Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, September 16, 2016


Two-Thirds of a Ghost by Helen McCloy (1956)

Helen McCloy (1904-1994) wrote thirteen novels about forensic psychologist Dr. Basil Willing, each rich in both plot and character.  In Two-Thirds of a Ghost she turns her attention to the world of New York publishing and literary agencies -- a world she knows well, having started both a publishing company and a literary agency with her then-husband Davis Dresser (perhaps best-known as "Brett Halliday," the creator of private detective Michael Shayne).  McCloy was also a noted mystery critic and had received an Edgar for her criticism.

Amos Cottle is a literary phenomenon.  He has published four highly successful book in four years.  He is also a mystery.  Unknown to all but his agent and his publisher, Cottle is an amnesiac with no knowledge of his life before six years ago when he was found on a country road after being hit by a car.  All that is known about him is that he is an alcoholic.  When he dried out he chose the name Amos Cottle for himself.  But after the newly sober Cottle published his first book, he met and married Vera Vane, a dangerous and grasping actress who led him down a three-month spiral of reneed alcoholism before they separated and Vera moved to Hollywood and a motion picture contract.  Vera's talent was miniscule and, after three years, her contract was not renewed.  She announced that she was going back to Connecticut to be the helpmate of her famous husband.

The two most important men in Amos Cottle's life and career are his publisher, Tony Kane, and his agent, Gus Vesey.  Both men have profited well off Amos Cottle; Cottle's contract with each gives them a far larger portion of Cottell's earnings that is normal for the trade.  And both men know Vera's toxic nature could easily destroy Amos' career.  Tony's wife, the elgant and imperious Philippa, has been having an affair with her husband's most famous author.  Gus' wife Meg is well-meaning but rash; she is very concern for Amos and very fearful for what will happen when Amos reconnects with Vera.

Vera is due the same than Gus is scheduled to get a major award.  Tony and Philippa decide to thraw a small party for Gus when Vera arrives which would blunt Vera's influence for her first day with Tony, at least; they have plans that would keep her from Tony after that.  Invited to the party are Gus and Meg, along with a literay critic who has fawned over Amos' writing. a neighbor who hads published a few short stories, the neighbor's son, and Basil Willing and his wife -- Willing having been published by Tony's firm several years before.  That day, Amos insisted on meeting Vera at the airport and, by the time he arrived at the party, Amos was extremely drunk.  To make things worse, the neighbor had brought along uninvited another literary critic who detests everything that Amos has published.

To clear some of the tension, the group decide to play a parlor game of questions and answers called Two-Thirds of a Ghost.  Shortly after the games begins, however, Amos passes out -- or so it was thought.  Amos is dead from a fast-acting poison.  Soon it was learned about the dead man's amnesia; making Amos himself not a full person; Amos can be considered two-thirds of a person, or two-thirds of a ghost.

McCloy's writing is sharp as she sets Basil to solve two mysteries, the murder of Amos Cottle and the the past of the person calling himself Amos Cottle.  A smooth and enjoyable style merge with a satisfying fair-play puzzle that ever-so-slightly casts a jaundiced eye on the world of publishing.

 The Mystery Writers of America named Helen McCloy a Grandmaster in 1990.  Two-Thirds of a Ghost shows you one reason why.