Two-thirds of a Ghost (Helen McCloy)

  • By Helen McCloy
  • First published: US: Random House, 1956; UK: Gollancz, 1957

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Everybody loves it. Maurice Richardson calls it “insanely ingenious”; some modern readers say it’s their favourite McCloy; Cooper & Pike list it in their top 100.


It’s astonishingly mediocre. The method is immediately obvious, since it’s lifted straight from John Dickson Carr’. The main gimmick is given away by the title, and recalls Allingham‘s Death of a Ghost. The murderer is completely arbitrary (psychological clue unconvincing), and feels like Rex Stout. Well written, of course, in a rather cold and unsympathetic way.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 26th May 1957): Bright, sophisticated, insanely ingenious New York book-trade whodunnit.  Poisoning, at publisher’s New England country-house cocktail party, of elfin alcoholic best-selling novelist who is obviously not what he seems.  Literary clues.  Plenty variegated denizens of the jungle of letters: authors, agents, critics, camp-followers—some nymphos, of course.  Miss McLoy’s best for several books.  Who says the whodunnit’s dead?

Times Literary Supplement (Philip John Stead, 14th June 1957): PSYCHIATRY AND DETECTION

Two-Thirds of a Ghost is a thoroughly clever and entertaining detective story.  Miss McCloy presents the reader with the case of a best-selling author who has no recollection of who or what he was in the days before he became a patient in a mental clinic, suffering from concussion, alcoholism and amnesia.  The author is murdered in the course of a parlour game and the investigator has to seek not only the killer but the true identity of the victim.  The story is set in the book-world of New York, with tough publishers, anxious agents and critics both fulsome and carping; there are several credible women characters, and the detective’s role is decently probable.  Knowledge of the milieu, humour coming through in character-study and satire, sharp writing and an excellent plot make this an outstanding performance.