Dance of Death by Helen McCloy


published 1938



dance of death 2



Things this Mystery is about

A black COAT from Paris…  
Two engraved MENU cards…    
A red chalk DRAWING …
A diamond RING ….
A smelling-salts PHIAL …
An old khaki RAINCOAT …
An ADVERTISEMENT for a reducing treatment …
A sapphire-studded CIGARETTE CASE …
A signed CHECK … 
A Bronx COCKTAIL

commentary:  I normally use an excerpt from the book in my blogpost, not the blurb, but this excellent summing-up of the key moments in Dance with Death was too appealing to miss. I have just been in New York and, as with Sunday’s  Live Alone and Like It, a book about the city in the 1930s is sheer joy for me (even more so than it normally would be). It tells certain kinds of reader, not just me I think, that this is exactly the kind of crime story they will like. 

This is the first of McCloy’s books featuring sleuth Dr Basil Willing: he is a psychiatrist and brings his Freudian notions to bear on the crime – he is forever looking out for blunders and comments from the subconscious, and uses them to find out what people are really thinking. And he has helpful remarks such as
Poisoning, like kleptomania, arson and cruelty to animals, is often associated with sexual repression.
The crime involves a rich girl and a poor girl: one of them is found dead in the snow, although the body is unnaturally warm. One of the girls is supposed to be starting her debutante season, coming out to New York society, and there are some good clothes:
Like all women in advertisements, she was Dance of Death 1inhumanly sleek and slim. She had been photographed in evening dress—a deep, cream color that seemed to be satin. Her only ornament was a long rope of pearls—fabulous had they been real. But of course they couldn’t be real—in an advertisement... 
Kitty had an evening dress that was a very startling shade of clear vermilion.
(I have to admit that I can never quite remember what shade vermilion is, I always have to look it up. Brilliant red or scarlet is the answer.)

There is an impersonation – something that seems to occur in books much more often than in real life, honestly – and I was interested to see that the French maid (Victorine, what a very crime-novel-French-maid name) uses what is now the huge trend of ‘contouring’ to bring out the similarities between the two women:
The upper part of the face is the only part that matters—eyes and eyebrows, nose and upper lip. Change that and you change everything…. By removing entirely the part of the brows near the nose and extending them to the temple with a pencil, she made my eyes look as wide apart as [the other woman’s]. She used two shades of face powder and this modeling with light and dark tones made my nose seem as long as hers. She made my eyes greenish gray by putting a greenish yellow ‘eye-shado’ on the lids beside them. Finally she used two shades of lipstick, one over the other to make my lips seem the same shade as hers.
(The spelling of ‘eye-shado’ is new to me – it may be a typo.)

The book is full of moments of its time – from the Nansen passport (a way to help displaced and stateless persons) to the claim that ‘moderns don’t write love letters. They telegraph or telephone.’ Kitty’s education consisted of
Looking out for her complexion and her figure and learning just enough French and dancing and music to make her civilized without the taint of intellect.
When a woman faints all-too-conveniently, Basil steps forward:
He knew the modern woman’s vulnerable point. “Ring for some water,” he said to Pasquale, “and throw it over her head. Never mind the finger wave.” Rhoda opened her eyes and moaned.
And look at the snobbery and classism here - it is of the kind associated with English books of the era, and Basil isn’t having it:
“You know as well as I do that people of—er—well, wealth and standing and education don’t get mixed up in murder cases!”  

“Don’t they?” Basil’s slow smile was charged with meaning. “Ever hear of Prince Youssoupoff, Madame Caillaux, Count Bocarmé, Lord Ferrers or the Marquise de Brinvilliers?”  

“All foreigners,” muttered Archer.

I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilering, but it is remarkably modern in a very specific way, and a thread of the plot, and aspects of the motive, are as relevant now as ever: they could easily fit into a 2017 book.

Altogether a most enjoyable read.

Three other Helen McCloy books have featured on the blog: Through a Glass Darkly, Cue for Murder, and Two-Thirds of a Ghost. 

My friend Noah Stewart recommended this book - he described it as a 'brownstone mystery'. I think he invented the term, and it's a good,useful one - read his post to find out exactly what it means. One thing's for sure: brownstone mysteries are meat and drink to Clothes in Books.

And I was also interested to find that yet again John at Pretty Sinister Books was here before me – he looked at the book in 2011, and his post is highly recommended.

Cream dress from Kristine’s photostream, from Vogue of 1938.

The vermilion dress (and friends) is from a McCall’s pattern of the mid-1930s.




















Comments

  1. Oh, this sounds like a good 'un, Moira. And I have to love that quote, '...civilized without the taint of intellect.. What an attitude of its time! And it sounds as though it has a real feel of New York at the time, too. Glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. Yes, Margot, I suspect that was all-too-common attitude of the time, and very cleverly expressed. And the book was a real taste of New York - always good in my view.

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  2. I think I have read all of McCloy's Basil Willing novels now, Moira (yet another shared taste!), and yes, this is a good one and fascinatingly of its time and place.

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  3. I should have added, yet strangely modern too in some ways.

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    1. Indeed Christine - strangely modern, and yet also full of those wonderful historical details. I think I will be winding my way through all of them: which is your favourite?

