Wednesday, January 17, 2018

PANIC by Helen McCloy

Alison is afraid. Her uncle Felix has died mysteriously. WWII is in full swing and he was doing some confidential work for the War Department. She's taking off for an isolated country house to spend some time alone....but every time she turns around there's another eccentric or creepy neighbor showing up, making threatening remarks. What's going on?

Published in 1944, Panic is one of the few non-series works by Helen McCloy, who frequently featured psychologist sleuth Basil Willing. Panic isn't a straightforward whodunit, though. One of the interesting aspects of it is that it's a mix of genres. There's elements of the analytical, as Alison puzzles her way through a complicated cipher that her uncle left behind. There's elements of espionage, as Uncle Felix's cipher is sought by domestic supporters of the Nazi cause. And there's lots of elements of the gothic damsel-in-distress, as Alison is alone in an isolated house in the Catskills, being stalked by what she thinks may be a supernatural being.

Does it work? Well, kind of. As a contemporary portrait of WWII-era America, it's pretty interesting. (It was later rewritten to reflect the Vietnam era, but I'm glad I found a WWII era edition.) There's quite a bit of discussion of cryptanalysis, to the point I mentally skipped over a few paragraphs as they were obviously the author lecturing the reader. And all the cipher involved in the story is there for the enterprising reader to analyze on their own, if they so care.

I also saw this as a precursor to many of the modern romantic-suspense damsel-in-distress thrillers that are all over the place. Alison is being stalked and harassed by multiple people, including a woman who may be a man in drag, and a strange being who leaves footprints similar to a goat's, making classically-minded Alison to think she's being stalked by Pan.

The solution is no big shock, and much emphasis is placed on physical deformity, especially one that the book says is exceedingly rare but in the real world is not all that unusual. And in the end, the differing aspects of the story don't always hang together well.

In the end, Panic has some interest as history and as a minor landmark in the development of romantic suspense. But it's not a great thriller,and sometimes the heroine is a bit annoying with her dithering and fear of supernatural creatures. Worth reading if you stumble on a copy, but I wouldn't recommend tracking it down unless you're a scholar of romantic suspense, cryptanalysis, or both.

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