Also wrote under: Helen Clarkson, H. C. McCloy
Daughter of William C. and Helen Clarkson McCloy; married David Dresser, 1946 (divorced 1961); children: one daughter
Helen McCloy's father was managing editor of the New York Evening Sun; her mother wrote short stories under her maiden name. A Quaker, McCloy studied at the Brooklyn Friends School in New York. At fourteen, she published a literary essay in the Boston Transcript; at fifteen, she published verse in the New York Times. McCloy lived in France for eight years, studying at the Sorbonne in 1923 and 1924. McCloy was Paris correspondent for the Universal News Service (1927-31) and the monthly art magazine International Studio (1930-31). She also was London correspondent for the Sunday New York Times art section and wrote political sketches for the London Morning Post and the Daily Mail.
McCloy returned to the U.S. in 1931 and spent several years writing magazine articles and short stories. In 1938 she published her first mystery novel, Dance of Death. She has one daughter and was divorced in 1961 from her husband, who wrote mysteries under the name Brett Halliday.
McCloy was rather prolific, writing dozens of detection and suspense novels, short stories, and newspaper and magazine articles. She won Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine awards for the short stories "Through a Glass, Darkly" (reprinted in The Singing Diamonds, 1965) and "Chinoiserie" (reprinted in 20 Great Talesof Murder, 1951), and the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) for the best mystery criticism. In addition, she was the first woman president of MWA and was given the organization's highest honor, being named the Grand Master in 1989, one of only eight women at the time so honored.
Dance of Death features her detective, Dr. Basil Willing, a psychiatrist and an expert in forensic medicine; he appears in many of what are considered her strongest novels. The social satire in such novels as Cue for Murder (1942) and Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956), as well as the fine presentation of New York society in Alias Basil Willing (1951) and Unfinished Crime (1954), suggests, as Erik Routley has indicated, that McCloy is one of those mystery writers in whom "there is a good deal of straight novel-writing." Anthony Boucher believed McCloy "has always resembled the best British writers of the Sayers-Blake-Allingham school in her ability to combine a warm novel of likeable people with a flawless deductive plot."
McCloy's choice of a psychiatrist-detective as hero reveals her interest in psychology, especially in its more paranormal manifestations, as is evident in Through a Glass, Darkly (1949), Who's Calling? (1942), and The Slayer and the Slain (1957). Her interest in the fragile structure upon which an individual's personality is based is shown in The Changeling Conspiracy (1976), which deals with political kidnapping and brainwashing. This and recent novels reflect McCloy's interest in contemporary affairs; The Goblin Market (1943) and Panic (1944), which were written during World War II and deal with problems created by the war, suggest this interest is not new.
In general, critics have preferred McCloy's novels of detection to the novels of suspense or terror. McCloy herself believed the current popularity of detective stories is related to "some lack in the accepted literary diet." The "moral understanding of common minds which results in sympathy for common lives" and the themes "that mean so much to the common man—love and death"—are missing from modern novels. In her best works, McCloy's success in providing interesting characters and themes is matched with her ability in plotting.
The Man in the Moonlight (1940). The Deadly Truth (1941). Do Not Disturb (1943). The One That Got Away (1945). She Walks Alone (1948). The Long Body (1955). The Last Day (1959). Before I Die (1963). The Further Side of Fear (1967). Mister Splitfoot (1968). A Question of Time (1971). A Change of Heart (1973). The Sleepwalker (1974). Minotaur Country (1975). The Imposter (1977). The Smoking Mirror (1979). Burn This (1980).
The papers of Helen McCloy are housed in the Mugar memorial Library of Boston University.
Routley, E., The Puritan Pleasures of the Detective Story (1972).
CA (1971). A Catalogue of Crime (1971). Detecting Women (1994, 1995). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994).Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection (1976). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996). WA.
NYHTB (28 Nov. 1943, 7 Oct. 1956). NYT (27 Feb. 1938, 11 Oct. 1942, 18 June 1950).