Friday, 12 January 2018

Forgotten Book - Burn This

Helen McCloy (1904-1994) was one of the most talented of American crime writers. I've enjoyed a number of her clever and often off-beat mysteries, both those featuring her regular amateur sleuth Dr Basil Willing, and those in which he doesn't appear. Burn This (1980) marked Willing's final appearance, as well as being his first for twelve years. It also proved to be McCloy's last novel

The story is set in Boston and although the critical consensus is that it's not one of her masterpieces (a view which I share) it is still full of pleasing elements, especially given that McCloy seizes the chance to crack a few jokes about the writing business, and offer a few insights into it. A widow, Harriet Sutton, consults her lawyer about making a fresh start in life. Encouraged by him, she buys a house for herself in a historic neighbourhood, and funds the cost by taking tenants. Because she's a writer, she decides that her tenants should be writers too.

However, the tranquillity of her new existence is disturbed when she comes across an anonymous note marked "Burn this". It appears to be a message from one person living in the house to another saying that a fellow tenant is "Nemesis", a critic of legendary virulence, and that "Nemesis" should be given his - or her - final come-uppance. But who wrote the note, who was to receive it, and who is "Nemesis".

Harriet mistakenly reveals the existence of the note to her tenants, and chaos ensues, but when murder duly occurs, the victim is unexpected - Harriet's lawyer. Is the death connected with the note? In the second half of the book, the victim's heir introduces Harriet to Basil Willing, who lends the  police a hand. I wasn't altogether blown away by the solution to the mystery, which seemed to me to be less interesting that such a tantalising set-up deserved. So it's not vintage McCloy. But it is still decent entertainment, a quick and easy read, though not the best introduction to a fine writer.


Yvette said...

I haven't read this one but I've always been taken with the name, Basil Willing. I've read two McCloy books. One I liked and one I couldn't finish. So I'm of two minds about her. I will probably read another one just to make sure. You know how that goes. :)

The one I liked was a Basil WIlline book, CUE FOR MURDER. The one I couldn't finish was DO NOT DISTURB. Have you read that one? Maybe it's just me.

Clothes In Books said...

I've read a few of her books in the past year or so, and very much enjoyed them: I will look forward to getting to this one, it sounds enjoyable if not perfect.

Ted said...

If you're a Helen McCloy fan, be sure and grab a copy of 'Better Off Dead'. It's an excellent novella and #34 in Dell's failed and short lived experiment from 1951 of publishing novellas for only 10 cents. There are a few copies on ebay.

Christine said...

A writer I very much admire. Not her best, but still pretty good, I agree. She maintained a high standard.

Anonymous said...

"when murder duly occurs, the victim is unexpected - Harriet's lawyer"
But, alas, not now unexpected to those of us who have yet to read the book!

Martin Edwards said...

Don't worry, Anon, that happens quite early in the story, and the real questions are whodunit and why.