Mr. Splitfoot (1968) by Helen McCloy

Mr Splitfoot by Helen McCloy

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“That room has been locked up for about fifty years.”

“But why?”

“Oh, the usual sort of reason. Everyone who has ever slept in that room has been found dead in the morning.”

Fifteen-year-old Lucinda Swayne has a plan to scare her father and stepmother. Just a little, just enough for them to know what it’s like to be under someone else’s power—maybe even make them believe in Mr. Splitfoot, the devil himself. She and her friend Vanya are going to stage a haunting

Lucinda doesn’t know about the legends that have surrounded the old house for nearly a century. She doesn’t know about the secret hiding place. And she doesn’t know that someone is about to end up dead for real. What begins as a teenage prank soon turns fatal, and not even Dr. Basil Willing can make a deal with the devil.

Mr Splitfoot by Helen McCloyMr. Splitfoot is a perfectly blended mix of haunted house chiller, sophisticated murder mystery, and surprisingly affecting coming-of-age story. This also means it’s not a straight line to the solution. McCloy tosses in a number of asides and digressions that sometimes slow the plot down, but also provide interesting insights into the characters and the time period.

Basil Willing and his wife Gisela end up at the creepy old mansion called Crow’s Flight after their car breaks down in a snowstorm and Gisela injures her ankle. A house party is already in progress, hosted by Lucinda’s father, writer Frank Swayne, and her stepmother Folly, who is notable for her immaculate manner and rather masculine beauty. The other guests are Frank’s publisher, the wealthy Bradford Alcott, with his wife Ginevra. Alcott gives off an air of arrogance and boredom that Basil finds intriguing.

So he wasn’t resigned to failure. He must be resigned to success, and perhaps that was harder to bear in old age. Failure can console itself with so many ifs…If I had made more money…If I had married someone else…But there are no consolations for success. I did make money…I did marry the woman, or women, I wanted…And now…is this all?

Also present is the owner of the house, David Crowe, and his wife Serena, whose face is mysteriously scarred. The air is full of strain between these supposed old friends. Even if Basil were not a psychiatrist, it would be obvious that the party has already gone wrong in some indefinable way.

Mr Splitfoot by Helen McCloyAfter a tense dinner, David shares the story of the haunted room, the room that is always kept locked. The men agree to an experiment and draw lots to see which one will spend the night there. The other three sit together, waiting for a result. They won’t have long to wait.

This is a sort of faux locked-room mystery, as the door to the room is kept open, but the men are all together and the creaky floorboards would give away any woman sneaking into the room. As Ginevra Alcott observes, “Nobody believes in ghosts, but everybody is afraid of them.” The guests all tell themselves that there must be some rational explanation for what’s happened in the haunted room, but only two people really believe that: Basil and the killer.

Helen McCloy always excels at conjuring a spooky atmosphere, and Mr. Splitfoot does not disappoint on that score. The lovingly detailed history of the locked room is wonderfully shuddery; it’s easy to see how everyone would be on edge, ready for the devil.

“Nobody there.” He shut the door and switched off the outdoor lights.

“Did you think there would be?” Lucinda’s voice climbed higher. “Did you?”

She had risen. Her face was fever-pink. Her pale eyes glittered like the snowflakes. Her high voice rang out crystal-hard, eldritch, compelling.

“Do as I do, Mr. Splitfoot!”

She clapped her hands three times.

Promptly the answer came: Rap…rap…rap…

There is a surprisingly large focus on the two teenagers, Lucinda and Vanya. “I don’t think there’s ever real communication between parents and children,” and yet this generation gap has rarely been wider than it was in the late 1960s. Lucinda and Vanya are far from the counterculture, but they are always seeking out little ways to rebel against “Them”—their parents. “Everyone dies at thirty,” Vanya proclaims. They insist that they won’t be like that with their own children. When Lucinda wonders exactly how they will accomplish this, however, he has no answers for her.

The young people are convinced, rather endearingly, that their reading has prepared them for aspects of adult life they have not yet experienced. Determined to play detective, they use a secret passage to spy on the suspects, even falsifying evidence in an effort to steer the investigation. Lucinda and Vanya soon discover that real life is messier than it is in books. They may learn things they aren’t ready to find out.

“You really are afraid of Mr. Splitfoot, aren’t you?”

Lucinda gave him another sidewise look. “If you mean I’m afraid of a disembodied demon, no. But if you mean I’m afraid Mr. Splitfoot is a part of someone we know, yes.”

The solution has an elegant simplicity that makes the mystery solvable by readers more sharp-eyed than I am, culminating in a harrowing finale. “Fate is the insecapable,” Folly Swayne proclaims before the murders, “love and death. When the Victorians said ‘his fate,’ they meant either ‘his love’ or ‘his death.'” In Mr. Splitfootlove, death, and fate are all intertwined, and solving the mystery does nothing to untangle them.

Second Opinions

Pretty Sinister

The explanation of the impossible crime in the haunted room is on par with some of the best of Carr’s novels. It’s the most ingeniously devised of any of McCloy’s plots.

