Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Phantom Fingers

"You don't stand a ghost of a chance, Yugi, because..."
"How many times are you going to use that line?!"
"Yu-Gi-Oh! Abridged"

Almost through my backlog of Japanese translations of (originally) English novels! I'll probably still occasionally get one if the original release is hard to get, but I have to say, it feels good to see the pile disappear, as it usually takes a lot more time / effort to go through a translated book.

The return of actress Vera Vane from Hollywood to her husband's side, the famous best-selling author Amos Cottle, is reason for a little party at his publisher's. To be exact: everyone who knows Amos is desperate to keep Vera away from Amos, because she has a rather negative influence of the drinking kind on him and they try to keep her happy with the party. A game of 'two-thirds of a ghost' is played (a quiz parlour game), but the guests discover at the end of the game that Amos Cottle has written his last word and has gone to join the heavenly scribes. Unwillingly though, it seems, as someone slipped some cyanide in his drink. Among the guests is the famous psychiatrist/criminologist Dr. Basil Willing, who will act as our detective in Helen McCloy's Two-Thirds of A Ghost (1956).

Through A Glass, Darkly was the first McCloy I ever read, about two years ago, and I quite liked the mystery with a supernatural twist. Two-Thirds of A Ghost has been in my to-be-read pile for a long time now, as I think I bought my used copy not long after reading Through A Glass, Darkly, but you know how things go. The first thing that I thought interesting was that the series detective, Dr. Basil Willing, actually acts as a series detective! Might sound strange, but I tell you, Willing's appearance in Through A Glass, Darkly is rather bland and subdued and during a book club discussion on the book, we found that actually most people didn't realize that Through A Glass, Darkly was a series novel starring Basil Willing ('wait, he's the protagonis?!'). Anyway, this time we actually see Dr. Basil Willing employing his grey cells from a relatively early stage in the story on and he keeps in charge throughout, so no confusion there.

What might seem a bit confusing, is the direction of the investigation in the early parts of the story. With a poisoning and a parlour game, I thought Two-Thirds of A Ghost would be about figuring out how someone managed to poison Amos during the game, but the main focus of this novel lies not there, but on a different problem that I'd better not reveal here. Willing's investigation is instead focused on literary detection: we follow him as he reads memos, notes, letters, book reviews of Amos' books and other texts, which also appear in the novel itself. And of course, through a close reading of these documents, Willing will discover something shocking that leads to the murderer of Amos. Literary detection is not an extremely rare thing in mystery, though the whole literary background of Two-Thirds of A Ghost does add to the experience. Literary detection is also usually not the most prominent mode of detection in most mystery novels, but I quite like the somewhat meta-method of mystery-solving.

Other examples I've discussed on the blog are the bibliomysteries Biblia Koshodou no Jikentechou ("The Casebook of the Antiquarian Bookstore Biblia") and Murderer's Items, which are often about the contents of the books in the spotlight. The most extreme example is Yumeno Kyuusaku's Dogura Magura, which might be about a madman trying to unravel a mystery through documents written by himself. Or another madman. Or maybe it was all a dream. Let's stop talking about Dogura Magura now before I get sucked into its spiraling madness once again.

McCloy makes great use of the literary background and it's not only just the mode of detection. There's also room for some literary criticism and topics like 'true literature', authorism and 'what sells' are featured quite heavily during the discussions between the actors of this story. Yet these discussions never feel unnatural, nor does Two-Thirds of A Ghost feel too much as a vehicle for McCloy to spout her thoughts, as these topics are naturally of importance to characters like literary critics, agents and publishers. I liked the final confrontation with the culprit also connected with these themes at some level, just like how Through A Glass, Darkly's ending also interacted in a meaningful way with its overal supernatural theme.

I like the overall themes of Two-Thirds of A Ghost, though I have to admit that especially in the first half of the novel, I was kinda bored as the story didn't seem to move at my prefered speed. But I guess your mileage may vary on that. On a thematic level, this is a good novel though.


  1. I think Helen McCloy was one of the best American detective novelists of the 20th century. It is disturbing to note that almost everything she wrote (except for Through a Glass Darkly) is now out of print, except that it is available on Kindle. I have begun to think that our awareness of time in the Internet Age has increased in velocity to such an extent that our older, better written but slower paced books are slowly slipping under our cultural radar.

    1. Hmm, I was actually hoping to switch from Japanese to English with McCloy; I find the Japanese translations a bit tiring :/