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.

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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!

 

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My first year in blogging: The best and what’s next!

It’s December 2017 and with that comes the anniversary of my first year of blogging! I started The Reader Is Warned with the sole purpose of getting things out of my head. Excitements, thoughts, ideas and theories about locked room mysteries and impossible crimes that had to come out somewhere, and I really didn’t think much more would come of it. But something totally surprised me, and that was all of you! I have found a group of bloggers and readers who share these passions and a desire to express them, discuss them and read about them together.

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I have been recommended books and TV shows I never would have read or seen otherwise. I have a deeper insight into this whole crime genre and it’s joys and treasures. I have discussed and debated with so many people in this digital world, and I have met fellow bloggers JJ, Kate and Puzzle Doctor in person! Myself and JJ started our podcast together on impossible crime fiction, and through that I have met and interviewed authors I love, and we have had some great laughs making the series. What a year it has been! Thanks to all of you for making this what it is, and here’s to another year!

Well, before I get carried away and start tearing up, I thought I would take an opportunity to look back over this year and try and pick my favourites. With so many great books it has proved an almost impossible task (pun intended). But with you folks behind me I know I can achieve anything! (Yeah! High five! Okay I’ll stop this now). Here is my run down of some of my favourite reads of 2017, and what I’m reading next:

The Chinese Gold Murders – Robert Van Gulik: 1952
My second book review on this blog, and still a stand out work for me. Multiple impossible crimes set in 7th century China written by Dutchman, whats not to love!? I think Van Gulik really had something special with this series, and the historical context, written from experience, is compelling and makes for original forms of detective fiction. As an anniversary special, I am next up reading and reviewing another impossible Judge Dee novel by Van Gulik, The Red Pavilion, which contains three locked room murders! So watch this space.

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Ronald Knox – The Short Stories: 1931 – 1947
Hunting out these three shorts from Knox was a real highlight of 2017. I find Knox is totally underrated, and possibly because he was really a master of the short story form rather than the novel, and these three shorts prove it. Solved By Inspection is still one of my top 10 locked room short stories, if you haven’t read it, go and do it now! Expect to see some Ronald Knox novels discussed on this blog this coming year.

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Christiana Brand – Suddenly At His Residence: 1944
This year was my first time reading Brand and what a writer she was! Her sheer volume of ideas is staggering clever, and it was difficult to choose a favourite. But I went for Suddenly at His Residence because it has the best of all her skills (that I have read so far) all rolled into one book: solid impossible set up, so many top level false solutions, great clewing, great comic/tragic characterisation and a kicker ending. I have her first novel Death In High Heels on the TBR ready to be read and reviewed this year, and London Particular is also burning a whole in my bookshelves.

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Cue For Murder – Helen McCloy: 1942 

Having read McCloy’s impossible classic Through a Glass Darkly before starting this blog, I really wanted to get my hands on some of her other work. Cue For Murder was a great way to continue with her oeuvre and wins the award for best motive for murder out of everything I have read this year. It also has one of my favourite opening little maddening mysteries/clues that spirals outwards into the book’s murders. Next up for McCloy on this blog will be another of her locked room classics Mr Splitfoot. 

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It Walks By Night – John Dickson Carr: 1930 

I have read so much good Carr this year; Till Death Do Us Part and She Died a Lady absolutely blew my mind (obviously), and Nine – And Death Makes Ten surpassed all my expectations and was one of my top shock killers of the year. The reason I pick It Walks By Night for this list is, as Carr’s first book, it’s amazing how it acts as a perfect map for where Carr would take his career. And how the book is a clear homage to Poe was wonderful to see.

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Siobhan Dowd – The London Eye Mystery: 2007

A solid, perfectly executed, contemporary locked room mystery from the late and great Siobhan Dowd was a total favourite this year. A young boy steps into a pod on the London eye and when it comes back round he has vanished! I mean come on! This also put me on the path to the work of the brilliant Robin Stevens, who published a sequel to the book this year (2017), who myself and JJ of The Invisible Event interviewed for the second episode of our podcast.

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Well there you have it, some of my tops reads from this year. I hope they are inspiring to you, particularly if you haven’t read them before. And thanks once again to all my readers and fellow bloggers out there writing about all this stuff, it’s been a joy to share this all with you. Happy Christmas and Happy 2018!

