Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cue for Murder - Helen McCloy

First published 1942; cover shown is the 1965 Bantam Books (USA) paperback edition. Cover artist unknown. 184p.

With an introduction by Anthony Boucher (his short story, They Bite, featured in a March 2007 entry) who rates this as one of the all-time greatest novels of detection, I started reading with high expectations.

Set in the theatre world of 1940s New York, and featuring the detection skills of McCloy's series protagonist, psychiatrist Basil Willing, the action in Cue for Murder takes place over just a few days. A Sardou play, Fedora, is being staged at the Royalty Theatre, with diva Wanda Morley in the lead.

On opening night the actor playing a corpse is discovered to be just that. As chance would have it, Basil is in the audience, and he commences investigating the mysterious death with the blessing of the police. It appears that either Wanda or two other actors committed the murder onstage, meaning that Basil's list of suspects is surprisingly short.

Shortly before the murder, a small story in the Times had caught Basil's interest: a knife grinding shop next to the Royalty Theatre had been broken into. Nothing was stolen - but a pet canary had been let out of its cage. Basil correctly surmises that the killer he is searching for used this opportunity to sharpen the murder weapon, and when the shop is broken into once more (with the canary again being set free) Basil fears the worst.

Due to an inexplicable lack of interest I have always stayed away from theatre-based crime novels, but this novel - while certainly not the best McCloy I've read - was nevertheless fun to read. Clues abounded, with a house fly and the canary helping Basil to unmask the killer.

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