Anyone Can Write a Mystery

“Anyone can write a mystery,” says a book editor in Helen McCloy’s Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956), and later a literary agent asserts, “there is no market anywhere now for a story with a plot.” As an author and publisher of mysteries, those most highly plotted of fictions, McCloy is clearly having a little fun.

The opportunity to rediscover McCloy’s work was one of the benefits of a class I taught recently on some women mystery writers of the 1950s. I titled the course “Forgotten Masters” because my four authors—Helen McCloy, Charlotte Armstrong, Margaret Millar, and Dorothy B. Hughes—are largely forgotten and out of print today, while many of their male contemporaries are not (including Ross Macdonald, who was Millar’s husband).

Helen McCloy was born in 1904 to a New York City publishing family. She married Davis Dresser (aka Brett Halliday), and at one time they owned and operated a literary agency and a small publishing house. Her own writing career spanned over 40 years. She published her first novel in 1938 and her 30th in 1980. A little under half of her output was devoted to her series featuring the psychologist/sleuth Dr. Basil Willing. In 1990 the Mystery Writers of America named her a Grand Master Award, and today the organization administers a scholarship for aspiring writers named in her honor.

I particularly like Two-Thirds of a Ghost, one of the Basil Willing books, because in addition to being a well-wrought mystery, it casts a satiric eye on the publishing industry. Satire is hard to pull off, I believe: It has to be both funny and painful at the same time. McCloy manages that balance in this novel. As someone who works in the industry, I was grinning and nodding my head even while saying, “ouch.” It seems to me that McCloy’s satire in this novel is successful because she gets her details right.

In fact, I find this attention to detail to be characteristic of her novels, at least those that I have read. It’s her eye for the telling detail that brings the world in which she sets her mystery to vivid life. In Cue for Murder, for example, she pulls the reader into the gritty/glamorous milieu of Broadway.

Though the paper editions of McCloy’s books are mostly out of print, they can be readily obtained from online second-hand book dealers. In addition, many of the wonderful out-of-print novels of McCloy, Armstrong, and Hughes are now being reissued as e-books. (I hope the works of Margaret Millar become as available this way shortly.) If you haven’t discovered these authors yet, I encourage you to do so.

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