Through a Glass Darkly by Helen McCloy (1950)

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Glass DarklyThrough a Glass Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy
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classic coverFaustina Crayle is a young, meek, fairly attractive, new art instructor at Brereton Girls’ School just outside of New York. She does her job well enough, but has a bad habit of showing up in two places at the same time, and this unconscious phenomenon is making her life a misery, and scaring the hell out of everyone she encounters. Does she really have a doppelgänger, a fetch, or what ever name it goes by in your culture? Or is there some more human power working to bring poor Faustina down? That is the primary question of this superb novel, and, best of all, this question is never entirely answered! Sure, the rational explanation is eventually provided by Dr. Basil Willings, psychiatrist extraordinaire and assistant to the New York District Attorney – but is it a truly conclusive solution? In the end, the reader must make their own decision!

As the novel opens, the principal of Brerton, Mrs. Lightfoot, calls Faustina into her office and dismisses her without any explanation, claiming only that she is a bad influence on the students and the school, but it soon emerges that Faustina is said to have a doppelgänger; an identical ‘second self’ whose appearance, some believe, signals death and disaster. She has been seen one moment upstairs and the next moment downstairs, with no time to have slipped back into the picture, and can only claim that the witness must be mistaken about the first silent encounter. Finally, she is seen painting outside, through a window, while two girls can still clearly see her sitting inside in a favourite chair, at the very same moment – and on each occasion, the real Faustina’s movements seem to fall into a lazy slow-motion, as her energy is apparently drawn off by the doppelgänger, who appears to be acting out her subconscious impulses.

Also teaching at Brereton, is Gisela von Hohenems, the long time girlfriend (introduced in The Man in The Moonlight – 1940) and now soon to be fiancé of Basil Willing. She is the one who brings the psychiatrist / detective, just returned from wartime duties in Japan, into this odd investigation inside an exclusive girl’s school in Connecticut. Willings immediately drops all his plans and the day following their reunion, he goes to the school and finally persuades Mrs Lightfoot to tell her story. Afraid she won’t be believed, Lightfoot first conducts interviews with a frightened maid, and the two students who witnessed the simultaneous double, Meg Vining and Beth Chase, before relaying a personal experience that has finally convinced her that there must be some validity in the claim that Faustina has doppelgänger, a belief which is reinforced when it is revealed that the occurrences at this school were not an isolated phenomenon.

Basil Willing, as a modern man of science, is willing to accept that some form of mass hysteria may have exaggerated these events, but, despite the historical account of a very similar case involving ‘Emilie Sagee’ in 1845 (a true case!), Willing remains convinced that a human agent is persecuting Faustina. However, by the time he finally proves his case, at least to his own satisfaction, the situation has developed from a mild haunting to real murder, where the only witness sees Faustina apparently kill another teacher, even though she was clearly talking to Gisela at the school, by telephone from New York, at the time of the murder. McCloy does a masterful job of gradually building the suspense, finally leading the reader to a very compelling scene where Willing actually meets the double in a mirror.

Pietro De Palma, the well known Italian mystery critic, would have us believe that this novel is neither a locked room mystery, nor an impossible crime, but this is utter nonsense. (See Death Can Read) True, it is not a classic locked door plot, as he argues in his review, but there can be no doubt that this is one of the great impossible crime mysteries of the genre, and is a must read for every fan. De Palma’s reasons for claiming that this is not an impossible crime are quite simply irrelevant. The fact that it appears to be a supernatural ghost story, at first glance, rather than some odd impossible crime scene, should not in any way disqualify it, provided the solution does a reasonable job of providing a logical explanation for these occurrences. ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ is the eighth novel in the Basil Willings series, and number twelve on Edward Hoch’s famous list of the all time best locked room novels. (See Locked Room Library) Together with ‘Mr Splitfoot’ (1968), this is generally considered to be one of McCloy’s two locked room masterpieces. This work first appeared as a short story in the September 1948 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, with virtually the same plot, and was only later expanded into this novel length version published in 1950. 

