Crime Classics

‘Through A Glass Darkly’ is that rare crime novel where you never know what actually happened

A mystery novel by a lesser-known queen of crime stars a creepy ‘double’. The second in a series on the workings of crime fiction.

In a key passage in Helen McCloy’s 1949 suspense novel Through a Glass, Darkly, a psychiatrist-detective is speaking with a young lady who is at the centre of a storm. Faustina Crayle has been dismissed from her teaching position in a girls’ school under a veil of secrecy, and Dr Basil Willing has discovered the reason: many terrified people believe that Faustina has unearthly powers. Specifically, that she has a silent, ghostly double – or a doppelganger, to use the old German word. Whether Faustina herself is complicit in these spectral sightings – whether she is innocent or malicious – is beside the point for the school’s management. She can’t be allowed to stay on.

Now Basil and Faustina are talking, the former probing gently, the latter trying to make sense of all the disquiet she has caused. And she says:

“Have you any idea what all this is like for me? How desperately I keep asking myself all the old unanswered questions. What is life for? Why were human beings made? Why do we assume so confidently that God is good, when He is so much more likely to be evil? Are we an accident of chemistry, without beginning or end or purpose? Super-colloids, acting out a heartless comedy? Are we a dream of God’s, as the Buddhists believe? Is that why, in early childhood, you stare at your face in the mirror and look at your hands and feet and say to yourself: I am me. I am Faustina Crayle. I am not anyone else. Yet, no matter how hard you try to realise your identity, something inside you goes on feeling that it’s not quite true…”

Out of context, this might sound like a bit of faux-philosophy inserted into a slim, fast-paced mystery. But when you read Through a Glass, Darkly from the beginning, slowly coming to inhabit the world of its characters, the conversation between Faustina and Basil is compelling, poignant, and feels central to the narrative (and not just because it occurs exactly at the book’s midpoint). Cards are placed on the table, a measure of clarity brought to what has so far been a mystifying story. (It is unsurprising that this happens when Basil Willing begins his investigation: he is Helen McCloy’s series detective.) A woman who is an object of suspicion for many of the characters is revealed as a sympathetic, sensitive and weary presence (though of course, we can’t yet be sure that Faustina isn’t other things as well). And then, after the man of science has reassured Faustina that she isn’t in mortal danger from a ghostly double, he walks out into the street, shivers, looks up at the night sky and says to himself: “Who am I to say what cannot happen in this unknowable world?”

At the very end of the book, someone else (I won’t reveal who) will make a similar gesture and pronouncement, and Willing himself will again be faced with self-doubt – even as he plays his role of the detective glibly winding things up.

How much do we know?

Some months ago, when I began rekindling an old passion for crime writing, I found I hadn’t read several authors or books that were celebrated, even regarded as canonical, by serious genre buffs. It’s the sort of thing that can happen when, based on your familiarity with, say, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Cornell Woolrich, Raymond Chandler and a few others –authors who tend to be well known to readers splashing about on the shores of the genre rather than plunging fully into it – you think you know almost everything there is to know about Anglophone crime writing of a certain vintage.

High on this list of neglected classics was McCloy’s affecting novel – a book I had never even heard of until I saw it had been ranked at number 12 on a famous 1981 poll of best impossible-crime novels. The four words that make up its title were for me mainly associated with Ingmar Bergman’s great film, which is concerned with the theological implications of the Biblical phrase: the idea that human knowledge is necessarily imperfect, that we will acquire complete vision – with the grace of a higher power – only in the fullness of time.

In a subtly different way, McCloy’s novel also touches on the theme of how limited human knowledge is – how little we yet know about the workings of the human mind, and about the possible links between the corporeal and the non-material worlds.

Consider how a school principal named Mrs Lightfoot tries hesitantly to make sense of the doppelganger phenomenon: “Suppose that an unconscious mind could gather unto itself enough vital energy to project some purely visual image or reflection of itself on the air? Perhaps through some form of refracted radiation? A dream-form that was visible to others as well as to the dreamer – visible but not material [like] reflections in a mirror […] rainbows and mirages.”

Here, a self-described modern woman is struggling to transcend the usual paranoid-sounding language about ghosts or witchcraft and to instead explore the possibility that whatever is going on has an explanation that might make more sense to us once our scientific knowledge has progressed to a certain point.

But it’s all rational, isn’t it – or is it?

In my previous piece in this series, I mentioned books that seemed to be imbued with supernatural occurrences but ended with a logical explanation. Through a Glass, Darkly broadly appears to fit in that category, but to me it felt more like the converse (or a mirror image?). In this case, most of the main characters are devoutly rational, well-educated people whose gut instinct is to be cautious and “sensible”, and the book ends with Basil Willing putting forth his theory, a plausible one. Yet there are still unanswered questions, and little details that one can’t shrug off. For instance, if one attributes the goings-on to a cruel human agency, how does one explain that some of the appearances and actions of Faustina’s “double” play out like her own unrealised impulses?

Perhaps this is McCloy’s major achievement: there is something so viscerally creepy about both her premise and her presentation of it (notably in one scene where two schoolgirls watch Faustina painting in a lawn, her hand moving languidly as if in a slow-motion film; and in another, later scene set in a seaside cottage) that even the most secure reader might not be able to help looking over his shoulder. As with Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (and its superb 1961 film adaptation The Innocents), about a governess wondering if her young charges are possessed, a sense of claustrophobic unease is created, ensuring that the rational mind is never allowed full control.

The result is that however persuasive Willing’s explanation is, we can’t place ourselves completely in his hands. The lingering impression at the end is not just of a supposed criminal protesting innocence, but also of Faustina herself – a character we have come to feel for – frightened not by an earthly antagonist but by the terror of coming face to face with her own immaterial other-self.

