Mr Splitfoot – Helen McCloy (1969)

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.

My Edition

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.

14 thoughts on “Mr Splitfoot – Helen McCloy (1969)”

  1. Thanks for reviewing this – it does sound interesting and I will try to seek out a copy. Like you, I enjoy a murderous room and while this may not be a locked room, I am interested to see how it all works. And yes, I have had the same experience of reading large print – it can be really disconcerting (though not quite as bad as reading some ebooks where you are monitoring the progress % at the bottom and assume you have a quarter of the book left, only to find it ending and several chapters of the next included as a ‘bonus’).

    On Tue, Dec 29, 2020 at 12:29 PM The Green Capsule wrote:

    > thegreencapsule posted: ” 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 s” >

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    1. I’m curious to see if you’re able to get your hands on this easily. I never tried out the inter-library loan, but just hunting down a copy to buy was tough (although I’m sure they’re widely available now that I bought one..)

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      1. Looking at WorldCat the odds of finding a library willing to lend seem pretty good (several copies in KY and TN), particularly as the book isn’t outrageously valuable. Fingers crossed another library says yes!

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  2. I consider this to be McCloy’s best detective novel. So if this one doesn’t set you on fire, I don’t hold out much hope any of the others will do the trick for you. You might find The Further Side of Fear an interesting mix of espionage, suspense and the locked room mystery, but it’s very minor stuff and you’ll never label it as a masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t remember the psychology being as heavy as you describe, but then this was a fairly early one for me in terms of impossible crimes and so I would have been on the edge of my seat regardless. And the setup and setting are both wonderful — I still get cold thinking about all that snow. What did you think of the “dying message”? Still can’t come to a conclusion on that myself…

    Oh, and if the psychology here bothers you, do not — do not, no matter what anyone says — read The Slayer and the Slain. I expect you will react to that much as you suspect I will react to The Tragedy of X.

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    1. Minor spoilers follow – I’ve seen someone else reference the “dying message” in a review, and I assume that’s referring what was said rather than the tinkling bells. I don’t really consider it to be a dying message of the traditional type, because you only realize it is a dying message in retrospect (although I imagine we all suspected what was generally occurring when it was uttered). As to the contents of the message, I thought it was a clever touch and laughed out loud.

      I still can’t wait until you read The Tragedy of X. No matter what, you have to drag yourself through it. You actually get a sticker for your car if you finish it, plus we can get matching tattoos!

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      1. I love the idea of that utterance being overheard in the right way by the right person an thus furnishing a key clue to the method, culprit, and motive. The “overheard clue” doesn’t get much of an airing in GAD because, I guess, it can be so difficult to render on the page. Some examples exist on film, but — c.f., John Lithgow’s character in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out — I can’t bring any good ones to mind.

        And, look, I have that lovely paperback edition of Tragedy of X, which virtually guarantees I’ll read it. How soon, I dunno, but it may be an early 2021 project once January is done. Keep ’em peeled, and be prepared to read The Slayer in the Slain in response 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post Ben. I have always been drawn to the “the room that kills” trope so this afternoon I dug out my copy of this one to re-read.

    You got me thinking though … what other GAD books use this theme. I immediately came up with Halter’s “The Madman’s Room”, Dickson’s “The Red Widow Murders” and Smith’s “Whistle Up the Devil”, but are there others?

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    1. Good question. I honestly would have overlooked Whistle Up the Devil, but you’re absolutely right. Here are a few others that come to mind:
      The Door to Doom by John Dickson Carr – this is an excellent short story.
      The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr – does this count? I read it so long ago and don’t recall whether there was previous history for the room.
      The Devil’s Saint by John Dickson Carr – a short story that I haven’t read, collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly.
      Mystery in Room 913 by Cornell Woolrich – I haven’t read this, but JJ mentioned it in a post. In fact, I need to remember to track this down.

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  5. You have a terrible choice ahead of you, Ben! i’ll preface it by saying that I bought this and Through a Glass Darkly together for a couple of dollars when The Murder Room issued everything on Kindle. I had never heard of McCloy, and these were my first two. As a result, I considered labeling her the Queen of Atmosphere and, like you, I think I preferred this one to TaGD. I would say that both of them are better at the start: after all the great build-up, the solution to TaGD is almost too prosaic, and in MS I also noticed a shift in tone once the investigation got started. I also solved the impossible crime in MS; it was just one of those solutions that seemed terribly obvious to me. This time, however, it didn’t really spoil my pleasure of the book.

    I’ve read a number of McCloys since then. Some of them, like Alias Basil Willing and The Deadly Truth, I have really enjoyed and others, like The One That Got Away and my most recent read, Who’s Calling?, were terrible. I still have many more to read but one that I REALLY recommend is The Slayer and the Slain!! No Basil Willing, just this really weird set-up that I think pays off beautifully, plus some really gorgeous writing about the changing suburban landscape. (There’s a passage about highways that still haunts me.)

    So there’s your choice: which two-bit blogging friend are you gonna believe? God bless America, Ben . . . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have Alias Basil Willing and Two Thirds a Ghost. I don’t know that I’ll actively seek out more McCloy to purchase, although there are nice editions of some of her books. But hmm, The Slayer and the Slain doesn’t have Basil Willing you say? That may well be tolerable.

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      1. Don’t listen to the Jayge!! Whether you end up liking it or not, TSatS is trying to do something original for its time. Two Thirds of a Ghost was fun to read if not the most thrilling in terms of denouement. Most of my McCloy is on Kindle, and I’m finally starting to collect real copies. I found a couple of her titles in mapback on eBay, but the one I bought turned out to be a lousy book. I’m glad to see some new releases of her early stuff and have picked up the first two available with nice covers.

        Liked by 1 person

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