The American Claimant

When thinking of American mystery writers so much influenced by the British school that they might be called honourary members, one name immediately comes to mind: John Dickson Carr. He was after all a notorious anglophile, set most of his books in Britain and even lived there for several years. Carr, however, always remained a foreigner in terms of style, approach and outlook and his works are best described as American mysteries with a British setting. If we really are to find a ‘transnational’ writer then we must look for another candidate – and fortunately there is one at hand.

Anthony Boucher, a great fan of hers, once opined that Helen McCloy ‘ha[d] always resembled the best writers of the Sayers-Blake-Allingham school’ and while this claim may be hard, though not impossible, to reconciliate with her later work, it certainly applies to her earlier, more orthodox books featuring Dr. Basil Willing as they display many features usually associated with the British brand of detective fiction. They are literate, even literary (McCloy is one of the great unsung prose stylists of the period) predominantly set in the upper and/or intellectual classes and the detective himself though a foreigner is an urbane, mild-mannered man straight out of the pages of a Henry James novel. Early McCloy in many ways can be seen as the detective story writer Ngaio Marsh might have been had she been able to resolve her plotting issues. Both share a same fascination for artists and intellectuals and often have them as protagonists; Willing like Alleyn is an unobtrusive yet reassuring presence rather than a supermind and he is prone to ‘basic’ human emotions. McCloy’s own background probably accounts for her trying to escape what she probably saw as the luridness of most homegrown crime fiction.

She tried, but she didn’t fully succeed because like Carr she was basically an American writer with the foibles of her caste. The cases Willing confronts are too sensational, too outré, to successfully pass for British. The pacing is too fast too and McCloy just can’t help adding some danger, some suspense to what should be a primarily if not purely rational mix. Her mysteries end thus being odd hybrids of the traditional and HIBK genres, hinting at the later evolution of her work.

Still, her considerable strengths as a mystery and « pure » writer as well as her obvious if diluted links to the British school have led some to make her one of the candidates for the « Fifth Crime Queen » title and that claim is a strong one in this blogger’s opinion. McCloy after all could plot like Christie, think like Sayers, write like Marsh, break the rules like Allingham and be a snob like all of them. She certainly has much more in common with the canonical Crime Queens than the official candidate, even though her public and critical support is much lower (the current regain of interest in mid-century female crime fiction seems to elude her for some reason that I can’t fathom)

 

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