Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Through a Glass Darkly: Helen McCloy

Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen Mccloy opens with Faustina Crayle being dismissed from her post as an art instructor at an elite girls' school. The headmistress, Mrs. Lightfoot refuses to give a reason beyond the fact that Miss Crayle "does not quite blend with the essential spirit of Brereton." She does, however, give the art instructor six months' pay after only five weeks of work. Evidence indeed that she wishes her gone and spare no expense. 

Faustina confides in her only friend at the school, Gisela von Hohenems, who suggests she consult a lawyer.  When Faustina demurs, Gisela tells her boyfriend, Dr. Basil Willing--famous psychologist and medical assistant to the district attorney, about it.  He insists on meeting Faustina and convinces her to allow him to represent her with Mrs. Lightfoot.  His interview with the headmistress is very surprising.  It seems that Faustina has become the center of rumors about a doppelganger. Several maids and a few of the girls have claimed to see Miss Crayle in two places at once.  A few parents have pulled their girls out of the school because of the unhealthy atmosphere. The practical Mrs. Lightfoot could find no plausible explanation for the incidents and rather than investigate or allow the rumors to create even more havoc with her school's reputation she decided to ask Miss Crayle to leave.
 
As Willing investigates, he discovers that this isn't the first time Faustina has been dismissed from a school because of doppelganger rumors.  He will have to sift the supernatural from everyday villainy as he follows a trail littered with superstition and jewels; doubles and demimondaines.  There is a tale that says She who sees her own double is about to die...and despite Willing's efforts and his instructions to stay put in a hotel while he investigates, Faustina insists on making a trip to her beach cottage.  A trip from which she never returns.  Did she truly see her double? Or is there a more solid human agent behind her death?   Willing brings us the answer...but the ending is a bit unsettling nonetheless.

McCloy's powers to create atmosphere are at their strongest in this book.  Even though we're quite sure that there's some human deviltry behind Faustina Crayle's plight, Mccloy still manages to make the idea of a doppelganger seem almost possible.  And the ending leaves us just a little unsure that Dr. Willing has completely explained everything.  Yes, it all hangs together.  And, yes, I do believe that X really did orchestrate the whole thing and for the reasons given...but what if Dr. Willing is wrong?  There's a nice shivery feeling to that thought.  

A nicely done, atmospheric piece that also happens to be an excellent detective novel.  Often thought to be McCloy's masterpiece, Through a Glass, Darkly is certainly the best I've read by McCloy so far.  Four stars.

Quote:

"I knew people were talking about her, but I didn't know what they were saying. And even if I had--one doesn't repeat gossip to the victim, if the victim is a friend. It's one of the things you can't do. Unwritten law. Like telling a husband his wife is unfaithful."

"Even when the victim asks for it?"

"Especially when the victim asks for it! No one really wants to see himself as others see him. If people ask, they're really asking to be reassured. Just as no artist or writer ever wants real criticism for the work he shows you. Just praise."
~Gisela von Hohenems; Dr. Basil Willing (p. 33)


1 comment:

Steve Barge said...

Not an author that I have any experience with but this review intrigues me. Thanks, Bev.