The Reader Is Warned

Mr Splitfoot: Helen McCloy (1968)


Psychologist, and consultant to the DA’S office Basil Willing, and his wife Gisela are travelling in New England for a skiing holiday when a vicious snow storm cut’s off their journey. Sliding along on perilously icy mountainside roads, there car breaks down and they take to their skis to find help at the nearest town. When Gisela slips in the snow storm and breaks her ankle, they are forced to seek help at the nearest house they can find in this remote landscape.

I love this old edition I found in London. Paper back with red pages.

They receive a strange welcome at a place called Crow’s Flight, where a party of guests are having a not altogether peaceful family gathering. The snow coming down so hard there are all stuck together for the night, but the house being full there are apparently no spare rooms to offer the Willings. That is until one unthinking member of the party offers the room at the top of the stairs. But, of course, that room has been locked for years, as many moons ago it was the sight of three, horrific and demonic impossible deaths. Anyone who stayed in the room over night was subsequently found dead the next morning. With no marks to be found on the bodies, from the conditions of the corpses the doctors at the time could only say one thing, that these people had died from fright. The horror story has clearly had an effect on many of the family, particularly 15 year old Lucinda. A few suggest that the only way to break this curse is for someone to stay in the room overnight. Casting lots, one goes in, with a book to keep themselves awake, and bell to ring incase of trouble. The door is watched the entire time from the bottom of the stairwell. And no one can enter from any other side. But when that bell inevitably rings what the others find is scary to say the least.

The first thing that I’ll say about this book is that I am glad I had a break before writing about it. I actually read this book a few weeks back, and since then it has grown on me more and more. I am realising that McCloy has a subtlety of writing that in many ways only makes sense upon reflection, after it has a chance to settle. This writing style won’t be to everyones taste (what writing style would?) but this is certainly a book that has grown on me the more I reflect on it.

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. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly a large amount of the book is written from the perspective of the 15 year old girl Lucinda. This is surprisingly authentic and believable, Lucinda’s rambling thought processes really feel like a 15 year old brain. The problem is that these authentically meandering reflections make these sections terribly slow going. Pace and atmosphere is lost in the rambling thoughts of the teenage mind. McCloy ironically does herself a disservice in pacing by authentically observing a young character.

In this same context is the misplaced use of psychological reflection in the narrative. I don’t mean that a detective novel or impossible crime story should not have these kinds of psychological angles, but it’s that the novel that McCloy is giving us doesn’t seem to require them. Basil Willing is of course a psychologist and in Cue for Murder, which I read an reviewed last year, there are incredibly intelligent and understated discussions on psychology, and the mind of the killer. And why they acted the way that they did is worked in a totally natural way that forwards and develops the plot, and therefore the solution. With Mr Splitfoot however, this just isn’t a psychological murder case, McCloy just doesn’t give us that. Instead she gives us impossibility butting head to head with horror, within a classic manor house/who-dun-it frame work, and does it well. Therefore the psychological reflections, feels lost, and heavy-handed, slowing the book down again.

I think this book would have worked much better as a stand alone work, without a detective, or with a local officer on the case instead. And the claustrophobia she paints would have been more believable and impactful if we just had this small cast of characters without an outsider coming in.

The final thing that makes elements of this book drag is McCloy’s propensity to over explain clothes, rooms and furniture. She does set a scene very well, and has a deft way with descriptive verse. But, for example, there is a section in the centre of the book when things are hotting up and Willing finds himself in the house of a nearby neighbour. The difference in class from one house to other is explored through the description of the furniture, but oh man you just want to get moving forward! The subsequent scene then acted out is not exciting enough to balance out against the lengthy description.

However, the locked room, and the solution to the impossible death I really liked. In the ranks of ‘rooms that kill’ or ‘rooms where you always die’ this one is up there for me. What takes the solution to the next level, and again this shows McCloy at her best, is that not only is it brutal, and horrific, but the revelation fit’s in totally with the plot, with the atmosphere, and with the nature of the killer. A terrifying method to an equally terrifying book.

So when all is said and done here, Mr Splitfoot has a huge amount going for it, and I would recommend putting in on your to-be-read pile. I look forward to reading more of her oeuvre to see what she was capable of. But there are certainly those dragging moments in this book. It may be to your taste, it may not, but the reader is warned!