Sunday, November 20, 2016

Beware the Bushmaster! She Walks Alone (1948), by Helen McCloy

"Tony, did you ever hear of the Emperor Yao?"

"What on earth...?"

"He ruled China in its Golden Age.  There is a saying about the peacefulness of his reign. 'In the days of the Emperor Yao, a virgin with a bag of gold could walk alone from one end of the Empire to the other without fear of being molested.'  Since then, times have changed."

"Understatement," muttered Tony.

                                                                                               --She Walks Alone (1948)

She Walks Alone (1948) was the tenth crime novel American mystery author Helen McCloy (1904-1994) published over a productive first decade of crime writing.  Six detective novels featuring her series sleuth, psychiatrist Dr. Basil Willing, appeared between 1938 and 1943, but Willing's appearances in her novels would diminish relatively in the decades that followed.

Five Basil Willing novels were published between 1945 and 1956, along with five non-series novels. Over the rest of her writing career McCloy produced only two additional Basil Willing adventures in novel form, the beguiling Mr. Splitfoot (1968) and her final crime novel, Burn This (1980). Meanwhile during this comparative Willing drought she published ten non-series novels, beginning with the eerie The Slayer and the Slain (1957) and ending with The Smoking Mirror (1979).

In short, Helen McCloy's career as a crime writer reflects the wider movement within mystery fiction away from the pure, clue-puzzle detective novel toward the realistic and psychological crime novel. Strict detection (though with strong doses of psychological theorizing) predominated in McCloy's output in the late Thirties and early Forties, only to be gradually superseded by psychological suspense (what is often called "domestic suspense" today).

The Basil Willing novels The Goblin Market (1943) and The One That Got Away (1945) incorporate topical espionage elements, while the non-series Do Not Disturb (1943), reviewed by John Norris, is a flight-and-pursuit tale and the non-series Panic is a housebound girl in peril story. (Take a beautiful girl; isolate her in a remote cottage in the wooded Adirondacks; inject an ominous note of peril...and you have--PANIC, runs the jacket blurb). 

At the same time there is a pronounced intellectual aspect to Panic, in that a good deal of the novel is devoted to some quite complex code-breaking.  Anyone who hated that element in Dorothy L. Sayers' Have His Carcase probably will hate it in Panic as well.

the imperiled protagonist expresses
yearning for the days of Emperor Yao
She Walks Alone is something of a similar hybrid. Knowing the outline of the plot beforehand--a woman on a ship traveling the Caribbean finds herself entrusted with a packet of $100,000 that people prove quite willing to kill to obtain--I was expecting pure suspense.

Yet in reality the story is a quite complexly structured and plotted affair that reminded me of a detective novel without a strongly marked detective presence for much of its length. The first part of the novel comes in the form of a first-person narrated manuscript detailing recent events, while the second part switches to present time, as Captain Miguel Urizar, of the police force of the Caribbean island state of Puerto Vieja, appears on the scene. 

At the request of the ship captain, Urizar, whose viewpoint this section adopts, investigates a mysterious death on the ship. This marks a return engagement on his part five years after The Goblin Market, wherein he appeared with Basil Willing.

Then we go back to another manuscript portion (a different one this time), then to a finale in third person.  It may seem odd and overly structured as you are reading, but all is justified by the finale. You may figure out what is going on before the reveal a few pages before the end of the novel, but even so you should still admire the cleverness of it all.

Arguably McCloy over-intellectualizes the novel, going into lecture mode occasionally (McCloy seems quite obviously to have been a New Deal Democrat, progressive on both economic and social issues of her day that now more than ever seem not to have ever actually left us); and the novel is not as gripping as it could be, considering that we are presented with a "girl in peril" and that, as the splendid GP Micklewright jacket of the English edition reveals, one of the human victims on the ship is a beautiful women (not the girl in peril), bitten by a deadly bushmaster snake (just think what John Dickson Carr does with snakes in He Wouldn't Kill Patience). Still, I recommend this cleverly wrought piece of crime fiction.

See also Mike Grost on Helen McCloy's writing.


  1. Great to read about McCloy. I've only read one of her books, Alias Basil Willing, which I loved. Been meaning to read more of her stuff, though it's not always that easy to get a hold of. Which McCloy novels would you recommend to a relatively new McCloy reader, given the way her style changes over time?

  2. You just reminded me that it's time to parse out my McCloy fix again, Curtis! Kate, even when the mystery isn't up to par, McCloy's prose and characterization makes it a worthwhile read, even if I sometimes balk at her "psychology" and the occasional racist reference. I've only read a half a dozen or so. Mr. Splitfoot and The Slayer and the Slain are both highly enjoyable, and you can't miss Through a Glass, Darkly, her acknowledged classic. I wasn't as thrilled by The One That Got Away, although it had a lot of cool stuff about the war and a powerful ending. The Deadly Truth is interesting, if outlandish, in its premise and plays out like a classic detective story.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions Brad - some of the titles ring a bell. Just have to find some copies now. On an unrelated note I've just come across an awful pun based title, which I'm sure you wrote a post on. It's called - Gluten for Punishment - Seriously! Think it is about an amateur sleuth who owns a gluten free bakery rather than some sinister Highsmith type novel whereby a coeliac sufferer is fed gluten based products and slowly dies years later due to some related health issue.

    2. I liked Cue for Murder and The Deadly Truth quite a bit back when I read them in the 1990s. Didn't like Who's Calling? And of course Through a Glass Darkly and Mr. Splitfoot. Panic gets a bit heavy with the code even for me!

    3. To date I've only read 'Through a Glass', 'Dance of Death' and 'Deadly Truth' - though I've quite a few other titles waiting for me on the metaphorical and literal TBR shelf, including JJ's favourite, 'Mr Splitfoot'. Although the premise for 'Deadly Truth' struck me as somewhat fantastical, as a mystery it boasted of the strongest puzzle in the Golden-Age (rather than suspense) vein.

  3. This is by far her most popular work here in France, having had three separate editions (the first one in the prestigious imprint "Série Blême" which specialized in what was not yet known at the time as psychological suspense) This popularity may be due in part to its French title, much better in my opinion than the original: "La Vierge au sac d'or" (The Virgin With the Golden Bag) It was the first book of hers that I really liked, having found the three before disappointing and I certainly didn't see the final twist coming. The French find McCloy at her best when she dispenses with Dr. Willing and on the basis of what I've read I share this opinion.

    1. Well, without Willing she's usually more in the suspense category in my experience, though this one had a lot of plot density that reminded me of the earlier Willings.

    2. The bit about Emperor Yao was quite apt, by the way! McCloy is always clever that way.

  4. I've liked the ones of hers I have read, and will continue to work my way through them. Two Thirds of a Ghost I read years ago, and might pick up again. Thanks for the helpful blogpost.