Cue For Murder by Helen McCloy

The Royalty Theatre is staging a revival of Fédora, a play by Victorien Sardou, a play which, trivia fans, inspired the creation of the Fedora hat, due to Sarah Bernhardt wearing such an item on stage and it catching on. See, you do learn things on this blog! Anyway, the first act consists of three characters on stage, one woman, two men, and a fourth man lying at the back of the stage. The man is clearly alive at the start of the play…

All three of the actors – Wanda Morley, the leading lady, Rodney Tait, the ingénue, Leonard Martin, the experienced actor, the most talented of the cast – were standing near the fourth during the play, all of the convinced of the actor’s ability to play dead. By the end of the act, of course, he’s not just playing, having been stabbed, presumably by one of the actors on stage. But with no tangible clues, it falls to Dr Basil Willing, “psychiatrist attached to the DA’s office”, to work out exactly how the odd behaviour of a canary and a fly are going to unmask a murderer…

This has a whiff of familiarity about the set-up of this one. This is McCloy’s fifth novel, from 1942, and it’s a very traditional whodunit, in structure at least, but the idea of “no clues, anyone could have done it” brings Cards On The Table to mind. At the end of the day, though, this is a much different book.

I’m a little torn with this one. I picked it up as I strolled through eBay and a cheap first edition with dustjacket caught my eye. I’ve got a bit of a thing, given that Flynn and Rhode’s are getting rarer, of getting one original book from each author that I enjoy. And I couldn’t resist this one, just too tempting. And it was worth it for the back cover alone.

It’s a very atmospheric, well-written tale, with a clear problem – small, clearly defined number of suspects, simple set-up – and the plot develops nicely as the story progresses, building to the conclusion. Admittedly, you have to take with a pinch of salt some of the characters’ behaviour, basically being justified by them being theatrical types, and about two thirds of the way through, I was tiring a bit of the detail of the play.

Moreover, those of us experienced at the tropes of the detective story will probably guess, if not figure out, the murderer. McCloy does play fair with the reader, but it is hard to do the small circle of suspects effectively, and I think there is one particular thing that she could have done to make the killer harder to spot.

Still, it’s an enjoyable theatrical tale, with some of the clueing particularly well done. Definitely Well Worth A Look.

It’s always interesting to see what other people think of an author – looking on gadetection, both Mike Grost and Nick Fuller rate The Goblin Market, a book that I really didn’t enjoy at all. So what do you think of McCloy and this one? One of her best? One of her worst? Do let me know.

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for the review. 🙂 You seem to be getting a mediocre run with McCloy’s novels – despite picking some of her strongest efforts. I usually want to save the best for the last, and it would have been either ‘Mr Splitfoot’ or ‘Cue for Murder’ – neither of which managed to garner a ‘Recommended’ from you. I’ve not read either, but I enjoyed ‘Deadly Truth’ the best, out of the McCloy novels I’ve read (the other two being ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’ and ‘Dance of Death’).

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      • Regarding a change of heart concerning ‘Mr Splitfoot’, I think you mentioned it in another post – I was surprised that it made it in into your summary of top reads for the year. What precipitated the change of heart?

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    • Fair enough. As much as I enjoyed it, it falls short of the “classic” title simply because I thought the murderer stood out due to… something that McCloy did that I can’t mention for fear of spoilers. Still, I’ll be back to her at some point.

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