Dance of Death by Helen McCloy (1938)

The morning after her coming out party the body of beautiful socialite Kitty Jocelyn is found in a snowbank. An autopsy reveals death was due to the effects of a diet drug which Kitty advertised, but never took. Suspicion falls on family, as well as her small circle of family, swains, and employees, but none has a discernable motive. Who would murder a beautiful eighteen-year-old girl without an enemy in the world? By focusing on the unconscious actions of the suspects, Dr. Basil Willing uncovers the “psychic fingerprints” that will ultimately lead to the culprit.

This is Helen McCloy’s first book, and the first of fourteen books featuring Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who acts as an adviser to the New York district attorney’s office. There is quite a bit here that I liked. The character is well versed in Freudian psychoanalysis and it is this knowledge, as it applies to individuals and clues, which he uses in solving a case. It’s an interesting take on the role of the amateur detective. And while I’m aware of writers having their detectives base their investigations on the phycological makeup of the suspect/culprit, I’ve not seen it to this degree.

The plot is clever and provides a lot more than murder for the reader to contend with. McCoy’s use of a doppelganger leads to initial confusion over the victim’s identity; well-known party guests (and gate crashers) can’t be found, and almost everyone, including some servants, has something to hide. In addition, it’s hard to figure out who a murderer is when there is no obvious motive. Nearly everyone concerned had a reason for needing the victim alive. How’s that for a red herring?

Using a popular “reducing” agent of the day as the poison was very intriguing, and the one that McCoy chose is very real. Between 1933 and 1938 “2,4 Dinitrophenol” or alpha-dinitrophenol (DNP), was used in diet pills under many brand names, and with advertised promises to reduce an individual’s weight quickly and safely. In reality, it had several harmful, even deadly side effects. But, in the 1930s fad diets were in, women wanted thin boyish bodies, and slimming agents were in common use. How easy for a murderer to hide their method in something that was seemingly innocuous. 

My big issue of note was with the character of Willing. Because the information that McCloy provides about Willing is rather spare, I had a very hard time getting any sort of handle on him. All we learn is that he is a tall, elegant man, aged forty to fifty years. He was born in the U.S. of an American father, and Russian mother, and he studied psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, as well as in Paris and Vienna. The character comes across dry and lifeless and I found myself looking forward to scenes when he interacted with others. The times when the very engaging and humorous pairing of Inspector Foyle and Sergeant Duff entered the story were particularly good. So here’s hoping that Willing is more fleshed out as the series evolves.

An entertaining read with an intriguing mystery, but with a protagonist that’s a bit too much of a stick for my taste.

My Judgment – 3.75/5

Prior Rulings – Noah’s Archives, John @ Pretty Sinister Books, Moira @ Clothes in Books, Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one medical mystery (or features Doctor/Nurse)

5 thoughts on “Dance of Death by Helen McCloy (1938)

  1. Pingback: My Book Notes: Dance of Death, 1938 (Dr Basil Willing #1) by Helen McCloy – A Crime is Afoot

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