I kept struggling with which title of Helen Reilly’s I wanted on the list, then if I wondered if she should be on the list at all, then if she should be lower on the list or higher on the list, until I just said, enough already, and went with the title I wanted to all along, Mr. Smith’s Hat. Most of Reilly’s novels are well worth reading, they are super police procedurals, and she is known as one of the earliest practitioners. Inspector McKee, of Centre Street, NYC, is a pragmatic, unimaginative type of policeman. He uses as much scientific methods as possible as tools in investigating the crime. He’s not well to do, or an intellectual genius, such as S. S. Van Dine’s detective, or Ellery Queen. He is however, very good at his job and always gets his man or woman.
The opening paragraph of Mr. Smith’s Hat catches interest right off the bat:
“That will be all lieutenant, you can take her away.” The lady who admitted having too heavy and hand with arsenic in her husband’s jelly roll was led weeping from the room, and Christopher McKee, the head of the homicide squad, threw himself back in his chair, glanced at a memorandum on his desk and frowned, He had had a long, tiring morning, the afternoon was appallingly hot and the thing didn’t look important–simply a man’s name and address with ‘Death from misadventure’ scribbled below it. But there was a question mark below ‘Death from misadventure’ and he had put it there himself, although he couldn’t at the moment remember why. ”
An alcoholic writer of pulp westerns is found sprawled across his apartment floor by the cleaning lady. It appears to the unpracticed eye to be a simple accident, he staggered up for his bottle, wobbled, and went down, hitting his head on the edge of a piece of furniture, and died. His genteel wife did not live there with him, she was used to his erratic behavior of drinking, carousing with his buddies and playing around with the ladies. And she was heart broken when shown his body, her brother standing silently by.
With nothing suspicious, except a clump of dirt where no clump of dirt should or could be without a visitor, they were going to bury Mr. Gilbert Shannon. A young eager detective took the clump to McKee, McKee had it analyzed and came up with a couple of cat hairs, and one lonely seed. He gave instructions for the seed to be planted, and it was. This odd clue, and a laughing low life at the funeral service, gave McKee enough doubt to follow up.
Where the investigation leads, is odder than one would think, considering how mundane the writer’s death had first appeared.
Reilly is a hard author to pigeonhole, I believe. I read several analysis’ of her style and remain confused as to what it was. I don’t remember her novels being in the “Had She But Known” school of writing, as created by Mary Roberts Rinehart, but apparently her first couple have been tapped as being of that genre by some critics. And for whatever reason, ‘had she but known’ isn’t a well respected style of writing, even though it did quite well for Rinehart during her lifetime, and even now, as her books continue to sell and be read. I’ve noticed that male critics seem to find that particular tactic in mysteries to be repugnant. I admit, that there are times when someone like Rinehart pours it on thickly, but to categorize Reilly in that school seems to be stretching the definition. One of her titles The Doll’s Trunk, is appallingly bad, in my opinion. I couldn’t understand after reading that one book how she ever got published again. It’s not an Inspector McKee title, so maybe it was deliberately forgotten.
I didn’t start reading the series in order, like I usually do, and it made no difference. These are not stories that need to be referenced before starting another one, which is excellent for the reader who enjoys picking something up just from a good jacket blurb, without needing to go back and read the first 5 billion titles that came before, just to understand the one in your hand. And it is uneven in quality. Another favorite of mine, Murder In Shinbone Alley involves the pitching out of a high rise’s window a bride all dressed in white, and red, when she hits the pavement. I found that image appealing, for some reason, and even after finding out the bride hadn’t been just married, but was a model in one of her outfits for a fashion show, it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the premise or the subsequent plot points and resolution.
Mr. Smith’s Hat is just that much more satisfying in the final denouement.
For a well researched and written article on Helen Reilly go here: