[Psychiatrist and sleuth Basil Willing is attending a party to which another ‘Basil Willing’ is about to turn up…]
A woman’s voice spoke at his elbow imperiously. ‘I’ve been expecting you for the last half-hour.’ She wore violet with a foam of Brussels lace.
‘I think you’ve made a mistake,’ began Basil. ‘I…’
‘Mistake?’ She was displeased. ‘Your voice is different tonight.’
‘And I’m sure I look different, too,’ said Basil.
Again she interrupted. ‘Are you laughing at me, sir? You know that I am blind.’
[He moves on round the party]
‘Why, Basil Willing! To think of meeting you here!’
An undertone caught his attention. Mockery? Challenge? Or something more subtle?
He turned. Her hair was the ripe, dark gold of autumnal wheat. Her shoulders were dazzling white about the dense black of a sleeveless gown. ‘You don’t remember me? No matter!’..
She turned again more swiftly. This time each hollow rippled with light and the hem lifted to show a lining that glittered like gold. ‘This velvet was made 300 years ago: the backing is woven of pure gold thread – the traditional cloth of gold. The pile is fine black silk, so densely packed that the surface looks black when it’s not in motion. Even in motion, the gold shows only as a gleam of light between folds. It looks awfully well on the dance floor.’
commentary: Helen McCloy certainly knows how to do a setup. Her series regular Basil Willing has come to this glittering New York party because he knows an impostor is about to attend under his name. There is a feverish and bizarre atmosphere at the event and an uncomfortable feeling that anything could happen. So no surprises that by the next day two people are dead. Basil pursue the crimes and tries to find out what is going on here – the answer is very creepy.
And McCloy is also very good on clothes – she always tells you what key characters are wearing, and really this post is an excuse to show these wonderful fashion photographs of the era.
The cast of character will turn up at more social events, with even more clothes opportunities. The black velvet woman above – Rosamund - is in green later:
Trailing silken lime-green that brought out the amber highlights in her floating hair and the whiteness of her face and throat. Lips and nails were painted Chinese vermilion.--in the post on another McCloy book, I admitted that I can never quite remember what shade vermilion is, I always have to look it up. Brilliant red or scarlet is the answer. (It always sounds so green to me).
That was Dance of Death, and I explained in the post how my friend Noah Stewart would call it a brownstone mystery: this one too, and an odd fact about the NY geography of Greenwich Village streets is going to become very relevant, along with the backs and fronts of houses.
The book is very short – not much more than a novella – and very atmospheric. The final scenes, where Basil eavesdrops and watches in the dark , are very tense indeed. I didn’t believe in most of the final explanation, but simultaneously really admired the clues and tricks used.
I am ever on credenza watch (see this post for explanation) and here in a smart apartment we have this:
The walls were panelled in oak, dark as the uncomfortable Jacobean chairs and the Italian credenzas.There is a character called Thereon – the only time I have ever come across this name is in a different Helen McCloy book (her 1977 book The Impostor). She liked her unusual names – note this similar story from my post on her Two Thirds of a Ghost:
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.Lady in green dress from Kristine’s photostream.
Ladies in shades of purple and violet from the same source, as are the black velvet dresses. All from 1951, the year of the book’s publication.