Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy

Book cover of Through a Glass Darkly by Helen McCloy (1950)

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly colored. 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…”

Atmosphere is so important in cultivating the very best kind of school, and Brereton is certainly that. If a teacher creates a disturbing environment at the school, then that teacher has to go, even in the middle of the term. So the headmistress is sure Faustina Crayle understands why she is being dismissed.

But Faustina doesn’t understand. All she knows is that she’s been an outcast ever since she arrived at the school and no one will tell her why. Her only friend, Austrian refugee Gisela von Hohenems, asks Basil Willing to investigate.

What he discovers is impossible: Faustina has a doppelgänger. Can the same woman really be in two places at once? And what if one of them commits murder?

 It’s difficult to write a detective story with supernatural elements which nonetheless feels plausible and grounded in the real world, yet that is exactly what Helen McCloy has done in Through a Glass, Darkly. McCloy is a precise plotter who can build intricate mysteries around high-concept situations. However, what really sets her apart as a writer is a gift for character and atmosphere, which lends itself well to a plot of this nature. The horror of Faustina’s situation becomes even more terrifying amid the juke joints and oh-so-respectable women’s hotels of postwar New York. For the last section of the novel, which takes place in Faustina’s isolated beach cottage, McCloy ladles on all the Gothic scares one could desire, culminating in a genuinely frightening, and highly unusual, climax.

The impossible crime angle with Faustina’s double is less impressive, simply because very few rational explanations are possible. This means many readers will have already guessed the how long before the end of the book. As a psychiatrist, however, Willing is even more interested in the why, which allows another layer of mystery to pervade the story. It’s hard to imagine who would want to persecute Faustina, a shy, insignificant creature. Even her double is a wan little shadow that doesn’t do much of anything—at first.

It’s equally difficult to imagine the timid Faustina engineering a hoax that would ruin her own reputation. Nonetheless, the idea cannot be dismissed. Willing considers Faustina to match the psychological profile of a certain type of troublemaker, “forlorn young girls without looks or property or position in life. Psychologically, witches came from the same stratum as poisoners and hysterics—frustrated outcasts, taking a sly, perverse revenge on a society that gave them little opportunity for pleasure or pride.”

The claustrophobic circle of suspects allows Willing ample opportunity to probe several other disturbed psyches. The headmistress, Mrs. Lightfoot, values Book cover of Through a Glass Darkly by Helen McCloy (1950)correctness above all else. The ultimate disturbing element is provocative young teacher Alice Aitchison, who delights in pressing Faustina’s buttons. Meg Vining and Beth Chase, the two students who began the rumors about Faustina, may be caught in an unhealthy dynamic of their own. Finally, their relatives, Meg’s playboy brother Raymond and Beth’s quarrelsome divorced parents, have unexpected connections to the case.

The story unfolds at a leisurely pace. Basil and Gisela spend a long time trying to unravel the mystery of Faustina and her murky origins. A death finally occurs, then another, and nobody’s in much of a hurry for any of it. There is plenty of time for metaphysical discussions about the mythology of doubles, the nature of death, and so forth. A romance develops, not too obtrusively, though it’s not exactly fascinating, either.

Some of the other digressions are more interesting. Two long scenes in particular involving the school initially seem to be purely social in nature. There are major clues buried among the chatter, however, along with some red herrings. McCloy is adept at dropping clues where the reader least wants to find them; the more boring or confusing a conversation is, the more likely it’s something you actually need to pay attention to, as little as you may want to.

The author also includes many detailed descriptions of the clothing and appearance of her characters, especially the women. Some are devastatingly succinct. (“The hands were ten years older than the face and the voice was ten years older than the hands.”) Others are more expansive, but equally sharp. For instance, Alice’s choice to attend a formal school tea party in revealing loungewear does not exactly meet the required dress code.

She wore a long-skirted housecoat of corded silk the same vivid burnt orange as her scarf. There were outrageously high-heeled black-suede pumps on her feet with huge rhinestone buckles. The sleeves were elbow length, but the neckline dropped dangerously over her thrusting bosom.

Descriptions like these could be written off as pandering to female readers, but they serve a larger function as well. Most people use clothing to project a certain image of themselves. Alice’s outfit is sexy and rebellious, while also being highly performative. It is calculated to provoke a reaction in other women and to flaunt her disdain for Mrs. Lightfoot’s authority. Though several of Alice’s male love interests are present, we only learn the reactions of the women, and specifically how Alice’s choice of clothing makes them feel about themselves:

Old Miss Chellis, in dingy blue taffeta, nearly dropped a teacup halfway to her lips. Mademoiselle de Vitre, in voluminous raisin velvet, looked envious and spiteful. Miss Dodd, the new art teacher from the Middle West, carefully smart in well-cut beige crepe, looked as if she felt considerably less smart than she had intended to feel this afternoon. Silver-haired Mrs. Greer, in pale blue with Parma violets, continued to look serene as always. But all the girls in white voile looked as if they were thinking: That’s it! That’s the way I’m going to dress the very first chance I get!

