“That room has been locked up for about fifty years.”
“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 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.
After 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. Splitfoot, love, death, and fate are all intertwined, and solving the mystery does nothing to untangle them.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Mr. Splitfoot is available as an ebook from The Murder Room in the US.