Friday, April 29, 2011

FFB: Mr. Splitfoot - Helen McCloy

Although published in 1968 and with only a trace of the 1960s present in the person of two very modern young people Mr. Splitfoot is in many respects a throwback to McCloy's first book Dance of Death. Her post World War 2 books played with the espionage genre and the straight suspense book which she would completely embrace in the 1970s. But this penultimate case for Basil Willing is very much a traditional whodunit loaded with tropes from the Golden Age of Detective fiction. There is an group of suspects shut up in a snowbound mansion, talk of ghosts, a haunted room that could have come from a book by John Dickson Carr, a verbal dying clue picked up by a mimicking parakeet, and an ingenious impossible crime.

The book opens with two young people plotting a vicious prank. They will pretend that a poltergeist is haunting the home. The two, Lucinda and Vanya, make for a devilish and manipulative couple - Vanya moreso than poor Lucinda. Misunderstood, unloved, ignored by her parents Lucinda desperately wants to be noticed. This ghost prank is her final revenge for being ignored. She will pretend to hear some rapping and call out "Do as I do, Mr Splitfoot!" then clap her hand three times. Vanya will respond from a hidden spot with another three raps.

All goes as planned until someone brings word that Vanya has called the house. He is ill and his mother won't let him leave the house. Lucinda, who has just completed her role in the prank, is stunned. Who made the raps in response to her shouting out? She faints dead away. The ghost appears to be genuine.

Basil and his wife have been given refuge in the snowbound household. They have had a car wreck and Basil's wife Gisela hurt her ankle in the long grueling trek from the road to the house. They are allowed to stay for the night. This decision leads to the revelation of an unused room.

The room has, according to family history, remained unoccupied for several years. Legend holds that three people who slept in the room were found dead the following morning. Superstition has prevented anyone from using the room since those deaths several decades ago.

One of the men dares to suggest that someone sleep in the room to see if the legend will hold true. They cut cards and the man with the lowest card will sleep in the room. Precautions are taken. They rig up a bell to signal to the others in case of any unusual event and a parakeet is brought into the room. Since birds have delicate respiratory systems it would fall ill to any deadly gas or vapors before the occupant did so.

Only a few minutes pass before the bell in the room starts to ring. More than the three times they had all agreed upon. They rush to the room and discover that David Crosby - the unlucky low card recipient - is dead. The parakeet is chattering "Too brood, too brood." The curse apparently still holds fast.

The reader, however, should be skeptical. Earlier in the book Lucinda discovered a secret room with a passageway that allows someone to overhear conversations in the bedrooms below. It is entirely possible that someone else in the house knew of the secret room and used it to commit the murder. Basil is certain that Lucinda's fainting spell is indicative of something not right, that she is hiding facts. It will take some time for him to get her to open up and come clean. It's an interesting blend of the detective novel and the suspense novel - rather Hitchcockian in fact.

The two young people continue their mischief. Lucinda tells Vanya of a conversation she overheard in which Serena Crosby, the wife of the murdered man, was accused of being unfaithful. They suspect that this is the reason Crosby was killed and want his wife implicated. They create a fake love letter in order to force out into the open the idea of infidelity. But they are teenagers, after all. In trying to create a love letter written by adult they fail miserably. To their shock the discovery of the letter not only opens the door to a discussion of sex and infidelity, but also results in a second murder.

In keeping with the retro traditional whodunit structure McCloy has Basil gather the household in one room to reveal the truth of the crimes. 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. The architecture of the house plays an important part, but I doubt any reader will come up with the devious way in which the killer managed to make it appear that a ghost was at work.

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This is my weekly contribution to Friday's Forgotten Books usually hosted by Patti Abbot. This week, however, our congenial guest host is Richard Robinson. Go here for the list of usual suspects and other great reading long overlooked.

5 comments:

  1. Believe it or not, but I just ordered this book as part of my promise to read and review more locked room and impossible crime stories for my blog – and then I log on to the blogosphere to see what the mystery reading community is up to and I'm confronted with this post! This is all becoming very, very suspicious.

    Oh well, according to your review I made a good purchase. :)

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  2. Another author I've never heard of. Jeez. I begin to wonder if and when I will ever catch up or even find any of these books. But I sure as heck enjoy reading your reviews, John. Basil Willing. I LOVE THAT NAME!!!

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  3. I've got a few Helen McCloys sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read...

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  4. I'm a big fan of McCloy's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY but have never comes across this particular volume - I don't think I have read anything of hers later than ALIAS BASIL WILLING which was the next volume after DARKLY other than the Crippen & Landru short story collection. But you make this book sound really enticing and I will definitely try and track it down - thanks very much.

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  5. Read this about fifteen years ago and agree with the Sinister assessment. From the detection perspective, it's a shame McCloy turned mostly to writing suspense later career.

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