Thursday, April 19, 2007

Two-Thirds of a Ghost - Helen McCloy

First published 1957; cover shown is the 1962 Penguin Books (UK) paperback edition. Cover design by George Mayhew.

I got to page 190 of my copy of this classic McCloy mystery before it dawned on me that the last two or so chapters are missing. I have no idea who the killer is (I have my suspicions, but I'm generally wrong) and three days on I'm still frustrated about that. It doesn't help that the last page left in the book is the lead-up to the second murder, but not the actual murder. So I'm missing the two most important parts!

Two-Thirds of a Ghost is a literary mystery. Amos Cottle, Great American Novelist, dies in the middle of a cocktail party. An alcoholic, he had turned up drunk after three years of abstinence. The suspects are Cottle's agent and publisher and their wives, as well as two literary critics and Cottle's film star wife. Psychiatrist Basil Willing, McCloy's series detective, just happens to have attended the party, and the New York police arrange for him to lead the investigation.

When Willing discovers that "Amos
Cottle" didn't exist prior to the release of his fabulously successful first book five years earlier, Gus (the agent) and Tony (the publisher) come clean. After sending a manuscript to Gus, Cottle had been discovered in a medical institution, undergoing treatment for alcoholism. He had been there for two years: his memory before that was a complete blank. Gus and Tony fashioned Cottle into their own perfect money-making machine, installing him in a remote country house to write more masterpieces, and taking huge percentages of his contracts and sales.

Willing delves further into Cottle's background, and soon uncovers details of a doomed marriage, a medical degree, a shocking surgery accident and a hit-and-run. Meanwhile Tony's wife moves on from her affair with Cottle to a more serious one with Leppy the critic. And Vera, Cottle's narcissistic and money-hungry widow, decides to try her hand at blackmail, sending identical letters to all the main suspects.

Regardless of the fact that I didn't finish this mystery, what I did get to read was very well done. This is one of McCloy's best works, with its fresh dialogue and ingenious plot. The numerous references to mystery writing and the publishing and literary world added an extra element of interest.

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