[…]

Mrs. Lightfoot was superb. Not by the quiver of an eyelash did she appear to notice the gaudy figure on the threshold. She went on talking to the elderly man at her elbow in a low, conversational tone, lips smiling, eyes indifferent.

This episode helps demonstrate Mrs. Lightfoot’s iron self-control, which makes it all the more powerful later on when that composure is destroyed. As a final mordant punchline, by the time reports of Alice’s housecoat hit the local paper, it is described as “pale blue,” the same “dingy” color worn by the two older ladies at the party. Mrs. Lightfoot’s revenge, perhaps? In Helen McCloy’s world, eyes are not the windows to the soul—clothes are, and they have a lot to reveal,

Despite the book’s many pseudo-intellectual monologues, Through a Glass, Darkly is at its most profound when it addresses our most simple and human fears: How we perceive ourselves, our inability to control how others see us, and what might be waiting for us in the dark.

Second Opinions

My Reader’s Block

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.  

Tipping My Fedora

…while the central plot conceit was very clever, the book felt padded and a bit thin – the first death occurs only half-way in, amid several long and repetitive conversations about the nature of the doppelgänger in art, literature and psychology. Also, the second death is oddly glossed over in terms of the impact it has on the characters. This lack of feeling, we both thought, really weakened the story.

Ah Sweet Mystery

McCloy isn’t a plotter in the Christie vein, but boy, she beats the hell out of Dame Agatha in terms of atmosphere, characterization, and place […] In Darkly, the sense of horror permeates the writing right up to the last page of the penultimate chapter. I didn’t guess the ending, but then there wasn’t much chance of that given the slightness of the clues. But the solution was a good one, if based too much on luck and coincidence, and the final banter between Willing and the killer brings back some of that earlier psychic chill right at the end.

The Green Capsule

I can’t say that I really think Through a Glass, Darkly quite belongs on a list of top impossible crimes.  It was certainly intriguing, but I’d say most Carr books that I’ve read are more worthy of a spot.  Perhaps the main weakness for me was that, as stated above, a doppelgänger doesn’t really capture my imagination in the same way as other impossibilities.

Noah Stewart (please note, review contains spoilers)

The author has done a wonderful job of building suspense from unease to downright panic, and by the time you get to the book’s climax in the bijou little cottage crammed with Victorian antiques, your nerves will be keyed up exquisitely […] She surrounds the theme of the doppelganger with just plain old creepiness. It’s like a well-written ghost story that builds and builds, and then [redacted] dies, and then it builds and builds some more as the investigation progresses and things get spookier and more eerie.

Clothes in Books

 It is a small classic: short, spooky and sticking in the mind afterwards. And it has a certain lack of resolution which is, in this rare case, a good thing.

Availability

Through a Glass, Darkly is available in paperback in the US from Arcturus Crime Classics and in ebook format in the US and UK from the Murder Room.

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13 thoughts on “Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy

  1. It’s a pretty good read overall. The psychological elements dragged a bit for me, but I enjoyed the characters and McCloy’s overall style of writing. There really is a tragic element to Faustina Crayle and that’s the part that sticks with me more than anything else.

    I finally managed to track down a nice affordable copy of Cue for Murder and I suspect that will be the next McCloy for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Faustina has really stuck in my mind as well. Without going into any spoilers, her entire situation is deeply sad. While reading, I was often frustrated by those dull psychological bits, but what I remember now are how true the characters are and how fine the writing is, without being too show-offy.

      Interested to know what you think of Cue for Murder.

      Like

  2. This one is…fine in my estimation — difficulties arise in how guessable it is (as you say, there are only, like, two explanations and one of them makes no sense), but the psychology aspect of it is very well put across.

    I thought the trick in Mr Splitfoot was better, and the larger cast more interesting and well-drawn. But many people disagree.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree! 🙂 Through a Glass, Darkly is McCloy’s most well-known impossible crime story, but Mr. Splitfoot has the better plot and cast of characters. Such a shame its not better known. You should consider adding it to your pile, Yesterday.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Yes, there’s really only one reasonable explanation for the doubling. And the idea of scaring people to death is quite chilling to imagine but rather iffy to pull off (yet it happens all the time in GAD). For me, the mystery over Faustina’s origins helps carry it through to the last third where the pure momentum of the situation takes over.

      Mr. Splitfoot is next on my list from McCloy. It seems a very fall-like book. Not that I can necessarily trust the opinion of someone who thinks Nine and Death Makes Ten is second-tier Carr…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, man, we haven’t even scratched the surface of my controversial opinions. Ask TomCat, there’s a plethora of them…

        I can confirm. JJ is the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the stopped clock analogy.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Your review is very thought-provoking, as much of what makes this book special is the pervasive sense of mystery and having no idea what could happen next. I can see that being less effective on a second read. The novella does sound interesting as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Try She Walks Alone and The Slayer and the Slain – both brilliant! I need to reread the early ones (The Man in the Moonilght, Who’s Calling?, The Deadly Truth).

    Liked by 1 person

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