Three things save this novel from being another mundane forties mystery. First, part of the charm of this novel is the setting in late 40’s New York, and Helen McCloy, a native New Yorker and journalist, clearly had a feel for the city of her day. This is hardly surprising, as she was the daughter of writer Helen Worrell McCloy and William McCloy, a longtime managing editor of the New York Evening Sun. Another redeeming quality lies in the highly charged atmosphere of suspense, almost verging on panic, that McCloy so expertly develops during this novel. It is one of the best psychological thrillers of any period, and it will keep you turning pages at a furious rate. Her works are also extremely well written, with detailed descriptive prose, which are nothing short of dazzling. The fact that the following passage, found in the first few pages, is not even particularly remarkable, says it all. McCloy’s descriptions are always amazing, but perhaps never better than when she is painting a picture of the dress of her female characters, in this instance, Mrs. Lightfoot:

“In dress she affected the Quaker color — the traditional ‘drab’ that dressmakers called ‘taupe’ in the thirties and ‘eel-gray’ in the forties. She wore it in tough tweed or rich velvet, heavy silk or filmy voile, according to season and occasion, combining it every evening with her mother’s good pearls and old lace. Even her winter coat was moleskin — the one fur that same blend of dove-gray and plum-brown. This consistent preference for such a demure color gave her an air of restraint that never failed to impress the parents of her pupils.” (Page 7)

If McCloy has any serious flaw, it lies in her rather shallow character development, which leaves a bit to be desired. The female roles are barely acceptable, though so short in back history and detail, that you can never really get a handle on who they are or how they work. In the case of her male characters, this is far more evident, with Basil Willings remaining a riddle within an enigma, and far too perfect to actually be real. Another influence that seems to have slightly affected her mature style, may have arisen from her marriage to Davis Dresser, who wrote the Mike Shayne novels, under the pseudonym Brett Halliday. It may only be the era, but the cops in her stories are more than a bit gritty, especially the crass New Jersey state police in the final chapters of this novel. Still, McCloy was clearly one of the better writers of her day, and one of the first to make psychological suspense an important element of the classic mystery. Her talent was well recognized by her fellow writers when they elected her the first woman to serve as president of Mystery Writers of America in 1950, and in 1954 gave her an Edgar award for her incisive literary criticism of the mystery genre.

The title of this novel is taken from 1 Corinthians, 13:11-12, in the KJV translation:

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

The biblical reference is quite clear. St Paul is claiming that in this life we cannot see all that God has created or planned for us – we see only a dark reflection in a mirror (which was only a highly polished piece of bronze in that period) – not the actual reality of things. It is only after this life is over, when we finally stand in God’s presence, that all will at last be made clear. McCloy takes this as her primary theme, and begins to unrelentingly question the basic knowability of our perceptual reality, as well as our personal identity, which is equally tied to our fleeting sensory experiences of a transient world. Is what we perceive the sum total of reality, or is this but a passing stage in our journey? Are we no more than physical bodies and biological responses, or is our true identity founded in some more substantive realm? Does science tell the whole story, or is it simply the analysis of repetitive patterns in our transient perceptions? Faustina’s doppelgänger forces us to re-assess these fundamental metaphysical assumptions. Only if our true identity is anchored in something more endurable than a human body, would the spirit of Faustina be free to fly beyond the constraints of space/time. Only if there is something more than the simple mechanistic ‘physical’ of everyday science, could there be the potential for doppelgängers. What should we assume? Do the exciting possibilities of ‘the atomic dance’ of particles in modern physics (still quite a fresh idea in that era) give us reason to posit a more complex reality? Can all the old myths and legends, to say nothing of the world’s religions, be entirely wrong? Then there is that most central of human questions: Who am I – the image in the mirror – the perceptions of those surround me – a biological phenomena – or a soul rooted in some more durable reality? All these questions are twisted and turned and dissected as each character attempts to answer Faustina’s challenge to our existential situation. All of which leads us to a final dark question: What might occur if we ever came face to face with ourselves? Gisela clearly echoes all our fears, when she notes: “No one really wants to see himself as others see him.” (Page: 60), and McCloy drives this home in the following passage:

“You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly coloured. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and – you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only – there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die . . .” (Page 87)