 

Tour de Force: Christianna Brand (1955)

Inspector Cockrill finds himself, very unwittingly, on an package holiday of Italian islands. During a sleepy afternoon in the sun, a small number of the tour guests have stayed behind at their hotel to soak in the sun. But things turn sour when one of the group is found murdered in their hotel room, their body arranged in a cryptically ritualistic fashion. A ticking timer provided by the local police force, and the growing madness of the group means Cockrill has to work fast to solve the crime. The only problem? Every suspect was in his sight on the beach at the time of the murder.

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Making my way through Brand’s work for the first time has been an absolute joy. I am coming to see (as with many many writers in this ol’ golden age crime genre) how underrated she is, and Tour de Force doesn’t disappoint. I had heard much about this book on locked room lists and the like, and was super happy to find a lovely first edition (pictured above) in my regular second hand book shop trawl a few months back.

The whole piece is set on the fictional island of San Juan el Pirata off the coast of Tuscany, where the group have found themselves held after the murder. The mixture of both corrupt and straight laced local police have their own ideas and methods of how they will deal with the crime, which bring some pretty high stakes for getting the murder solved. The characters are instantly memorable, often tragic figures, who are a great selection of 1950’s British society to be stuck together on a ‘foreign land’. As they are pushed to the limits, their psychological flaws are revealed and the book becoming a clever satire of positive and negative British attitudes of the time. It’s reads like an precursor to Death in Paradise. 

And it’s pretty damn funny as well. Take this passage for example from the first chapter, as Cockrill arrives into Italy on the plane:

…his money being paid and withdrawal now impossible, he had received the assurance of the travel agency that he would find delightful friends among his fellow tourists, he had been contemplating their coming association with ever increasing gloom. ‘She and all the rest,’ he thought. ‘They’re Them.’ 

The clewing is spot on, with seeds being sown at every possible point in the plot, leading to forehead slapping moments by the end. But, what was really impressive about this book – and I made the same point in my review of Brand’s 3rd Inspector Cockrill mystery Suddenly at His Residencewere the false solutions and pieces of ratiocination by the characters. They come thick and fast, punctuating much of the plot, giving you that satisfaction of continuing revelation that drives so much of the best GAD work along.

This seems to be the case for everything of Brand that I have read so far. She continues to pull ideas out of the hat as the plot goes, and I confess to not even having thought of half of them, even though they are just the throw away revelations. So many of the ideas, clues and false solutions that are batted aside would make up the final solutions of other (maybe lesser well thought through) novels without a problem.

There was one false solution in particular which totally blew me away with its elegance and simplicity, and I actually thought it would have made a better solution over all. Which brings me to the criticisms for this work, which has light spoilers so finish here if you want this book fresh. 

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Fellow blogger JJ of The Invisible Event described this book to me as very clever, but that it’s possibly a little to easy to cotton on to what is happening, and that once you do it becomes obvious what is happening and takes away it’s impact. Unfortunately, he is right on this account, and my experience of this title was totally inline. However in saying that she uses the device well that and it doesn’t make it any less of a joy to read.

Alongside this – and this is up for debate please readers – I am not so sure that the whole thing is really an impossible crime, in how the solution works itself out. I don’t think it’s as watertight as it could be, and I wonder if it should really be called a impossible crime piece at all? (Dodging bullets here possibly!) This goes back to questions of what constitutes an impossible crime in the first place, which myself and JJ have discussed both here and here. 

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Coming in at 271 pages in my edition it is a fair old length for a GAD novel, and does suffer on that account. ‘Dragging the Marsh’ has been the phrase used elsewhere in the bloggersphere for this. As with a GAD novelist like McCloy, Brand is clearly enjoying herself here, and is packing the book with ideas therefore. But she could have held back, as with so many ideas going on, some of the revelations and clues loose there impact simply because they are swamped by the overall length, and by the strength of other plot points.

Over all, another great piece by Brand, and with recently finding a good copy of London Particular (Fog of Doubt), and a new book edited by GAD aficionado Tony Medawar including as of yet unpublished works from Brand, you will see much more of Brand on this blog!

Helen McCloy: Cue for Murder (1942) – Meta-narratives and scripts for death

‘The murder mystery at the Royalty Theatre was solved through the agency of a house fly and a canary. The fly discovered the chemical evidence that so impressed the jury at the trial, but the canary provided a psychological clue to the murderer’s identity before the murder was committed. Basil Willing is still troubled by the the thought that it might have been prevented if he had read the riddle of the canary sooner.’

