The Line Up (1934) by Helen Reilly

(6/10 stars)

“Telegraph Bureau? Inspector McKee. Homicide. Timothy Arden, Hotel Grantham, Fifth Avenue off the Square, Apartment Thirteen A.”

That was all. It was enough. In that long room at the top of Police Headquarters, Operative Eighteen, a green eyeshade tilted over his forehead, repeated the same message over and and over and over again. To the commissioner himself, the borough commander, the deputy chief inspector, the precinct, the district attorney’s office, stenographers, fingerprint men, photographers, in a voice as empty as a train announcer’s: “Homicide, Timothy Arden…” The New York police had been presented with another case.

There is nothing surprising about Timothy Arden’s death. After all, he was an elderly man with a bad heart. Still, Inspector Christopher McKee finds it strange that Arden should die just as the New York City police are about to ask him about a $10,000 check, bearing his signature, that was presented by a man who fled the bank the moment he was questioned. Strange that Arden’s children should be in such a hurry to cremate their father. And, strangest of all, why Arden, a nonsmoker, would have four cigarette butts hidden in his bedroom—all different brands. In fact, nothing seems quite right with this household. McKee is starting to think that where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

The Line Up is one of the earliest police procedurals published in the United States, but it’s not as tough as that might suggest. We are still firmly in the world of traditional detective stories, with murder threatening a wealthy, dysfunctional family and McKee revealing the killer in a dramatic summing-up scene. These are the mean streets of Park Avenue, not exactly Ed McBain or Joseph Wambaugh territory. The Line Up is more successful as a plush murder mystery than as an example of 1930s policing. Nonetheless, it is an intriguing glimpse at the beginnings of this subgenre.

The circle surrounding Timothy Arden is a small one. It includes his playboy son Eric and Eric’s beautiful wife Diana, whose looks don’t impress McKee.

Beauty like this left his pulses unstirred. It was a matter of form and color, had nothing to do with the woman herself, and made an effective barrier behind which the reality could hide, distorted, ugly, even deformed, without arousing the slightest suspicion.

There’s also Daisy, the emotionally disturbed daughter of Timothy’s second marriage. (The fact that Daisy’s mother abandoned her strict husband many years ago suggests that another suspect may be lurking unseen.) Finally, that $10,000 check was made out to Arden’s secretary George Benson, who doesn’t have a very good explanation for it. As the police dig into their associations, the suspect list will expand a little more, but only a little. While some colorful side characters pop up, the main suspects themselves don’t stand out much.

McKee himself is also fairly colorless, though he surrounds himself with some interesting colleagues. This is where the procedural element really stands out, as, far from being a lone genius, McKee calls in a number of police officers, specialists, and consultants to assist him. The elegant pathologist Dr. Fernandez conducts the autopsy in a scene of hushed tension.

They reached their destination, the Morgue, its dark unyielding bulk standing stolidly against the faint glow of the city to the west. Tonight it was more like a charnel house than ever with the wind tearing and whistling round its walls. A flight of steps, doors opening and closing. They seemed to send out a fetid breath of desolation, decay, from those motionless inmates, victims of crime and tragedy and despair, beaten by the world and swallowed in this last refuge to be devoured by the intellectual curiosity of a science that had done nothing for them in life.

Two other assistants do nearly as much sleuthing as McKee himself. Sergeant Pierson is stolid and unimaginative, but absolutely dogged on the trail of a killer, and McKee has nothing but respect for his abilities. His other main ally is nurse Lucy Sturm, who goes to work inside the Arden house. Lucy is very much in the Sarah Keate/Hilda Adams mode, a no-nonsense professional who nevertheless has a soft spot for young lovers. Even with this bias, McKee knows she is someone he can count on.

Purely from an eat-the-rich perspective, it’s cathartic to see the vast, impersonal forces of the NYPD assemble against the Ardens, to their outrage. In this world, at least, their wealth cannot help them avoid the law. Even when they retreat to their country home, they never escape the watchful eyes of the police.

The hybrid nature of the story does not always sit easily, however. A large investigation involving many officers is realistic, but it doesn’t provide much of a chance to get to know McKee. Though he remains fairly inscrutable throughout, one thing that is clear about his character is that he is pragmatic and tries to administer the law as fairly and neutrally as possible. Yet he also sets up a big reenactment of a crime (one that may not even have anything to do with Timothy Arden’s death), while admitting that he doesn’t really have any evidence for his theories. The whole event is staged with the hope of pushing the culprit over the edge into a public confession. It’s an exciting sequence, but these are pure amateur detective theatrics that seem out of character for an otherwise by-the-book public servant.

The denouement does showcase Reilly’s gift for creating atmosphere, which is also displayed elsewhere in The Line Up. Lucy Sturm spends some long, tense nights in the Arden home, hearing footsteps in the hallway and wondering whether her patient is really as helpless as they appear. The Christmas setting also adds drama, as the family halfheartedly carries out holiday festivities, knowing all the while that their father has been murdered and one of their loved ones may have killed him.

They drove to the Grand Central through a dusk pierced with flashing signs, “Holiday Greetings from Knitted Underwear,” “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from the United Hosiery.” Near the Forty-second Street entrance a German band was executing “Holy Night” very badly indeed to an applauding crowd. The station itself was a mess, even the great main room jammed solid almost from the gates to the information booth. Trains were late. Everybody in the world was going home with ten children and the entire contents of a large department store. Voices echoed with false jollity. “Same to you, old man, and many of them. Remember me to Mabel. Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas.”

The Line Up is an ambitious attempt to add modern, realistic police procedure to a classic detective plot. While the story of secrets and lies in an old-money New York family ultimately proves more compelling than the police element, it is an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Second Opinions

Only Detect

There are characters aplenty here, but very little characterization. Even McKee lacks the clear contours that enable other fictional detectives to catch and hold readerly interest. A smartly conceived puzzle does lie in wait for him, however, and he does unravel it, after a lot of harum-scarum action of the “Had I But Known” sort. What Reilly does best, meanwhile, is to evoke time and place.

Isaac Anderson, New York Times, November 11, 1934

If you have not already made the acquaintance of Inspector McKee, it is time you did. He is worth knowing and we hope that Helen Reilly will give us more stories about him.


The Line Up is out of print, with used copies available.

4 thoughts on “The Line Up (1934) by Helen Reilly

  1. I’ve read 2 or 3 by her I think which I have given similar-ish ratings to as your review. McKee remains pretty colourless as far as my memory recalls. I think the books are okay but they just have not grabbed me sufficiently to want to seek more out by her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All the books I’ve read by Reilly so far have also been of similar quality. I enjoy them because I like the things she is best at: suspense, dramatic atmosphere, sinister rich people. But McKee makes no impression at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am envious. I want to read this book and I don’t have a copy. I did not read all of your post because I want to be surprised (although at my age, I would probably forget before I find a copy). I did check your rating and final comments of course. I really would love to have that Crime Club edition (I collect books with skull covers and that one is excellent).

    I have enjoyed all the Helen Reilly books I have read, some more than others. I found a copy of The Diamond Feather, the first Inspector McKee novel, and paid more than I should have for it, and luckily I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I’m jealous that you were able to snag The Diamond Feather–sounds like a good one! Reilly’s books are always a reliable source of luxurious menace, and it’s interesting to see how police procedure and suspense interact. I do wish McKee had more personality, though perhaps that’s intentional as a representative of the law. It’s too bad more of her books aren’t in print. There are ebook editions of a few of her titles, but it would be nice to have a wider range.


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