When I spoke about Elizabeth Daly at Bodies from the Library in June, a fellow speaker, Christine Poulson, suggested I try Helen McCloy who writes in a similar vein to Daly. I already had Alias Basil Willing on my shelf, number 1251 in my vintage Penguin collection and I’ve been reading it over the last couple of days. The book has an intriguing if unlikely premise. Psychiatrist Dr Basil Willing leaves a New York tobacconist at the same time as a man who has rushed in to buy his favourite brand of cigarettes. The man hails a taxi and while giving instructions to the driver proclaims ‘I am Basil Willing.’ The real Willing, of course, follows the taxi which leads him to a three-story house in a shabby street furnished with unexpected luxury by its owner Doctor Zimmer, a fellow psychiatrist. The cast of characters (and suspects) are introduced as Willing mingles amongst them during which the fake Willing’s deception is exposed. Before he can explain the circumstances of the alias, however, he dies from an overdose of codeine.
Basil Willing is clearly a series detective but it’s a mark of McCloy’s skill that I was able to pick up his back story fairly quickly although as a protagonist I’m not sure I completely warmed to him. There’s a devilish heart to the plot though which reflects its post war setting which considers the treatment of those a burden to their husbands, children and other family members. The final part of the book left me chilled which rarely happens with modern psychological thrillers.
Like Daly, McCloy is excellent at depicting New York polite society and the endemic boredom which encourages drug taking and excessive alcohol. I was impressed by the fact the police didn’t appear too stupid here and the psychiatry explanations were done with a light touch which means they’re not too old-fashioned for the modern reader. I think this is the only Penguin edition of McCloy’s books but they’re available on kindle and well worth a read for the intelligent writing and strong plot.