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So opens Cue For Murder by Helen McCloy, her 5th Doctor Basil Willing mystery, and in my opinion an unsung treasure from the Golden Age of detection. As always I will be talking about elements of plot, character and set up, there will be no solution spoilers, but if you aim to read this book fresh then come back after reading!

Dr Basil Willing is a psychiatrist working for the DA’s office, but is more than helpful on the crime scene when things get complicated. McCloy uses Willing as a vehicle to explore the psychology of the criminal at work, asking why they would behave in a certain way, and looking at what the crime says about the kind of person who could have perpetrated it. And in Cue For Murder, Willing is presented with a psychological mine field.

A re-staging of the infamous nihilistic play Fedora by Victorien Sardou is taking place at the Royalty Theatre in New York. Willing knows the costume designer for the play, Pauline, and receives a ticket for the opening night. But during the first act tragedy strikes. At the back of the stage set there are a set of double doors opening onto a little alcove. When these doors a flung open during the play they reveal a corpse, lying prostrate and still, staring with dead eyes out to the crowd. This corpse however, is the actors role, and part of the corpse is usually played by a friend of the cast, made up with corpse paint to look as dead as possible. But when the curtain drops for the end of the first act the actor doesn’t move, and when the bed sheets are pulled back, the man has been stabbed in the chest with a surgical blade.

There were only four actors on stage, and only three of them approached the alcove. But when examined, none of them know the man, assuming each other had invited him to play the part. The problem then becomes how a murderer managed to stab the unidentified corpse in front of a full audience, but also why they went to such lengths.

What I love about this set up, and how McCloy uses it, is the growing layers of meta-writing she pulls off. Shortly before the play begins, Willing finds himself backstage, seeing everything from the other side. The back of the luxurious room as appearing from the audience, revealed to be chip board and stage paint. Willing then comes through a door into the audience which McCloy calls ‘the frontier between reality and illusion’. This frontier becomes the meta-narrative of the whole book.

This is further emphasised when the script is analysed, and acts as a literal script for the murderers actions, revealing the multiple moments when each of them could have done it (literally their ‘cue for murder’), a constant blurring between the fake and the real. This then leaks into every aspect of the case, with chief inspector Foyle reflecting in chapter four: ‘Its a world of make-believe–false names and false faces! How can I tell which one of these is playing a part?’ And this ‘playing a part’ is what Willing tries to untangle and decode, leading to wonderful observations about character, motive and identity. We see the struggles of fame and money, actors on the way up or the way down, and the hidden desires for appreciation.

And on top of all of all of this is the maddening clue of the canary, which Willing is certain relates to the whole case. A burglar broke into a knife-grinding shop, just next to the theatre, but didn’t steel anything, but only freed the owners canary from it’s cage:

 ‘Why risk incurring the severe penalties for burglary by breaking into a shop without stealing anything? Why prolong the risk by lingering on the premises to free a canary from it’s cage?’ 

The canary becomes a touch stone throughout the whole book, and it’s presence haunts the crime, revealing more each chapter.

The thing that most impressed me most over all about this book was why the killer went to such lengths to murder someone on stage, and what is says about their psychology. And with that the motive is an absolute punch in the stomach when all is revealed.

Criticisms? I could say that the book gets off to a slow start (but that might just have been me) and the whole thing clocks in at longer than your usual GAD novel, so could have been cut down in places, but I’m not going to fault McCloy for that really. Because, as with my thought in my last review on Christianna Brand, McCloy is another writer who seems simply to love the process of writing, and loves filling the pages with deft observation after deft observation.

There were some thoughts from a panel discussion at the Bodies From the Library conference at the British Library earlier this year, in response to a question about why so many women flourished in the detective writing genre. The panelist said that so many women became writers of detective fiction because in some ways ‘it wasn’t taken seriously’, therefore that women were ‘allowed’ to write this sort of thing. This now deeply outdated world view, in a wonderful subversion of itself, of course gave women the agency of writing which they used to excel, express and subvert that very claim, and you can see and feel McCloy using that to it’s absolute maximum. Giving us a deeply intelligent, rich novel, with quotes from classical literature, psychological and philosophical study and historical references at every turn, with a few satirical comments about ‘novel’s written by men’ thrown in too.

The ever knowledgeable Mike Grost on his writing about McCloy said that this was her most famous book for a time, and that McCloy’s works from this point only got better and better. So I’m excited for the next McCloy and exploring her oeuvre post 1942. This post 1942 list contains of course Through a Glass Darkly, which is one of the best and most creepy impossible crime novels ever, and if you haven’t read it yet go and read right now.