A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Robert E. Briney


HELEN McCLOY – Cue for Murder. William Morrow, hardcover, 1942. Reprint editions include: Dell #212 , paperback, [1948], mapback edition; Bantam, paperback, 1965.

   In his introduction to a reprint edition of Cue for Murder, Anthony Boucher recalled the reception of Helen McCloy’s first novel, Dance of Death (1938): “Few first mysteries have received such generous critical praise, as the reviewers stumbled over each other to proclaim [the author] a genuine find … combining a civilized comedy of manners with the strictest of logical deduction.”

   In addition to an urbane and literate style, McCloy’s work is characterized by psychological insight, meticulous plotting, and the sheer ingenuity with which she handles seemingly impossible situations.

   McCloy was one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, and was that organization’s first woman president in 1950. She was married for fifteen years to mystery writer Davis Dresser, who, as Brett Halliday, created the popular private detective Michael Shayne. In addition to writing fiction, McCloy has been a publisher, editor, and literary agent. In 1953 she received an MWA Edgar for Mystery Criticism.

   McCloy’s series detective, Dr. Basil Willing, was introduced in her first book; Cue for Murder is his fifth appearance. Willing is a psychiatrist, once a consultant to the Manhattan district attorney’s office and now, in the early months of World War II, working with the New York office of the FBI.

   He is in the audience at the Royalty Theater on opening night of a modern-dress revival of Sardou`s Victorian melodrama Fedora. At the end of the first act, it is discovered that a murder has been committed on stage during the performance, but no one can identify the victim.

   Willing is drawn into the investigation both throughm his police connections and through a family friendship with the production’s costume designer. The clues include a knife sharpener’s canary released from its cage, the odd behavior of a housefly, a mysterious figure on a fire escape, and a script containing an underlined cue for murder.

   Cue for Murder is almost a textbook example of the classic fair-play detective novel, an intricate framework in which the clues fit together like the interlocking pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. The framework is fleshed out with diverting characters, acute psychological observation, a satiric and knowledgeable rendering of the theatrical background, and a vivid portrait of wartime Manhattan, complete with blackouts and air-raid wardens.

   The book’s strength as a novel is measured by the fact that it can be read with pleasure even after its secrets are known.

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   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.