Saturday, January 20, 2007

Alias Basil Willing - Helen McCloy

First published 1951; cover shown is the 1957 Penguin Books (UK) paperback edition.

McCloy's series detective is Dr Basil Willing, a psychiatrist who assists the New York district attorney's office. His understanding of psychology helps him to solve a myriad of cases that over the 1940s and 50s included such themes as amnesia, doppelgängers, euthanasia, superstitions and even flying saucers (interest in extraterrestrials was at its peak in the 1940s).

In Alias Basil Willing, Dr Willing overhears another man hail a taxi with the words, "I am Dr Basil Willing". Intrigued, Basil jumps in another taxi and follows the little man to his destination: a formal dinner party given by a psychiatrist, Dr Zimmer. Before the evening is out the imposter has been poisoned, and Basil is left with many unanswered questions, not the least of which is why the strange assortment of dinner party guests were so obviously ill at ease.

The next morning Basil hears that the only person who could have shed light on the little man (now known to be a private investigator) and his bold masquerade has conveniently died - also of codeine poisoning. Basil's only clue is the little man's last words: "And no bird sang..." Not much to go on, but after questioning the dinner party guests and discovering the majority were patients of Dr Zimmer, and after a murder attempt and a failed suicide, Basil finally discovers the terrifying truth about Dr Zimmer and his patients within the pages of a Charles Dickens classic...

Helen McCloy (1904 - 1994) was born in New York to Quaker parents. The first female president of Mystery Writers of America, she was married for a time to fellow mystery writer Brett Halliday.

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