Dance of Death (Helen McCloy)

  • By Helen McCloy
  • First published: US: Morrow, 1938; UK: Heinemann, 1938, as Design for Dying

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Not only a début novel but a debutante one as well.  The plot concerns the murder of Kitty Jocelyn, struck down with malaria at her coming-out party and found dead in a snow-drift the next morning, poisoned with a reducing medicine. The plot is quite mystifying: everybody loses by the death; the poison could not have been administered; and drugs, espionage, liaisons dangereuses, and parapraxis abound. By the time the mystery is solved, it seems that anybody — and everybody — could have done it. Fortunately, Dr. Willing, psychiatric advisor to the D.A.’s office, is able to solve it by unusual and fascinating psychological clues, and reveal a motive as relevant in these days of anorexia and publicity as it was then.

Contemporary reviews

William Lyon Phelps: This is really a brilliant detective novel … continuously exciting.

Will Cuppy in the N. Y. Herald Tribune: If we had a Pulitzer Prize for mysteries (and we should have) Helen McCloy would be a leading candidate.

Isaac Anderson in The N. Y. Times: The detective is a psychiatrist who is completely convincing because everything he says or does is reducible to plain common sense.   …  A truly exceptional bit of mystery writing.

James Grey in The N. Y. Sun: Basil Willing is well done…  The reader will want to hear more of Dr. Willing’s exploits.

Edward Dermot Doyle in The San Francisco Chronicle: Friends, this is the genuine article.  In this item you have just about everything.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 23rd July 1938): Miss Helen McCloy’s Design for Dying is [like Gavin Holt’s The Theme is Murder] also a little off the beaten track, although it has affinities with another American author, Mr. Daly King, since the principal figure is a psychiatrist; but in this case the psychiatrist actually solves the problem.  Dr. Basil Willing is attached to the District Attorney’s office and is anxious to convince his friend the Police Commissioner that murders can be detected as well by psychological as by physical clues.  This is not a new thought among detectives of fiction but the practical application of the theory is not without interest.  The usual “bone-headed” detective who is set to work on the case of a prominent débutante found dead on her coming-out night obligingly collects a list of “blunders” committed by the suspects, challenging Dr. Willing to deduce the guilty party from them.  Dr. Willing succeeds in his quest and probably the readers of the story who possess an elementary knowledge of psychoanalysis will not miss the point when it confronts them.  The details of the problem are worked out with ingenuity, but unfortunately the characters are scarcely sufficiently well developed to be exciting, with the exception of Dr. Willing.  If Miss McCloy will pay a little more attention to characterisation she may one day attain first-class honours.