Dance of Death by Helen McCloy

‘The snow began to fall Tuesday, about cocktail time—huge flakes whirling spirally in a north wind.’

And the following day, there are three cases of death by exposure. One of those bodies belongs to an unidentified girl who apparently died of heat exposure, a detail which has been kept from the papers.  Her body was discovered by men shovelling snow.  Who is she, and how did she die?

So begins the mystery the local police dub ‘The Red Hot Momma Case’.

Dr Basil Willing is a psychiatrist attached to the district attorney’s office in New York.   He and Inspector Foyle investigate what becomes an intricate and involved case, full of mysteries, secrets, and red herrings.  The identity of the girl is quickly discovered, but not before some misleading details are introduced.

“Mrs Jocelyn,” said Basil, evenly, “the most disillusioning thing about being a psychiatrist is discovering how many kind relatives wish that other members of their family could be declared insane.”

The main puzzle is who wanted Kitty Jocelyn dead?  Most of the people involved had good reason for wanting her alive.  But the autopsy reveals that her death was a consequence of poisoning, by a diet drug she endorsed but did not take.  Dr Willing uses his knowledge of psychology to try to get into the murderer’s mind.  Intriguing, because there were several people with opportunity, several secrets which could explain motivation.

The story moves at a rapid pace, and while I worked out who I thought was responsible just before the end, I needed confirmation. 

‘The answer came in a flash of illumination as sudden as lightening.’

This novel was first published in 1938 and is being republished in 2020.  It is the first of a series of fourteen novels by Helen McCloy (1904-1994) to feature Dr Basil Willing, and I have added the others to my reading list. A great ‘Golden Era’ mystery.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Agora Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith