[A famous actress is arriving at an art gallery]
Basil’s glance followed Pauline’s through a sudden rift in the crowd to a woman who had just entered the gallery. She would have drawn glances anywhere. She was thin and supple as a whip, with a flashing, feline grace that made every gesture a work of art. Her black hair was parted in the middle, sleekly waved and brushed up in two little wings above either ear. Her face was a creamy oval, slashed with a long, thin mouth, stained scarlet. Her eyes were tilted and tawny, their golden spark heightened by gold and topaz earrings. She wore black with a leopard-skin cap far back on her dark head and a leopard-skin muff on one arm.
“Wanda Morley?” asked Basil.
“Yes. Fascinating, isn’t she?” There was a tart flavour to the speech. “And yet you can’t just say why… There’s something in her nature that pulls all her features together and suggests the idea of beauty almost hypnotically. Why don’t you psychologists find out what makes women like that tick?”
observations: I always love a theatrical mystery, and someone recommended this one to me a while back when I featured another one (If it was you, please accept my thanks and tell me for proper credit).
This one is set in a beautifully drawn New York of the early 1940s (presumably pre-Pearl Harbour) during the opening of a production of the play Fedora. Someone who is playing a dead man turns out to be dead. (This is reminiscent of recently-covered Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh, very similar setup).
It was an easy, entertaining read, with a lovely picture of New York’s theatreland, and a world where at the top-society Capri restaurant on W44th St the two lovers of a dead man will appear for stylish (separate) lunches the next day, glaring at each other from different tables, but neither of them feeling they might stay home and weep. One wears black, but the other choose a startling ensemble:
She wore shepherd’s plaid taffeta with white doeskin gloves and patent leather sandals. Jaunty white wings decorated her small black hat.
It is a black and white outfit (because those are the only colours she wears), but it still doesn’t sound like proper mourning wear.
The plot is complicated, and McCloy has her regular sleuth Basil Willing: he is a psychologist who helps the police sometimes, so there is a lot of discussion of motives. There is an incident in which a canary is freed from its cage, probably by the murderer, and virtually every character is given a rather heavy-handed reason why this might be something they would do.
In all this, I was charmed by the fact that no-one seems to consider that a romance might be faked for a number of reasons – it leapt to my cynical eye, but everyone in the book was terribly surprised, they seemed rather naïve.
I wanted to find out about the play being performed in the book, Fedora, and there was so much of interest that there will be another entry soon.
The top picture is late 1940s Dior, so really post-War New Look, but the leopard was so right that I had to use it. It’s from Kristine’s photostream.
This second one shows Gloria Swanson, with a coat on over her plaid dress, which is indeed taffeta. (There’s another picture of Swanson on the blog here, one that I think is a masterpiece of upstaging.)
Another Helen McCloy, Through a Glass Darkly, is on the blog here.
Oh, this does sound like an enjoyable read, Moira. The New York theatre world is such a great context for a story. Actually, New York itself offers so many terrific possibilities for story contexts... The writing style seems appealing, too, just from the bits you've shared. Glad you enjoyed this.ReplyDelete
A theatrical mystery is halfway there with me anyway, as you know Margot, but this one was a good one all round.Delete
I have enjoyed every book by McCloy that I've read, but I've not got round to this one - yet. Thanks for another helpful review.ReplyDelete
I agree, I always enjoy her books, and she has a nice style.Delete
Love those photos, Moira! And yes, I must read this.ReplyDelete
I know, even if I didn't like the book (and I very much did) I would still enjoy hunting out the pictures of these lovely clothes.Delete
Oh, how I love the clothes of the New Look!! My mother modeled in those days and I always love looking at what she wore!!ReplyDelete
But I digress. You mention Ngaio Marsh's Enter a Murderer, but I love Vintage Murder, also by Marsh. Another lovely mystery set in the theater.
Yes, I really wish I could dress like that now.Delete
And thanks - I like Ngaio Marsh and love theatrical mysteries, so I shall look for that one next. She wrote very well about that world, didn't she? Someone else recommended Opening Night by her.
I'll pass. A bit of a scary photograph the second one, I kept looking for her broomstick.ReplyDelete
I do see what you mean, looked at from a certain angle. I was too busy looking at the clothes... But I think Gloria Swanson was definitely an old-time diva, very commanding to say the least.Delete
I love those images.ReplyDelete
I would have thought that I have read Helen McCloy, but none of her books sound familiar at all. Nor does the series protagonist, Basil Willing. I will have to try one of her books someday.
I have had a couple in my house for years. There has been quite a bit of discussion of her lately on various detection forums - she seems to be a cult favourite. I will gladly read some more by her....Delete
Do want to get this one - thanks Moira.ReplyDelete
She's such an interesting writer, if somewhat uneven in quality....Delete