Beneath the Stains of Time

I have to completely agree with John Norris, who posted an excellent review of this book mere moments after I placed an order for it, in ranking the impossible crime aspect of the story alongside the best of John Dickson Carr. It’s no mean feat to create a genuine locked room problem in an open, unlocked room whose exit wasn’t closely guarded and is situated in a house with hidden rooms. And what’s more, the solution is simple, clever and satisfying!

The Reader Is Warned

And when McCloy hits her stride in Mr Splitfoot, she hits it hard. The best parts show off what she was really good at: horror, atmosphere and character, alongside wonderful clewing and misdirection. The set up of the historical impossible murders and the subsequent present day one is pure terror. This is one of those books that you shouldn’t read late at night, or you’ll be seeing things in every shadow.

However, there are few times in this book where McCloy’s subtlety gives way to a dragging pace of writing.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Still, a bit padded, but a generally good read, with a well-plotted mystery. Well Worth A Look, but not the cast-iron classic that I expected.

ahsweetmysteryblog

I’m terrible with impossible crimes and locked room mysteries, and Mr. Splitfoot fits into that sub-genre. However, here I guessed the solution almost immediately, and I figure most long time readers of “locked room” mysteries will also do so. The middle part of this book, which details the investigation, tends to drag a little bit. The characterization in this book isn’t as strong as in Through a Glass, Darkly, except for the wonderful portrait of a little girl, and the supernatural element is pretty much discarded in the light of day. However, the excitement revs up at the climax, where several characters face true danger before the truth can be revealed.

Availability

Mr. Splitfoot is available as an ebook from The Murder Room in the US.

 

 


16 thoughts on “Mr. Splitfoot (1968) by Helen McCloy

  1. I very much enjoyed this one — not least, as you highlight, because of how well-realised the teenage characters are. The snowbound setting is very tangible, and the characters perform pretty much as expected, but there’s something about those two younger sets of eyes and minds in the place that lifts this a little.

    The impossibility, too, is a good one; should’ve seen it coming, but was having too much fun with the eerie atmospherics to want to look that far ahead. Of the four McCloys I’ve read, this is far and away my favourite; I’m hoping to find something else in her oeuvre to match it one day.

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    1. The teen characters remind me so much of my friends and I at that age, which is maybe not something I should admit in public. It does give a fresh viewpoint to the story, especially since McCloy obviously enjoys them as well and takes their concerns (mostly) seriously. So many writers of this period used 1960s youth culture as a punchline; it’s nice to see an author treating young people as three-dimensional characters.

      The solution to the “locked room” is just perfect–it’s right there in front of you all the time, but McCloy weaves such a spell that it slips right past. One thing I always forget about as well is her evil tendency to hide clues in plain sight by boring you to death. There was definitely a moment in this one where all I could think was, “This is so boring, why are they even talking about this?” Sure enough…

      Which other books have you read by McCloy? Two-Thirds of a Ghost is probably my favorite, though I don’t remember if the solution would hold up for a hardened impossible-crime reader.

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      1. “Boring you to death” is about right. And, frustratingly, she also does it when there are no clues to hide: case in point, the start of the final chapter here which goes into laborious detail about the setting where everyone is meeting for the explanation and made me want to scream “Just explain how it was done already!!”

        My Other McCloys are The Slayer and the Slain, Through a Glass Darkly, and, er, another one whose title I can’t recall at present. All were, in their own way, a significant let down after this.

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      2. For me, the psychological and historical gobbledygook is too dull, but I love the insights into characters and society even though they do technically slow down the mystery. The scene you mention is horribly placed, since we’re all dying to hear the solution right then. Still, it was sort of endearing to me because it seems clear that McCloy had been in a place like that herself and been sort of baffled by it. I like getting these little glimpses into the author’s personality–though, again, the timing was not the best.

        At the same time, that’s one of the things that made The Slayer and the Slain ring false. The narrator is supposed to be an unworldly young man, and he’s always spouting off some incredibly sophisticated analysis of woman’s role in society. Both Slayer and Through a Glass Darkly do have underwhelming central mysteries. However, the latter is such an intense mood piece and has such a wonderful flavor of postwar New York that it makes up for it.

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      3. Slayer mystified me because — yes, great mood though it has — that core mystery just makes no sense on any level. I shall not get into spoilers, but it’s a shame to have a such a superb milieu wasted on such alarmist claptrap as that book tries to get away with 😀

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      4. It’s odd, I had a great time reading Slayer because McCloy is so good at stoking the reader’s anticipation. But my feelings about it have grown more negative over time because the whole atmosphere of the book is designed solely to support this central mystery that is so easy to guess. I kept waiting for an extra twist or complication that never came. Unlike Mr. Splitfoot, I don’t feel there’s much more to Slayer aside from the “big” reveal. The nature of the story keeps the characters flat and inconsistent. There’s just not much for the reader to latch onto. You could reread Mr. Splitfoot, even knowing the ending, and still get things out of it.