Gisela, Mrs Lightfoot, and most of the other characters, all answer Faustina’s challenge with a hopeful acceptance of some real link between myth and reality, by arguing that science is simply not yet equipped to provide reliable answers to such fundamental questions; while Willings, a more conventional ‘hard boiled’ scientist, who seems to have skipped his lectures on Jung and under appreciated William James, is completely unable to accept that the sum total of an individual is more than the continuity of the thought process, or that any deeper reality lies beyond empirically measurable appearances. It is interesting to note that neither side actually accepts a ‘supernatural’ solution, though nearly all reviewers refer to this as a ‘supernatural’ plot! Instead, the discussion revolves around accepting, or not accepting, a broader definition of nature. Willings must believe in a clockwork universe where a double is absurd, while most of the other characters are willing to bend towards a somewhat broader vision which assumes that science is still not able to scour all the darkness from the mirror.

However, it is also quite clear that McCloy meant this title to be a tribute to Sheridan Le Fanu, who also published ‘In a Glass Darkly’, a collection of five stories, in 1872, featuring the posthumous papers of the occult detective Dr. Martin Hesselius. These stories, which properly belong to the gothic horror and mystery genres, include ‘The Familiar’, where a sea captain is stalked by a strange dwarf who resembles a person from his past, and, far more to the point, there is the story of Mr. Justice Harbottle, a cruel judge in the Court of Common Pleas, who finds himself under attack by vengeful spirits, and in a disturbing dream is condemned to death by a monstrous doppelgänger!

McCloy’s choice of the name Faustina is also no accident. Faust, of course, is the protagonist of the classic German tale of a successful scholar who makes a pact with the Devil, to exchange his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. The adjective ‘Faustian’ actually implies a situation where an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success – but who is actually being Faustian in this novel? Not poor, meek, little Faustina, with her one coat and hat, and two battered suitcases! Instead, is it not all the other characters who are willing to surrender a degree of integrity to further the belief that Faustina is living proof of a universe which has not entirely lost its mystery? They trade their souls, not for knowledge, but for the intoxicating comfort of an unknowable world! Only Willings rejects the devil’s offer, and the devil himself, upon the high alter of scientific integrity – as he challenges the reader to deny his logical hypothesis at their own peril. McCloy, in this manner, tests each reader’s integrity, asking us to decide which version of reality we will accept. Will we accept the temptation of a mysterious universe, complete with a double Faustina and a devilish Splitfoot (or the the minor ogre Lightfoot) – or will we reject this romantic world view, in favour of a much more plebeian ‘scientific’ solution. One of the better passages uses the Salem (and other) witch trials, as a case in point – arguing that it was our belief in such stories, empowered by mass hysteria, which led to so many of the cruelties of past centuries, and that such beliefs will continue to threaten the poor Faustinas of our day, if we allow mystery to trump logic. In the case of Mrs Lightfoot, this question of integrity is a far greater dilemma. With the delicate reputation of a girl’s school at stake, there is little she won’t sacrifice to the devil, including Faustina, in order to protect the school’s name – and eventually, not only science, fairness, and academic integrity are lost, but her basic ability to tell the truth is compromised, as she blatantly covers up the facts, in a frantic attempt to stem the flow of parents removing their daughters from the school.

Mike Grost adds another angle to this picture, when he notes: “Impersonation is a major plot gambit in McCloy’s first novel Dance of Death. One very young woman impersonates another. Later McCloy mystery-thrillers like The Long Body and The Changeling Conspiracy raise the possibility of impersonation as a plot twist. In all of these works, impersonation is a clever plot twist, but not actually part of a mystery puzzle, strictly speaking.” Here this line is quite clearly crossed, as impersonation becomes a part of the basic mystery plot. The only question that remains is: Who is doing the impersonation? Is this a case of one disassociated side of her personality impersonating her normal stream of consciousness, or is this a true impersonation by another person who has finally highjacked the mystery plot?

