From this relatively benign starting point, author Helen McCloy puts her protagonist through the crucible. For two-thirds of the tale, we follow Alice as she shares her suspicions and doubts – these sections are very much offered from a first-person limited omniscient perspective, so we know only what Alice herself thinks and observes. The tactic is a smart one, as it allows the reader to experience the character’s increasing paranoia (all the more potent since her fears seem to be partially anchored in truth) while also being invited to look critically, outside of the character, and wonder about the soundness of the excitable woman’s mental state.
It is an understatement to say that incidents and revelations manifest quickly. After an attempt on her life sends Alice to the hospital, the traumatized patient sneaks out of her private room and walks (sleepwalks?) to Teresa Lash’s cottage with murder on her mind: she is certain that Miss Lash was driving the car that tried to kill her, although her son and the police are less sure. In her drugged and distraught state, Alice Hazard sees her plan as a way to protect her family and, just possibly, to avenge her husband’s death; John’s fall from a cliff on a foggy New England evening might not have been an accident after all.
With nightmare logic, Alice enters the cottage and finds her quarry already killed in exactly the fashion she had planned to use. Is someone trying to frame the hapless widow or help her? Or could Alice have done the deed herself, with her conscious mind refusing to process and claim the act? It’s a fortunate coincidence that psychiatrist Basil Willing lives in the neighborhood and decides to take an interest.
At 136 pages, The Long Body is slim and propulsive; its plotline covers an impressive amount of ground and generates an admirable amount of suspense. Rather than crafting a fairly clued detective puzzle, Helen McCloy delivers a psychological thriller that seems to be winking occasionally at its own unbelievable melodrama. It is one of those flights of fantastical fiction that seems to exist only on the page or on the screen. If credibility hasn’t been stretched to the limit with the story’s premise and complications, by the time the heroine decides to sneak out of the hospital and kill her nemesis the reader is more curious than concerned. To be fair, dozens of Hollywood crime film scripts from the 1940s and ‘50s play a similar game, gleefully choosing unbelievable but entertaining fantasy over a more logical reality.
The book’s title refers not to an in-the-moment corpse but instead to Dr. Basil Willing’s macroscopic view of a subject’s cumulative personality shaped by age and over time. As Willing explains to Alice, who has sought his counsel:
“Ordinarily we think of growth as changes the body makes in itself. But the Hindus think of the body as a whole including infancy, middle age and old age – a whole that stands still while the motion of time reveals various aspects of that whole which is called the long body – the body that is long in time, stretching all the way from birth to death.”
“When you seek a murderer among people who are superficially incapable of crime, the answer must lie in the long body of one of those people – the true shape of a character as it is revealed over a long period of time.”