It took me a long long time to track down a well priced copy of Mr Splitfoot. I haven’t been that enamored by Helen McCloy so far, but you’ll never see me pass up a “room that kills” mystery. Ah, the room that kills… It sits there silently, waiting for centuries, occasionally producing the corpse of someone foolish enough to sleep within its walls. I love the gimmick because you’re almost assured a locked room murder, but you also have the riddle of how the mysterious deaths could be repeated across dozens of decades. Sure, someone may have pulled off some clever murder 80 years ago, but how is it connected to the deaths of today? Did someone discover a long lost trick?
I started reading this book back in August, but shelved it a few pages in when I realized it was a perfect holiday read. This is one of those books where you feel the cold air, see the snow, and hear that uncanny silent nothingness of white covered mountains. Well, yep, it worked a lot better in late December than in the merciless peak of summer, plus, this book is absolutely amazing.
Well… kind of. I’m so conflicted on Mr Splitfoot. On one hand, it’s an example of near perfection in the genre. On the other hand… series sleuth Basil Willing and Helen McCloy’s love of psychology. Let’s start with the good before the bad though.
We’re somewhere in the wilderness of the Catskill Mountains, with snow piling up by the minute. Two bored teenagers decide to play a prank on their parents by pretending to summon the devil. I’d love to describe the scene for you, but really this is about as good as the genre delivers in terms of macabre surprise.
Anyway, that’s just the lead in to the room that kills. The mountain lodge that our cast is staying in boasts a room that’s dispatched three victims since the 1800s and has remained locked ever since. A night of drinking leads to the inevitable challenge to spend the night in said room. After drawing lots, a man sets up camp in an armchair, while three others stand watch from down the hall. These aren’t just suckers though. We’ve observed a debate about how the room could possibly kill, and the occupant is armed with a parrot (in case of poisonous fumes), and a bell to ring out a signal – one ring if something is heard, two rings if something is seen, three rings if danger.
Hours pass in silence, and then the bell starts to ring…
I’m on the fence as to whether Mr Splitfoot is actually an impossible crime. McCloy’s series sleuth Basil Willing is one of the observers down the hall, and in his initial comments to the police, he sure makes it seem like people elsewhere in the house could have snuck into the room unobserved and killed the man inside. As the story concludes though, Willing changes course and presents this as a form of locked room mystery: although the room wasn’t actually locked, observers prevented anyone from approaching the room without being heard or seen.
Whatever, I’ll give McCloy the benefit of the doubt and label this as a locked room mystery, although honestly it didn’t come across as one while I was reading it. For one, we don’t learn how the victim actually died until the end of the book. You can assume there’s nothing as obvious as a slit throat, or surely it would be mentioned, but if poison is on the table then the locked room becomes irrelevant.
Still, this was a chilling read and McCloy did an adroit job of building the horror and tension. The plot device of an isolated cast with a killer in the midst isn’t exactly novel, but rarely does an author actually make you feel the resulting sense of dread. McCloy gives you that chilling realization that one of these seemingly sane people is in fact a killer, and they’re still in the house. All of that creepiness of the room that kills and summoning the devil is nice window dressing, but the author shows how a human agent is just as horrifying.
All of this gets dragged down though by the presence of McCloy’s faithful sleuth Dr Basil Willing. Willing is the very definition of what decades earlier would have been termed a stuffed shirt. The guy just kills any scene that he’s in. Imagine you’re trying to watch a sci-fi movie and some bore keeps commenting that there wouldn’t be explosions in outer space, all while ignoring the fact that the entire movie is implausible. That’s Basil Willing.
It’s mystifying that McCloy could write the story that’s absolutely enthralling, and at the same time plunk down this dud of a character and make them the lead. One minute I’d be thoroughly engrossed in the locked room nightmare, and the next I’d be jolted back to reality by Willing’s character making some dry reference to Sigmund Freud. Ah, yes, the psychology. I swear, all of these McCloy books are like some enthusiastic freshman took a semester of psychology and couldn’t wait to share everything they learned with the world. Every character in this book talks about psychology. Even the kids talk about psychology!
Anyway, those are just some pet peeves that I experience with every Helen McCloy book. Mr Splitfoot is wonderfully written, and without said peeves, this would quite possibly be one of my favorite mysteries. I mean, just look at this wonderfully self aware passage:
“You know something that has always bothered me? In books, especially mystery stories? When the author’s forgotten what time it is and suddenly realizes that his characters haven’t eaten anything for hours, he sets them al to making sandwiches, or ‘cutting’ sandwiches if it’s an English book, but the author never tells you what kind of sandwiches and I always want to know. Cucumber or chicken or what? I get to wondering so much about the kind of sandwiches that I lose the thread of the story. What sort of sandwich would people have in the middle of a crisis? Something very French and fancy like creamed foie gras on pain au lait? Or just ham on rye?”
The end doesn’t quite go down the way that I would have liked though. The solutions to the puzzles are absolutely fine; not brilliant, but clever enough. It’s more that the story shifts pace a bit and closes out with a different feel than what came before.
So very close to a masterpiece with this one. I’m curious to see if it remains a favorite a few months from now with some distance between us. I’m not exactly in a rush to get back to McCloy though. I have a sense that we’ll never fully get along. I do have two or three other books though that I’ll get to eventually.
I had trouble finding a copy of Mr Splitfoot and jumped at the first reasonably priced copy that I found. It’s an ISIS large print edition from 1991. The art on the cover isn’t quite my style, but I liked that it captured a key scene in the story. This is maybe the third large print book that I’ve read. It’s always a bit weird because you can’t really judge your position in the story based on the page count, as these large print pages fly by quickly. You may have 40 pages left in the book one moment and be finished the next.