Review: Two-Thirds of a Ghost

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Two Thirds of a Ghost

Helen McCloy

Penguin Crime, 1957

Amos Cottle, critically acclaimed and world famous author, dies at a dinner party. Present are his publisher, agent, friendly critic, unfriendly critic, ex-wife, mistress and a variety of unwelcome guests. One of these people became a murderer that night, but in discovering who and why psychologist-cum-detective Basil Willing finds that the case is far more complicated than it seems…

Like the best of the Golden Age detectives Basil Willing, “psychologist-cum-detective”, is completely and utterly dull, characterless, and anodyne. Which, since he comes in a first-class Golden Age novel, is all to the good, as the plot and characters that unfurl around him are more than enough on their own.

One of the best features of Helen McCloy is that she recognises the old adage: everyone is interesting, only some are more interesting than others. Our first introduction is to the charming housewife Meg Vesey who, in the hands of lesser authors, would have been a perfectly agreeable companion to guide us gently throughout the rest of the novel. Because McCloy is not a ‘lesser author’, she is quickly dropped in favour of a series of some of the most unpleasant (and gloriously familiar) archetypes imaginable: the supremely bitchy, out-of-work ex-wife of Amos; the bitter, frustrated and unfaithful current wife of Amos’ publisher, the gauche dinner party guest and her pretentious son. Either these are archetypes we recognise from fiction and believe exist or, even better, have something that we recognise in others or ourselves, the essence of good character writing.

In fiction, the nasty are always far more interesting than the nice, but McCloy pulls off the impressive balancing act of ensuring that our sympathies always lie with the good while, at the same time, the reader both understands and pities the bad. We dislike but, because McCloy gives us a look into the heads of even the most unpleasant characters, we never hate. The eventual culprit is unmasked: it’s one of the sub-par solutions where the murderer seems to have been chosen at random from a group of likely suspects, but the journey there was so bizarre and enjoyable that somehow this didn’t matter.

It’s a novel that’s funny on first look and even better on re-reading, with perhaps the most hilarious scene leading up to a death in all fiction. This is not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws. Like many Golden Age novels, it spends a long time setting up for a short period of excitement, which is followed by a lot of meandering and then a couple of explanatory speeches. But, unlike many Golden Age novels, the characters are a genuine delight to spend time with and, unlike many authors everywhere, here McCloy has something both interesting and witty to say on the state of the publishing industry, and it’s an unalloyed pleasure to read her bitching.

It would be a mistake to read Two Thirds of a Ghost just as a detective story when so much of it is a satire on publishing that, sadly, is as cutting today as it presumably was in 1957. Yes, the satire is heavy-handed at times –

“‘What is it?’
‘Short story. Hard-hitting, well written, fascinating background material, vivid characters.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
Gus groaned aloud. ‘It has a plot’”

– but then it’s just so enjoyable that somehow this doesn’t seem to matter. This may not be to everyone’s taste and if it isn’t the book is a diatribe and the plot absurd. A mystery that satisfyingly unfurls, and some of the greatest quotes on publishing known to mankind. Buy it for the characters, the plot, the humour, the lines, the depiction of 1950s book publishing and academia, or for the way the novel questions how much we forgive for genius, how much we make valuations according to convention and how much we prize power and assets in love, though none of these in the way you’d expect. Two Thirds of a Ghost is a matter of taste, but it’s a deeply satisfying cynicism.

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