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  2. Why do I remember this one so much more fondly than my comment above seems to indicate? Just as Paul Hollywood complains about soggy bottoms on his pastry, I must have been kvetching about a saggy middle. And yet I have to say that while it has been some time since I read this one, the images of certain scenes stay with me so vividly: the two teenagers in the attic, Basil and Gisela struggling through the snow, the men hanging out downstairs as they await the dawn. Helen McCloy has been, for me, one of the most evocative prose writers to be discovered as I immerse myself in GAD (and SAD because she IS very much of the Silver Age) study. Thanks for including my review!

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    1. At least there are no soggy bottoms here, as the beginning and ending are mesmerizing, even if the middle is a matter of taste. There are so many memorable setpieces in Helen McCloy’s work–I still get chills thinking about that scene at the cottage in Through a Glass, Darkly, and Mr. Splitfoot has too many iconic moments to count. That whole first section of the book right up to the murder is indelible. It could almost stop right there, without a solution, and just be a classic ghost story.

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  3. Seems like someone else had the idea to read this chilling story for Hallow’een!
    I’d been considering setting up a blog or something, I’ve not felt more urge to write about a book before this one. I guess I don’t need to now 😀
    I had a much better time with this one than with the other of hers I’ve read, Through a Glass Darkly. I noticed that the book is written 12 years after the previous Basil Willing book, and 12 years before the next. Perhaps at the time she intended it as a grand finale – it’s certainly good enough.

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    1. Well, great minds think alike! It’s a wonderful creepy read for autumn. And having such a strong reaction shows that you almost certainly have your own unique perspective to bring to the book.

      Interesting point about the big time gaps between these last few Basil Willing books. If McCloy did plan this as Basil’s swan song, I wonder what made her change her mind and return to the character all those years later.

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    1. So true, nothing beats a killer room. And this one has a beautifully simple explanation that holds together perfectly and even kind of shores up, rather than totally debunking, the legend of the haunted room.

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  4. Glad to read you loved Mr. Splitfoot! I’ve not read all of McCloy’s (major) work, such Dance of Death and Cue for Murder, but I think Mr. Splitfoot stands out as one of her best detective novels and, personally, rank it above Through a Glass, Darkly. A beautifully told story with a great plot and characterization with the two convincingly drawn teenagers as the standouts. They really helped in making Mr. Splitfoot a memorable piece of detective fiction.

    If you want any recommendations, The Man in the Moonlight is another one of McCloy’s excellent, but lesser-known, mystery novels. I also liked The Goblin Market and The Further Side of Fear, but they’re relatively minor affairs compared with her better known mysteries.

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  5. I think you would like DANCE OF DEATH (her debut mystery novel) given your taste for books with strong female characters. It has a terrifying motive for murder that seems prescient for a modern reader. It must have been shocking for its original audience when first published. It still sticks in my mind as sort of transgressive. Personally, I also enjoyed THE MAN IN THE MOONLIGHT and THE DEADLY TRUTH, both Basil Willing mysteries just as her debut was. The latter one is often castigated for the “truth serum” aspect of the story. The stringent fanboys of the blogosphere have ripped the book apart because of that. But I just go with the flow when fantastical elements are introduced in any mystery novel. Carr is overloaded with fantasy and absurd murder methods, but he’s never castigated or criticized. Hmm, why is that? Carr – man, McCloy – woman… Whatever. She’s my favorite American mystery writer of the pre/post WW2 era. I don’t often say things with such absolution but no one can tear down my opinion of her as a novelist and a woman of such sweeping imagination when it comes to plotting.

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    1. Dance of Death does look interesting–certainly an unusual cause of death. Helen McCloy would actually be a good author to read in chronological order, since her books incorporate so much about contemporary culture.

      A lot of readers do think McCloy is “boring” for exactly the reasons that I enjoy her work so much. There are times when she is intentionally dull for the sake of misdirection, to bury a clue in a thicket of verbiage. However, she also shares a lot of details that illuminate the characters and the world they live in, filtered through the perspective of an intelligent and opinionated woman, and you may be correct that the explicitly female perspective makes some men uncomfortable or simply uninterested. McCloy’s plot mechanics are always impeccable, but a well-constructed plot is not her only, or even her primary, concern.

      There is often a tendency to dismiss stereotypically “feminine” interests like fashion, interior design, and pop culture as frivolous or unimportant, distractions along the way to the real meat of the story. Yet McCloy does not use these casually. The way a person dresses or grooms themselves says a great deal about their character, the way they are perceived or wish to be perceived by others. How spaces are constructed and used speaks to the priorities of society and how individual people choose to accept or reject them. McCloy is deeply interested in the mechanics of American society, with these ephemeral trends as the moving parts that show how it is always changing, and she is especially concerned with how women fit into all this. Sometimes such discussions can be a little clunky or dated (in The Slayer and the Slain, the social observations are fascinating in themselves, but they are kind of plunked in without regard for how realistic it would be for the first-person narrator to have these thoughts). Taken together, however, they are a remarkable time capsule filtered through an amusing and thoughtful point of view.

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