Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) by Helen McCloy

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The 1981 List of the 15 best locked room mysteries is a list that has controlled the reading tastes of many a impossible crime reader. People usually discover the list and decide to try out one of the books on it, given that, trying the best will show you if your interested in the genre as a whole. However, while it has introduced many to the impossible crime or locked room mystery, it has had negative consequences on the books themselves. Since all 15 are considered to be the 15 “best”, many of the books have received inflated reputations, leading to some falling from grace due to the inevitable disappointment that will come from reading something held in such regard only to realize that you’ve already read books not on the list that are better than it. Of course, that was my experience, but novels like The King is Dead and He Wouldn’t Kill Patience certainly would have faired better for me if I hadn’t had such a high regard for them going in. Therefore, I decided to go into reading Through a Glass, Darkly without an preconceived expectations, and it both surprised and disappointed me in the end.

Faustina Crayle is a very, very unlucky woman. While generally meek and gracious, she has had the misfortune of being fired from two teaching positions in less than a year. Both firing’s had occurred under the strangest of circumstances, with students and teachers alike growing increasingly fearful of her until her sudden termination. Naturally, Faustina confides with her only friend at the school, Gisela von Hohenems, who promptly writes a letter to her friend (and love interest) Dr. Basil Wiling that mentions the strange atmosphere surrounding her and he soon begins to investigate, discovering the secret surrounding Faustina. Faustina is seemingly being haunted by her doppelgänger, a exact copy of her in every way. She can be seen in one place and will then promptly appear in another, though it would be impossible for her to get there from her previous position. This naturally freaks everyone out and it all culminates in a murder, where Faustina was seen killing someone, while she was talking to someone on the phone from New York.

I liked this book, much more than I had originally thought I would have. It’s written in a gorgeous style that imminently readable in every way, and McCloy manages to keep your interest throughout, even making usually boring lectures on psychology be investing. She creates very lively conversation while using it to drop subtle clues, something very reminiscent of Agatha Christie while also using the character interactions to create the crimes and situations.

The impossibility itself is interesting. It’s something that’s very limited in terms of scope, with the solution always coming from one of three camps: impersonation, twins/look alike, or the mistaking of people. McCloy manages to come up with a solution that is a new branch of one of the families, and it perfectly fits in with the culprit and their motivation for the crimes, and while the overall resolution doesn’t exactly live up to all of the atmosphere created beforehand, it still satisfies. However, the solution itself isn’t that shocking, with the limitations of the impossibility leading to only a few possible options being open, severely limiting the potential for a great twist in the solution. It makes nice use of Faustina’s identity in order for it to work, and the chain of clues that eventually leads to the culprit is genuinely fascinating and very original (at least to me). The clueing is also top notch, with them all being perfectly obvious and perfectly hidden, and the red herrings are just as subtle and masterfully placed.

The atmosphere here is some of the best I’ve ever encountered, with it continuously growing and growing as the story progresses, with the true horror felt by Faustina leeching out and creating a aura of doom around her and the places and people she interacts with. You can’t help but feel a bit scared, with all these impossible happenings seeming almost too impossible and with all these occurrences slowly building up until Faustina really does seem cursed. McCloy also allows the ending to leave the idea of the doppelgänger open to interpretation, leaving it on the same note as a very famous novel from a very famous impossible crime writer.

The character of Faustina Crayle is truly tragic, and you can’t help but feel sympathy for her. She reminds you of figures in other mystery novels, like Lesley Grant in Carr’s TDDUP, a woman who may or may not be wrongfully persecuted for her being an outcast. There’s an event involving her very close to the end of the story, and it deeply saddened me. It was some of the greatest emotion I’ve ever felt in a mystery novel, and the event and it’s effects will always stick with me, though the character’s reactions to the event are a bit disappointing. The explanation behind the event is also truly horrific, with the actions on the part of one character truly making them become a cruel and horrendous person. The other characters are all, for the most part, well defined. Gisela’s romance with Basil is a refreshing sub plot that helps move the book along, and other characters like Alice and Mrs. Lightfoot all feel real in their mannerisms or actions.

