by Helen McCloy, A Change of Heart published nearly 20 years later (it was a very long writing career). She must have taken a fancy to the name.

So yet another winning book, like last week’s, and one that I think Helen Szamuely would have enjoyed.

McCloy’s marvellous A Cue for Murder has appeared on the blog, as well as Through a Glass Darkly.

Gunmetal dress, and lady in furs, and woman in trousers, and pheasant hat, all from Kristine.


  1. Oh, it does sound appealing, Moira. Great clothes, an interesting context, and a dinner party, too! All the makings of a fine GA novel, I think. Glad you enjoyed it.

    1. Yes, Margot, it is great fun, and does that sharp New York milieu of the 1950s very well. I am looking forward to reading more of her work.

  2. I used to read my mother's copies of Vogue, aged about 7, and remember "gunmetal" (patent leather bags and shoes). Also "African violet". This is the only McCloy I've read, must read again.

    1. African violet as a colour? Haven't come across that. My own mother was very keen on being exact about colours - if you said 'red' she would tchah and say 'more of a crimson' or 'definitely scarlet.' She was famed for once saying something was 'off-brick', now a family phrase.
      I have a couple more by McCloy on the shelf, and am looking forward to them.

  3. Helen McCloy is one of the best discoveries I made upon joining the GAD group, Moira! And BOTH Cue for Murder and Two Thirds of a Ghost are on my TBR pile! Thanks for reminding me that it's time to pick up a McCloy! :)

    1. Thanks Brad, I hope you'll enjoy them, and very much look forward to hearing your opinions!

  4. I think there's a Grizel in Agatha Christie too - time to apply Google-Fu. But having Google-Fu'd (that didn't sound qute how I meant it to sound), I see it's something that Griselda is called (somewhat cheekily) in the (non-Agatha) playscript of Murder at the Vicarage rather than it being her name.

    1. Yes but this one is actually Girzel, as spelled there - I think Grizel is fairly rare, but I had never before come across Girzel...
      I like the vicar's wife in that one, an excellent character.

  5. I binged on Helen McCloy - they are all available as ebooks - recently and thoroughly enjoyed this one.

    1. I've had a handful on my shelf for years, and read them so long ago I remember very little, but that's good to know about the ebooks because I think I will want to work my way through all of them. Funnily enough, the ONLY think I remembered about this one was a weird chimney in the upstate house, something which has no relevance to the plot whatsoever!

  6. Of course I liked some more than others, but there are no real duds. Through a Glass Darkly is still my favourite, I think.

    1. Yes I really like that one. Looking forward to the others even more now with your seal of approval!

  7. Unconvinced, a pass from me.

    1. She'd be on the edge of your interests, I'd say - but you have too many books already, I won't encourage you.


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