THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY: The Pioneering Author and The Omnipresent Title

Helen Worrell Clarkson McCloy (1904-1994) was a prolific writer of mystery novels and a major influence on the genre.

She wrote under the pseudonyms Helen McCloy and Helen Clarkson. She was born in New York City to Helen Worrell McCloy, also a writer; while her father William McCloy was the managing editor of the New York Evening Sun. She was educated at Brooklyn’s Quaker Friends School; studied at the Sorbonne, in Paris; worked as a journalist for Randolph Hearst’s Universal News Service; as an art critic for International Studio and other magazines, and as the London art critic for The New York Times. She also was a free-lance contributor to the London Morning Post.

She began writing mysteries in the 1930s and in 1946 she married another novelist, Davis Dresser (1904-1977), who wrote as Brett Halliday and gained fame with his hard-boiled Mike Shayne private eye novels. He wrote more than sixty mystery novels and was a founding member of Mystery Writers of America in 1945. There were twelve Mike Shayne films and five of them starred Eugene Hugh Beaumont, who is most famously known as the TV father, Ward Cleaver, in “Leave it to Beaver.” (CBS: 1957-58; ABC: 1958-63). She and Dresser founded the Torquil Publishing Company and the literary agency Halliday and McCloy (1953-64). They divorced in 1961.

Her most famous series character, Dr. Basil Willing, debuted in her first novel Dance of Death (1938). He appeared in twelve novels and several short stories. He was a Freudian psychoanalyst and believed that “every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints, and he can’t wear gloves to hide them.”

But her literary debut was in a short story published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in September 1948 called “Through a Glass, Darkly” which she later expanded into the 1950 novel by the same title (Random House). The story also features Dr. Basil Willing in a somewhat locked-room story in an elite girl’s school close to New York. The story has a supernatural twist, where the heroine keeps thinking that people are encountering her Doppelganger, or double, in two places at the same time.

In the novel, she describes this as: “You enter a room, a street, a country road. You see a figure ahead of you, solid, three-dimensional, brightly coloured. Moving and obeying all the laws of optics. Its clothing and posture is vaguely familiar. You hurry toward the figure for a closer view. It turns its head and – you are looking at yourself. Or rather a perfect mirror-image of yourself only—there is no mirror. So, you know it is your double. And that frightens you, for tradition tells you that he who sees his own double is about to die…”

Some critics have suggested that Through a Glass, Darkly is among the top twenty best detective stories ever written. Anthony Boucher recommended the novel as “an excellent treatment of the Doppelganger theme.”

In 1959, the story was adapted into a teleplay as part of the Saturday Playhouse series that aired on the BBC from 1958 to 1961.

Through a Glass, Darkly is considered to be written in the tradition of Dorothy L. Sayers’ short story “The Image in the Mirror.” (“Hangman’s Holiday” 1933), which features her famous character, Lord Peter Wimsey, and introduces the notion of a man seeing his identical evil twin committing crimes.

The title, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” comes from the Bible (King James Version), 1 Corinthians 13:12 – in which Paul, the Apostle, says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Basically, what the verse means is that when we see things head on, face-to-face, everything is clear, and when we see other things in part, they are imperfect, like a mystery.

Interestingly, some scholars have pointed out that the philosopher Plato (428/427-424/423 BC) also said these words long before they appeared in the New Testament. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, he’s telling the last days of Socrates in which Socrates talks about the dark realities that lie behind all that we see. He said we see true realities, “through a glass darkly.”

There’s some confusion about the literal translation from the Greek in both Plato’s version and the King James Version but we’ll leave that to other scholars to sort out.

The same title, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” was used in Ingmar Bergman’s 1961 noir film which was a completely different story about schizophrenia and hearing the voice of God. The film won an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

The title is also the title of four other novels (all different) by four other authors written in 1955, 1965, 1999 and 2006. There are four non-fiction books with that title; and four poems, one of which was written by General George S. Patton, Jr. (1922). In addition, numerous musical albums, songs, and television episodes carry the same title.

Even Agatha Christie and Isaac Asimov got into the act. In 1934, which preceded McCloy’s famous novel, Christie wrote a short story with that title which appeared in Collier’s Weekly, and in 1939 published it in her collection of short stories, The Regatta Mystery. It is the only story in the collection that does not feature one of Christie’s famous detectives. The story is told by an anonymous narrator who invokes the supernatural and its allusion to the Biblical reference. Asimov wrote a collection of four short stories but twisted the collection’s title, slightly, as “Through a Glass, Clearly.” (1967).

Helen McCloy was one of the pioneers of psychological suspense. Her writing has been characterized as graceful, subtle and well written with morbid psychology, obscure historical facts, powerful plots and with literary allusions which unsettle the reader from “unease to downright panic,” (Noah Stewart).

She wrote 30 novels in her lifetime and in 1950 became the first woman president of Mystery Writers of America (MWA). In 1953, she received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from MWA for criticism. Her contributions to the genre are recognized today by the annual Helen McCloy/MWA Scholarship for Mystery Writing.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.