However, there are flaws with the book. It feels very padded in some places, and while the main plot is ingenious and very fast paced, its surrounded by all types of filler that range from long discussions on random topics to bar and dinner scenes that provide little to no information. As a comparison, I got a copy of All But Impossible and read the short story that this was based on, and the novel really is just a elongated version of the short story, with little added to the main plot besides a new murder. The book itself isn’t a drag, it’s really the fact that a lot of it feels, unnecessary, and in some ways, it does work better as a short story/novella. The impossibility itself, as stated above, does have originality to it, but the solution itself does let you down due to it not living up to the previously creating atmosphere.

Through a Glass, Darkly isn’t a full blown classic of the genre. It isn’t one of the top 15 greatest novels in the genre, but it’s by no means one of the most disappointing or bad. It could comfortably fit in a top 100, without any complaints from my side, and I feel like it’ll grow on me as time goes on. A 4.5/5 from me.

 

Other Opinions:

The Green Capsule

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

  1. As you say, it doesn’t seem proper to judge this book as a “Top X” impossible crime. Perhaps this fits more in a list meant to illustrate the breadth of the impossible crime genre. I do love how the final crime in the book was accomplished.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting thought, the 1981 list wasn’t meant to showcase the best, but was meant to be a list of books that that show the variety and range of the impossible crime genre as a whole, something that does explain a few of the more, questionable, entries.
      The final crime is definitely horrifying in concept and execution, while also being extremely ingenious. I really can’t help but feel sympathy for what a certain character had to go through, and it completely broke my heart.

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    1. The main issue that most people seem to have is the padding, and the story itself is much more successful in the short story/novella format.
      From what I can tell, Mr. Splitfoot is supposed to be better than this. I have seen some reviews that have described some of the book’s mystery elements as obvious, but I love the room that kills trope so I’ll probably read it eventually.

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  2. There are several things about this book that I really, really like: the slow-build sense of ‘wrongness’ around Faustina Crayle for about the first third or so before we’re told the basis of it, the originality around the framing of the crimes — as you mention above — giving a very unconventional structure to what should be just another also-ran, and that finishind note you mention among them.

    And yet I don’t rate it as a book partly because it feels so much like a padded short story…I’ve not read the original version, so I can’t comment from experience. Not everyone is going to ‘do a Berkeley’ and add about fifteen other arms to their narrative when they novelise a story, but we agree that there’s far too much just “Yeah, that’ll be long enough” gumpf just filling pages. I couldn’t see what else of consequence could have been added, so it’s great to have that confirmed.

    Oh, and what the hell is the Carr story TDUF? I am wracking my brains and cannot come up with anything. It could be a short story, but, dude you have stumbled on to an obscure one if that’s the case.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The first third is by far the best. It builds up the main puzzle while also creating this amazing atmosphere that fully encircles Faustina and truly causes her to become a tragic figure.
      It really does have the feeling of a padded short story, with McCloy taking the main plot and fluffing it with a large amount of filler. It’s not that the filler is boring, it simply feels unnecessary, and I feel like the story as a whole is much more suited to the short story format.
      TDUF is a unpublished Carr short story that I discovered in a magazine from 1938. The main mystery revolves around a woman who walks into a large and open field of grass, only for her to suddenly vanish in front of four witnesses….
      Just kidding! (Though I wish I wasn’t) It’s really a typo. I was referencing Till Death Do Us Part and I really must not have been paying attention, thanks for pointing out the error!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, yes, part of the legendary but unpublished triumvirate colloquially called ‘The Gastric Murder Cases’ and completed by The Emperor’s Guff-Box and In Spite of Chunder.

        Maybe one day we’ll see them available as originally intended; for now, a man will have to dream…

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