Many reviewers see McCloy as being strongly in the tradition of John Dickson Carr, and there are some common elements, but I would argue that there are far more differences, though novels like the ‘The Burning Court’ are not too far off the mark. As for Noah Stewart’s argument for an association of McCloy’s techniques with Erle Stanley Gardner, this leaves me even less impressed. True, Gardner was a master of the ‘hook’, but every good mystery author either does this or dies a slow and painful death. McCloy’s style is actually far more closely linked to the traditions of the psychological suspense novel, and has more in common with Henry James, ‘Turn of the Screw’ (1898), Robert Block’s later novel, ‘Psycho’ (1959), or some works of Steven King, than it has to do with Gardener’s hopelessly formulaic Perry Mason novels. For McCloy, it is the literature of psychology which serves as the primary tool for framing her characters, an approach which allows her to exorcise large parts of  the atmosphere in terms of abnormal responses. However, some reviewers, who have noted this point, seem to feel that her psychological references are out of date, though I have no quarrel with her sources. I have spent enough time studying psychology to know that there are few real changes, and that opinions pass in and out of style, on a quite regular basis, which has more in common with the fashion trends of width of tie or length of skirt, than it does with scientific advancement. The musings of her characters on the nature of consciousness and mind, are also just as relevant today in the philosophy of mind, with a few changes in terminology, as they were 65 years ago, and her argument is expectionally well balanced, designed to show both sides of the long contested mind-matter debate that began in ancient Greece. It is also interesting to note how McCloy gradually shifts from this central debate, to the more specific moral implications of these positions within the criminal justice system. This is made quite clear when Gisela asks Willings, “Suppose the person’s subconscious mind has access to another person’s subconscious and planted the suicidal impulse without either being aware of the process – that would be murder, wouldn’t it?” (Page 149)

One other point must be noted, before ending this too lengthy review. While I agree with other reviewers that McCloy is a master story teller, and a true pioneer of the psychological suspense novel, who tells a damn good creepy ghost yarn, with a spooky atmosphere that gets more eerie with every step towards that final mirror image in an isolated seaside cabin, I have more than a little trouble with the idea that this is frightening story not to be read at bedtime. Perhaps I have just watched far too many really gruesome horror movies, and am now immune to the heebie jeebies of this mild spooker, but surely this is pretty tame stuff! The suspense is well developed, but frightening – give me a break!

In general, the critical opinion of this book, and McCloy in general, is as split as poor Faustina. Nick Fuller at Gadetection calls McCloy “the best American detective writer” (after excluding Carr as American) then goes on to note that “Through a Glass Darkly, for instance, is among the top twenty best detective stories ever written, both for the way in which its horror arises almost entirely from Jamesian understatement (suggestion and the incongruous presence of the normal create the feeling of something terribly wrong) and for the ambiguous solution.” All this praise seems heady, until you read most other reviewers, who generally find the book too slow and padded with two much philosophical speculation. Many of these fans prefer the tighter plot of the original short story, though I find the novel much more compelling – and the only problem with the  pace is that the level of suspense makes you seek a quick solution, leaving you furiously turning pages, not out of boredom – just in a mad rush to discover a logical path out of what appears to be an entirely impossible quagmire. In fact, this is clearly McCloy’s single greatest achievement in this novel. How does she manage to so successfully convince the reader that Faustina is actually breaking the known laws of time and space? She maintains an incredibly high level of willing suspension of disbelief, even though the reader knows a logical solution is coming, simply because it seems so improbable!  Most reviewers have used and abused the phrase ‘a real page turner’, but this is actually one of the best examples!

By this point in her career, McCloy had become a very accomplished mystery author, and there is certainly no shortage of clues. I would think that most readers will have guessed the villain by the end, if they have not completely fallen for McCloy’s very convincing ghostly alternative. Yet, what really makes this novel so memorable, is the ambiguity of the final solution. It left me far from convinced that Basil Willings had got it all right. Certainly he explains away large portions of the impossibility, but some minor points, like why Faustina fell into slow motion at the proper moment, or why the double appears to perform her every desire, just don’t ring true! There is also a slight problem with the logic of the motive, which is rather thin, and as for the method of the final crime, since I can say little without a spoiler alert, let’s just admit that it was an incredibly dangerous and stupid gamble! In the end, McCloy does her job and gives the reader a fairly consistent logical answer, but she stops just short of proving that ‘this is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’ – and that is truly a little creepy!

A good solid four star plus locked room mystery! Not quite a five, largely due to the weak characters. Basil Willings would needs a personality transfusion to get that last star!


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