No wonder this is a book that will make you steer clear of reflective surfaces when you’re alone late at night.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Transforming patient care by managing talent better

Active leadership roles by physicians, innovative human resource strategies and a strong organizational culture can bridge the talent gap in healthcare.

Attracting and retaining talent is a challenge for many industries – however for the healthcare industry, the problem is compounded by acute shortage of skilled professionals. India has a ratio of 0.7 doctors and 1.5 nurses per 1,000 people as against the WHO ideal average of 2.5 each of doctors and nurses per 1,000 people. This reflects the immense human resource challenge in the Indian healthcare industry.

So, what can hospitals do to retain and groom the existing talent? How can a clear leadership vision motivate healthcare professionals to perform better? These were among the questions addressed at the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. The panel focused on three key aspects: leadership, talent retention and organisational culture.

Role of leadership

Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group and Faculty at Stanford Business School, spoke at length about the role of strong leadership in human resource and talent management. He began by defining the role of a leader. In this video, Dr. Pearl describes a leader as someone who motivates others by setting a strong vision.

Play

According to Dr. Pearl, for a leader to craft such a vision and motivate others to work towards it, he or she would require certain qualities. These include empathy, good communication and ability to make quick decisions, stay calm under stress, multitask, and take responsibility - qualities that physicians typically possess by virtue of their profession. He thus urged doctors and physicians to play a greater role in leading their institutions.

His view is supported by research - a report in a Harvard Business Review says that physician-run hospitals scored 25% higher in quality rankings across geographies over hospitals run by professionals from non-medical backgrounds.

Dr. Pearl says, a leader who is also a physician is in a better position to set benchmarks for other professionals. Setting benchmarks would also mean setting an example for organizational behavior, culture and thought process. Many studies have examined the influence of a leader on his organization’s culture. This is expressed well by Dr Larry Senn’s concept ‘Shadow of the leader’ which emphasizes that the kind of ‘shadow’ a leader casts across the organization impacts how the employees think, behave and work. Thus, it is all the more important for physicians to get involved in hospital leadership.

Managing and retaining talent

One of the key responsibilities of leadership is to also manage and retain good talent. According to Dr. Pearl, one way of optimizing talent is by making efficient use of human resources.

A study by Tuck’s Centre for Global Leadership of nine Indian hospitals reiterates this. It shows that the strategy of ‘task shifting’ or the transfer of routine tasks to lower-skilled workers left specialists free to handle more complicated procedures. The result – more productive doctors performing five to six surgeries per hour.

Attracting and retaining talent was also a major topic of discussion in the panel discussion on ‘Transforming the talent ecosystem’ at the HLS summit. Some of the panelists believed that exposing professionals to areas that go beyond their core skills, such as strategy and analytics, could play a significant role in retaining talent. This would ensure constant opportunities for learning and growth and also answer the hospitals’ growing need for professionals from management backgrounds.

Dr Nandakumar Jairam, Group Director – Columbia Asia pointed out that hospitals need to look at people with soft skills such as empathy, ability to listen well, etc. So, while hospitals expand their recruitment pool and look to other industries for recruiting people, they should also train their existing staff in these skills.

Play

The NYC Health + Hospitals in the U.S, a winner of the ‘Training Top 125’ 2017, is an example of how effective employee training can help achieve corporate goals. Its training programs span a range of skills - from medical simulations to language interpretation, leadership development and managing public health threats, thus giving its employees the opportunity to learn and grow within and outside their disciplines.

Reaching out to premier medical institutes in various ways also helps attract and retain talented professionals. Sir Gangaram Hospital in New Delhi, has emerged to be an attractive employer due its credibility in the medical research space. Their Department of Research aims to facilitate high quality, patient centric research and promotes laboratory based investigations across various disciplines, also assisting clinicians in pursuing projects.

Organizational culture and progressive HR policies

Rajit Mehta, CEO, Max Healthcare, also talked about the importance of having a conducive organizational culture that keeps the workforce together and motivates them to perform better. Every aspect of the organizational functioning reflects its culture – whether it’s staff behavior or communication – and culture stems from alignment with a strong leadership vision.

Organizational culture is also about incentivizing the workforce through performance rewards and employee-friendly HR policies. For example, at a popular healthcare facility in the US, all the 3,600 employees are actively encouraged to stay fit – they can buy fresh fruits and vegetables while at work, get healthy cooking tips from demonstrations in the office kitchen and enjoy free massages at their office chairs.

A report also talks about how some hospitals in the US inducted their employees into therapeutic activities like knitting, meditation etc., as part of their efforts to help them cope with stress. Some hospitals also have designated areas with amenities for staff members to relax and recoup.

Back home, Sir Gangaram Hospital recently helped its employees during the cash-crunched phase following demonetization by distributing currency notes to all. Such initiatives help establish trust and goodwill among the workforce.

Fostering a good culture is crucial for employee engagement. An engaged employee is one who is committed to the organisation’s goals and values and is motivated to give his or her best to the organisation’s success. Employee engagement has direct impact on hospital system health outcomes. According to a review of engagement and clinical outcomes at the National Health Service (NHS) in England, for every 10% increase in engagement there was a reduction in MRSA, a life-threatening skin infection, by .057 cases per 10,000 bed days. Additionally, a one standard deviation improvement in engagement reduced mortality by 2.4 percentage points.

It is however tough to gauge employee engagement and implement policies to improve it. As per an HRsoft study, more than 90% of managers or CEOs believe an engagement strategy is important for the organisation’s success but only 30% actually have one. The infographic below provides a useful starting point for managers to develop a strategy of their own.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services. Additionally, in more than 25 countries Abbott is recognized as a leading employer in country and a great place to work.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.