by | Oct 6, 2020 | Mystery Minute | 5 comments

by ZJ Czupor


This famous line, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” has a storied past in ancient and modern literature, film, poetry, and music. But it wasn’t until author, editor, publisher and agent Helen McCloy borrowed the title for her 1950 novel that it became recognized as a mystery masterpiece. 

Helen Worrell Clarkson McCloy (1904-1994) was a prolific writer of mystery novels and a major influence on the genre. She also served as the first woman president of Mystery Writers of America in 1950. 

McCloy was a pioneer 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,” said Noah Stewart, blogger and critic of the Golden Age of Detection novels. 

She created America’s first fictional psychiatrist detective, Dr. Basil Willing, who debuted in her first novel Dance of Death (William Morrow & Co., 1938). He appeared in thirteen of McCloy’s novels and several short stories acting as a paid consultant to New York City’s District Attorney. Willing is famous for saying, “every criminal leaves psychic fingerprints, and he can’t wear gloves to hide them.”

Dr. Willing also appears in a McCloy short story published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (September 1948). That story was “Through a Glass, Darkly,” and was subsequently serialized in The New York Daily News from Nov. 6, 1949 to Jan. 15, 1950. McCloy then expanded the story into a novel by the same title (Random House, 1950). 

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

The story concerns an elite girl’s school near New York and features a supernatural twist. Art teacher Faustina Crayle thinks people are encountering her doppelgänger, or double, in two places at the same time. 

McCloy often used doppelgängers, superstition, and bizarre or surreal events as plot twists but in the end relied on psychology, or medical science, to explain why people would act in such a manner, letting the reader solve the puzzle along with the sleuth.

In 1959, her story was adapted into a teleplay and aired on BBC’s Saturday Playhouse 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. Sayers (1893-1957) was a renowned English crime writer and poet.

The Title with an Ancient Past has been Copied Many Times

“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.” 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. 

Other scholars claim that Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 BC) said these words long before they appeared in the New Testament. In Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, he recounts the last days of Socrates who talks about the dark realities that lie behind all that we see. He said we see true realities, “through a glass, darkly.” 

Ingmar Bergman used the title for his 1961 noir film, a completely different story, about schizophrenia and hearing the voice of God. The film won an Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

Five other novels (all different) by different authors also carry this title. In 1986, Karleen Koen wrote an historical fiction romance, which sold for $350,000 (Random House), then a record for a debut novelist. Her novel became a New York Times‘ best seller and has been translated into more than ten languages. 

Four non-fiction books use the 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 under the same 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. Asimov wrote a collection of four short stories but twisted the collection’s title, slightly, as “Through a Glass, Clearly.” (1967).

While McCloy was known primarily as a mystery writer, she also wrote under the pseudonym Helen Clarkson, in which she published The Last Day (1959), a science fiction novel about a woman who witnesses nuclear fallout on an isolated island. 

As a young girl, McCloy was a fan of Sherlock Holmes and sold her first article at fourteen. In addition to the thirteen Dr. Basil Willing novels, (1938-1980); she wrote sixteen stand-alone mysteries (1943-1979); and four uncollected short stories (1934-1935).

McCloy was born in New York City to a literary family. Her mother, Helen Worrell McCloy, was 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.

In 1946, she married novelist, Davis Dresser (1904-1977). They had one daughter. Dresser 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. 

In 1954, she received the Edgar Allan Poe Award from MWA for criticism. In 1971, she founded the MWA’s New England Chapter, and in 1990, was named MWA Grand Master. Her contributions to the genre are recognized today by the annual Helen McCloy/MWA Scholarship for Mystery Writing.

Thank you, ZJ, for teaching us all about Helen McCloy! Readers, have you read any of her work?

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  1. Lisa Black

    I can't believe in my stroll through the Golden Age of detective fiction that I could have missed the Dr. Basil Willing books, but I can't recall any specifically. (For 10 years I was a personnel secretary with a 1 hour bus commute each way, an hour lunch which I always carried, and working a 10 minute walk from the downtown Cleveland Public Library branch…to say I read voraciously would be an understatement. So how did I miss Helen McCloy?)
    I recognize the title, of course–and now I'll have to read the book!!

  2. Rogue Women Writers

    What a fascinating history of that terrific woman – and how that phrase "Through a Glass Darkly" came to be used. I also love how Helen McCloy became the first woman President of the Mystery Writers of America! Thanks for a great post…..Karna Small Bodman

  3. Maya Corrigan

    I enjoyed reading about Helen McCloy. Thanks!

  4. Valerie

    I'm embarrassed to admit that I've never read any of Helen McCloy's works, and she seems to be a much overlooked master of psychological suspense. I just ordered THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and look forward to digging in. Thank you so much for this fascinating post!

  5. Linda Charles

    My first thought when I saw the title of this post was of Karleen Koen – I loved that book (and the reminder that maybe it's time for a re-read)! Thank you for such an interesting post!