Helen Reilly Critical Essays

Helen Kieran


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

According to Ursula Curtiss, Helen Reilly was formed by her early life in New York City. It is in fact her knowledge of the city that lay behind two of the main features of her novels. First, she displayed a thorough understanding of the Manhattan Homicide Squad. It was her expertise in this area that enabled her to achieve success as an author of police procedurals. Her acquaintance with the city, however, was by no means confined to its seamy side. Her background was upper class, and her novels often display her insider’s grasp of the workings of New York high society. Although her style lacked the unusual qualities of her plots, it nevertheless was brisk and efficient.

Modern popular mystery writers such as Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald are often tough and hard-boiled. In contrast with Victorian figures such as Arthur Conan Doyle, whose “scientific” detection carefully avoided much contact with actual criminals, these writers stress the sordid; in the modern school, there is no battle of the giants in the style of Sherlock Holmes against Professor Moriarty.

Readers of Dashiell Hammett will not need to be told that detective fiction’s change from romance to realism began early. Although Hammett is the most famous of all writers of realistic detective fiction, he was not the only pioneer of this genre. Reilly, though she lacked the master touch of Hammett, exercised great influence on subsequent detective fiction through her extensive knowledge of police methods of investigation.

How carefully Reilly studied police procedure is obvious from an examination of her early novel File on Rufus Ray (1937). Here photographs of the actual evidence found by the police and used as exhibits are included in the book. Included are telegrams, a button inadvertently left at the murder scene, photographs of suspects, and a small packet of cigarette ashes. The reader is invited to follow along with the police as they proceed to the solution.

Reilly was not the only writer of the 1930’s who did things like this: Several “crime kits,” for example, were issued by the popular British writer Dennis Wheatley at roughly the same time. Reilly’s police stories, however, differed entirely from Wheatley’s. He was a “classic” writer, stressing pure deduction and bizarre details in the commission of the crime.

Reilly, on the other hand, was grimly realistic. Her Inspector McKee operates not through inspired hunches and supernatural powers of deduction but through hard work and persistent intelligence. Unlike detectives such as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, whose “little grey cells” operate in sovereign indifference to those of anyone else, McKee does not do the job alone.

Quite the contrary, one of the realistic features of Reilly’s stories is her constant emphasis on teamwork. McKee, though clearly first among equals, does not solve his cases by himself. He discusses his solutions with Dr. Fernandez, the assistant medical examiner. On McKee’s staff are Lucy Sturm, a nurse and undercover agent, and Officer Pierson, an accurate observer. Probably the most significant of McKee’s assistants is Detective Todhunter, an unassuming person who is nevertheless a skilled detective.

Each of these persons is characterized briefly in a few bold strokes: Anyone who has read several of Reilly’s McKee series novels will get a good picture of the team in action. Although her portrayal of these characters aided her in the factual approach to crime solving she was trying to achieve, she sometimes took a good thing too far. All of her McKee novels feature the same cast of police characters—they sometimes appear mere formulas repeated by rote.

Police work as Reilly describes it differs in many more ways from the methods of the great intuitive detectives such as Poirot and Holmes. On more than one occasion, force as well as intelligence is required to solve the case. Reilly’s novels were written long before the Miranda decision and the modern emphasis on the rights of...

(The entire section is 1667 words.)