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  4. Well, I found "2/3 of a Ghost" on Open Library, so there's another one to add to the electronic TBR file.

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    1. It's a good one Shay... and well done for finding it for free.

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    2. I have come to the conclusion that I will never be allowed to die -- I still have so many books to read.

      (thought swiped from "The Haunted Bookshop" - the proprieter conscientiously refrained from reading "King Lear" because of his belief that everyone should read Lear at least once in their lifetime.

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    3. Sounds like a variation on "I can't be out of money -- I still have checks in my checkbook." I love it.

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    4. Amongst people who sew and quilt and knit there's a saying to the effect of 'she who dies with the most materials stashed away, wins'. there is an obvious comparison with books...

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  5. Helen McCloy is a very enjoyable writer, good at detail - as you illustrate - and quirky, intriguing touches, such as the paradoxical death in this one and the bizarre and unsettling affair of Faustina Coyle in 'Through a Glass, Darkly'. Mr Splitfoot is another very good one, with nods to the spirit-rapping of the Fox sisters (and some more rather unusual names, which also seems to be a Helen McCloy thing).

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    1. Mr Splitfoot (what an intriguing title) is high on my list for the next one to read by her. I must get a full ist of the titles. Yes, she does like her odd names, I was intrigued by Girzel in Two Thirds of a Ghost.

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  6. Drat! Another author to start in on. Not that I'm really complaining. :-)

    I can empathize with your not remembering what color vermillion is, as I have similar memory lapses. What is about certain words that you can never quite keep them solidly in your memory? Although the vermillion in the illustration is striking I just adore the floral one on the left. It really says 30's to me. I haven't read as many books from this era as I've seen movies, I am a big fan of many of movies (those in The Thin Man vein), so I'm sure I'll enjoy Ms. McCloy's.

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    1. I honestly think you will like her Paula, but I do apologize!
      There are some words that I just have a blankspot for, which is odd isn't it? Some colour words, and others that are just words - I keep looking them up and never remember again.
      Yes I thought all three dresses were lovely.

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    2. No need to apologize. I give you **** but I've loved all the books you've recommended.

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    3. but I know just what you mean - do you THANK someone for introducing you to a great new author...?

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    4. How appropriate that you replied to this today, as I just finished reading the book this morning! I quite enjoyed it. Dr. Willing is smart without being a smarty-pants (I always get a kick out of the rhyme: Philo Vance needs a kick in the pants), and the mystery was good even though I did guess the murderer. Nice period details and snappy dialog...what else could I want?

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    5. Oh good - so glad you enjoyed. I thought it was a very good example of a certain kind of book, and I love Noah's phrase of a 'brownstone mystery'.

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    6. It was a really nice picture in time of NYC. There was a comment about an old home being replaced by a high-rise apartment building. That's only accelerated over time.

      Did you ever read "Time and Again" by Jack Finney? It hinged on a fairly unbelievable premise, but it was a nice, detailed picture of NYC in the 1880s. I think you said you weren't a big fan of time travel books, but even though it dragged in places this one stuck in my brain.

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    7. No you are right - in general not time travel, but Time and Again is a wonderful book, a knockout, and so clever. And as you say, what a great and convincing picture of the past.

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  7. I wish I could remember whether I have read anything by Helen McCloy. Doesn't matter, I should give some of her books a try. She certainly has written a lot of them.

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    1. I think you would like them Tracy - they are proper crime stories, great atmosphere, but with lovely details of life too.

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  8. Thank you as always, for providing another addition to the To Be Read pile and another bookmarked blog - Vermillion ditto, always dither between yellow and red lol

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    1. Isn't it funny how there are some words you can NEVER learn the true meaning of? I wish I understood the process - my brain simply won't solve the problems of vermillion, liminal, and carmine...

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    2. I used to always have trouble with crepuscular. It's an ugly word for a beautiful time of day, so my brain didn't want to associate the two. I think I've forced it in there now.

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    3. Oh yes, me too! Always have to think hard on that one.

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  9. This was this first McCloy (from 1938) I read when I started on them a month or so ago. Coincidentally! The most recent I read was Mr. Splitfoot which was written in the 60s. Quite a long period! John at Pretty Sinister Books recommended some of the others, and I had a good time with them. Dance of Death seemed like a first novel -- just a very slight clunkiness -- but still quite impressive. The Goblin Market was a bit unusual, but I really enjoyed that one. And damn! I didn't see the twist.

    Seeing an ad for the new Murder on the Orient Express today, I couldn't help thinking how much more I'd prefer seeing some of McCloy's books made into films. Isn't there anyone on earth who doesn't know how Orient Express ends???

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    1. I think I've got Splitfoot on a shelf, so should read that next. But you've made Goblin Market (great title!) sound very appealing...
      Yes, nothing against Agatha or the films, but for goodness sake! Just ask those who know if you really can't think of a different book to adapt...

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    2. Hopefully, I haven't spoiled Goblin Market for you by mentioning a twist. Mr. Splitfoot was fun; I always like learning new terms for the devil.

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    3. I'm sure it will be fine - I'm always looking for twists anyway.

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