The Deadly Truth (McCloy)

  • By Helen McCloy
  • First published: US: Morrow, 1941; UK: Hamilton, 1942

Claudia Bethune, twice-married and with the eyes of Astarte, steals a truth drug, and puts it in her friends’ cocktails. The dinner party turns nasty; too much truth comes out; and one of her “friends” garottes her that evening. Basil Willing is on hand to clear up the mess. This is one of McCloy’s quietly excellent books: tensely written, deftly observed characters, subtly placed clues, scientific ingenuity (here: tests for deafness), and a surprise solution. “The real McCoy when it comes to writing first-rate mysteries,” to quote the Philadelphia Record.


1941 Morrow

Claudia Bethune fed her guests “truth serum” – and the murder that followed fell into the expert hands of Basil Willing to unravel…

Has anyone ever learned the unvarnished truth about relatives and friends?  Claudia Bethune, raffish beauty on the verge of middle-age, decided to find out.  In the cocktails that she gave her guests before dinner in her Long Island house, she placed scopolamin, the new drug that its discoverers were calling “truth serum.”  By four o’clock the next morning Claudia was still sitting at the dinner table, but she was alone now and she was dead – strangled by her own emerald necklace.

At first there seemed to be only one clue – the receding footfalls going upstairs, heard by Dr. Basil Willing.  This narrowed suspicion to Claudia’s household: Mike Bethune, her irresponsible husband; Phyllis, Mike’s divorced wife and Claudia’s “dearest friend”; Charles Rodney, Claudia’s business adviser; Peggy Titus, who claimed to be another of Claudia’s dearest friends though they had nothing in common; Roger Slater, the young chemist from whom Claudia had stolen the truth serum.

As Basil Willing watched these five people he found his attention turning to their shoes and their gait in a vain effort to identify one of them as the person whose footfalls he had heard the night of the murder.

Until this case, Dr. Willing has always seen a murder investigation from the detective’s point of view because of his job as psychiatric adviser to the district attorney of New York County.  But as he has no official standing in Suffolk County, Long Island, he sees this case largely from the suspect’s point of view, until he discovers the one thing about the footsteps that does identify the murderer after all.

Contemporary reviews

Will Cuppy, Herald Tribune:

Another Grade A positively don’t miss here…  The book is a whiz.

Jack Ketch, New York Herald Tribune:

Worthy of a second listing.

The Philadelphia Record:

The real McCoy when it comes to writing first-rate mysteries.

Frank Gruber in the Chicago Daily News:

Excellent writing and Grade A sleuthing.

The New Yorker:

A swift, witty story.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 9th May 1942):

So persuasive is Miss McCloy that nobody could reasonably jib at her explanation why the cocktails at a Long Island party cause those who gulp them to speak the truth.  The hostess is a glowing portrait in poster-colour and she dies a gaudy death.  If Miss McCloy went in for melodrama she might make our senses reel, but she patiently unravels a somewhat scientific problem instead.

New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 13th June 1942):

Miss McCloy had a truth machine in her last book; she has an American addiction to quasi-science.  In The Deadly Truth a scientist invents a truth drug (rather unscientifically called “truth serum”) which makes you speak the truth for three hours after imbibing it.  A society lady steals the stuff to enliven a cocktail party, and within the three hours so much truth has come out that strangling the hostess seems too merciful an end.  Dr. Basil Willing appears on the scene as the psychologist detective and imposes a somewhat arbitrary solution.  Miss McCloy is competent but lacks finesse.  She might learn to use science as a probe rather than a bludgeon in her detection.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989):

Basil Willing is courting Gisela von Hohenems (leaving her at 4 A.M.) and spending the summer in a hut on a large Long Island estate.  Thrice-married Claudia Bethune administers a stolen “truth drug” to her house-party guests and is strangled with her own necklace.  B.W. does fair detection of the plausible murderer, working in a test of real versus fake deafness.  Good finale.