Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Dead Can Tell by Helen Reilly

Helen Reilly (1891-1962) wrote nearly 40 mysteries between 1930 and 1962. Her primary series character was Inspector Christopher McKee of the fictional Manhattan Homicide Squad. She is credited with writing some of the earliest known police procedurals, using forensics and scientific investigation to solve the mystery. Michael E. Grost ( has an essay on her use of scientific detection principles in her books on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki:

She did keep herself informed in the realm of forensics research. In The Dead Can Tell (Random House, 1940) she makes use of the new method of rebuilding the face of homicide victims based on the skull bone structure when they cannot be identified any other way.

In this story, the ninth appearance of McKee, Steven Hazard and Cristie Lansing accidentally meet after ending their relationship years earlier. They are both reminded of what they gave up, especially Steven, who married on the rebound, only to regret it bitterly. He takes a promotion within his company that will take him out of the country and plans to take Cristie with him, after initiating divorce proceedings and handing over virtually all of his assets to his wife Sara. To his great surprise, Sara will not grant him the divorce he wants. Within 24 hours, her car is seen to roll off the street into the river. When the car is recovered within hours, there was no one in it. When her body is recovered weeks later, the medical examiner’s findings are death by accident.

A few weeks after the funeral, Inspector McKee receives an anonymous letter that says Sara Hazard was murdered. While he has no real evidence that the death was anything but accidental, he begins investigating. He learns that Sara Hazard’s maid has disappeared with some of Sara’s jewelry. He finds that Sara was deeply in debt and indulged in blackmail to keep herself afloat. It took no time to discover that her husband wanted to end their marriage. With the list of her enemies growing almost daily, Inspector McKee finds it easier and easier to believe the death was deliberately contrived.

While it’s clear that Reilly did indeed incorporate police procedures into the plot of her book, she wasn’t consistent with their application. For instance, she did not observe the preservation of the chain of evidence as it related to one of the guns in the case. It probably wasn’t as important then as it is now.

The general style of the writing and many of the characters in this book remind me of the Lockridges’ work. Perhaps also because it is set in New York, where most of their books were set. I intend to locate a few more in this series for my TBR stack. Recommended especially for anyone interested in the history of police procedurals.

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