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Reilly, Helen

Page history last edited by Jon 10 years ago

Helen Reilly (1891-1962) was an American novelist. She was born Helen Kieran and grew up in New York City in a literary family. Her brother, James Kieran, has also written a mystery: Come Murder Me (1952), and two of her daughters, Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen, are mystery writers.

 

Reilly's early books were police procedurals based on her research into the New York Homicide squad. One book The File on Rufus Ray (1937), contained facsimiles of evidence; buttons, photographs and ashes. Her most popular character is Inspector Christopher McKee. Reilly also used the pseudonym Kieran Abbey.

 


Mike Grost on Helen Reilly

 

Reilly and Crofts

 

Helen Reilly was a prolific author of mystery novels, whose career stretched from 1930 to 1962. Her books feature New York City police Inspector Christopher McKee. They were among the first American novels to stress police procedure.

 

To what school do Helen Reilly's novels belong? This is not an easy question. Howard Haycraft in 1941 emphasized that she was not an HIBK writer. This was true at the time; but later, she often included young society women in her tales, who were in jeopardy - a sign of HIBK influence on her later work. However such HIBK-like Reilly novels as The Opening Door (1944) and The Silver Leopard (1946) seem to me to be among Reilly's poorest works.

 

There is an discussion of Reilly in Jon L. Breen's excellent article on the history of the police procedural, in The Fine Art of Murder (1993). Breen argues that Reilly comes out of the Van Dine school, and suggests that she is similar to Van Dine school writer Anthony Abbot, who also wrote about a New York City policeman, Thatcher Colt.

 

From 1920 Freeman Wills Crofts wrote novels that described the realistic, routine sleuthing of British policeman. They were immensely influential, both in Britain and abroad. Reilly's works emphasize police procedure. Yet she seems not to be a Crofts-influenced writer. Reilly's police procedurals do not fall into easy categories. They seem very different from the police stories of Freeman Wills Crofts. They focus in turn on the operations of many different members of the police team, for example, and intermix scenes where the police have the point of view with those in which the POV is owned by civilians mixed up in the crime. This is very different from the Croftsian tales in which the viewpoint focuses steadily on Inspector French. Nor is Reilly especially interested in such Croftsian features as ingeniously faked alibis, detailed Backgrounds, the "breakdown of identity", clever criminal money making schemes involving smuggling or forgery, or mosaic like investigations of past crimes.

 

Reilly does use scientific detection. She analyses physical clues, and uses scientific techniques to identify material found at crime scenes, using the results to reconstruct the crime. The effect is closer to R. Austin Freeman than it is to Crofts, although Crofts did his own tour de force of this type at the opening of The Sea Mystery (1928). We also know that Reilly used the great real life German criminologist Hans Gross as a source, and perhaps the scientific detection in her books derives far more from such real life examples than it does from detective writers such as Freeman and Crofts. Reilly's interest in science and technology is consistent with her background in the American School, such as Frederick Irving Anderson and William MacHarg. These mystery writers either were directly involved in the Scientific Detective Story of the era, or were allied, in the sense that their work often reflected the approaches of the Scientific school.

 

One of the best uses of scientific detection in Reilly occurs in the opening of [Mr. Smith's Hat]. As in McKee of Centre Street, the science here is botany: McKee follows up clues involving plant fragments. Similar botany oriented detection occurred in Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931). Reilly does indeed share with Abbot an interest in New York City police procedure, and scientific detective techniques. However, the tone and technique of Reilly seem very different from those of Abbot and the other Van Dine school writers. McKee is not a social aristocrat, unlike the Van School's sleuths, and aside from his criminological expertise on botanical evidence, he has little of the Van Dine sleuth's intellectual knowledge. Reilly also sticks closely to pure police procedure in a fashion that seems utterly different from the Van Dine writers' more eclectic sleuthing techniques.

 

Reilly and Frederick Irving Anderson

 

Reilly seems closer to American writers of police detective tales, such as Frederick Irving Anderson and William MacHarg. Both of these authors wrote short stories that appeared in slick magazines, such as Collier's and the Saturday Evening Post. Anderson's tales flourished in the prosperous 1920's, and were full of extravagant fantasies of elaborate police investigations. MacHarg's tales were mainly published during the 1930's and early 1940's Depression era, and featured a plain realism in their settings among New Yorkers of all classes. Reilly's seem closer to Anderson's, but without the whimsy. Both Anderson and Reilly show a large team of police that perform a remarkable variety of tasks, including shadowing suspects, doing background checks, impersonation and undercover work, crime scene investigation and lab work. Both Reilly and Anderson highly relish the diverse personalities, skill sets and social backgrounds of their varied cops. Both authors' police manage to spread a very wide net around the villainy under investigation, and both have enormous initiative and get up and go. Inspector McKee has the role of chief in Reilly's world, just as Deputy Parr in Anderson's.

 

Lonely city apartments in run down neighborhoods tend to be sites of violence in Reilly's world. Reilly's stories are like MacHarg's and Cornell Woolrich's in that they sometimes are set among poor people. These writers all use police detectives. Their poor people are not mobsters, unlike the hard-boiled writers of the pulps. Instead they are ordinary people who live in tenements and slums, have menial jobs, and cope with the Depression.

 

Reilly and the Pulp Style of Plotting

 

Reilly had some contact with pulp magazines. Her second McKee novel, Murder in the Mews (1931), was serialized in Street and Smith's Detective Story Magazine, and she published a handful of short stories in other pulps. However, the novel serialization could easily have been arranged by an agent or a publisher, and Reilly's degree of contact with the world of pulp writing seems restricted. The murder victim in Mr. Smith's Hat (1936) was grinding out Western stories for a fictitious magazine called Cowboy, which seems to be a pulp. One recalls that Craig Rice's protagonist in Murder Through the Looking Glass (1943) wrote for the science fiction pulps, that Lenore Glen Offord's series sleuth Todd McKinnon earned his living writing pulp detective stories, and that Dorothy L. Sayers' Unnatural Death (1928) refers to Black Mask. All of these references to pulp by Golden Age writers seem to be by women authors. Perhaps this is just a meaningless coincidence. Or perhaps, male writers were more conscious of the low career status assigned to pulps, and avoided referring to them in their tales - career success is a traditional part of masculine self image.

 

Reilly's Techniques

 

Reilly has a personal interest in architecture, that wonderful staple of Golden Age novels. Late in Follow Me, the heroine is held captive in a pink adobe house. Eventually, the roof of the building plays a role in the story. Similarly, in her early novel Murder in the Mews (1931), the roof of a building figures prominently. The characters in both books start out at the bottom, and eventually make their way to the top of the house.

 

This early novel is extremely stilted. Reilly would become a vastly more lively writer as the years progressed. She had the gift of unrolling an ever more complicated plot, with each section providing some new, startling revelation about her characters. Her books, although they generate suspense, are true detective stories. The heroine of Follow Me, while she gets in jeopardy, is a real sleuth, and constantly both attempts to solve the mystery, and succeeds at uncovering more and more of the hidden truth.

 

The opening scientific detection in [Mr. Smith's Hat] turns into a full fledged "revelation" of the kind found in her later work. The revelation involves color and form. It is one of the best pieces of imagery in her work.

 

Staircase 4 (1948-1949) shows Reilly adapting techniques of 1940's suspense. Chapters 6-7 show the heroine being menaced in the Gaslight tradition, with someone trying to make her believe she has lost her mind; while Chapters 11-12 depict her heroine sleuthing for a mystery witness through endless streets of New York City, in the tradition of Cornell Woolrich's Phantom Lady (1942). The heroine got the clue for this search earlier, when she recalled a new image about a past encounter (towards the end of Chapter 5). This newly illuminated memory is in Reilly's visionary tradition. Staircase 4 also has some excellent descriptions of the lights of New York City, especially in twilight, after dark and in the rain. These show Reilly's power to evoke effects of light and color.

 

Reilly's Characters

 

Reilly is interested in formerly well to do New Yorkers who are downwardly mobile. Sometimes these people are very open about their sea change. One thinks of the victim in [Mr. Smith's Hat] (1936), who has abandoned his snooty relatives to life a life of drinking and bohemianism, or the penniless young society woman in The Opening Door (1944) who leaves home and starts a book store and glove shop to support herself, over her snobbish family's fierce objection - they think she should have tried to marry for money instead. This young woman is clearly admirable, while the drunk is probably reprehensible. However, one has a distinct suspicion that Reilly is highly sympathetic to both. The treatment of the young woman has a feminist strand - her going to work is seen as admirable by the author, despite society's objection. Similarly, the young widow in Follow Me plans to get a job, despite her friend's protests. All of these open characters tend to be non-suspects. They are either victims, like the drunk, or viewpoint characters, like the heroine of The Opening Door and the young widow in Follow Me. They are marked "innocent" in the mystery puzzle plot, and morally sympathetic in the author's world view.

 

A second kind of downwardly mobile character in Reilly is far less open about it. These are suspects who keep up a big front, and who live the lives of upper class New Yorkers, but who are actually quite strapped for money. These characters tend to be suspects in Reilly's books. At first glance, they seem to be quite polished. They tend to be men, well dressed, sophisticated, and with upper middle class jobs. However, they are spending way above any income they have, and the reader discovers that these initially upper crust looking people will do anything for money. These characters include the father and the brother in The Opening Door, and most of the heroine's circle of "friends" in Follow Me. Reilly's treatment of these people as suspects in the puzzle plot is also mirrored in her negative moral and social view of them. They are always introduced in the plot as "typical" upper middle class people, and only later do we learn their flaws. This tends to suggest that most upper middle class people are essentially fakes. Polished on the surface with their upper class clothes and status symbols, but far less solid underneath.

 

All the downwardly mobile characters fit in with Reilly's themes of ambiguity and hidden truth. They look one way socially, but in fact their real lives and status could be quite different. They have a double role. They are as ambiguous as are both the relationships and the mystery plot developments in Reilly's work.

 

Bibliography

 

The Diamond Feather (1930)

The Thirty-First Bullfinch (1930)

Man with the Painted Head (1931)

Murder in the Mews (1931)

The Doll’s Trunk Murder (1932)

The Line-Up (1934)

McKee of Centre Street (1934)

Dead Man Control (1936)

Mr Smith’s Hat (1936)

The File on Rufus Ray (1937)

All Concerned Notified (1939)

Dead for a Ducat (1939)

Death Demands an Audience (1940)

Murder in Shinbone Alley (1940)

The Dead Can Tell (1940)

Mourned on Sunday (1941)

Three Women in Black (1941)

Name Your Poison (1942)

The Opening Door (1944)

Murder on Angler’s Island (1945)

The Silver Leopard (1946)

The Farmhouse (1947)

Staircase 4 (1949)

Murder at Arroways (1950)

Lament for the Bride (1951)

The Double Man (1952)

The Velvet Hand (1953)

Tell Her It's Murder (1954)

Compartment K (1955)

The Canvas Dagger (1956)

Ding Dong Bell (1958)

Not Me, Inspector (1959)

Follow Me (1960)

Certain Sleep (1961)

The Day She Died (1962)

 

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