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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Forgotten Authors – Holly Roth: The Mask of Glass (1957)

I love finding a mystery writer that I have never come across before, which as you dig deeper into this ol’ world of classic crime fiction is sometimes easier than you think. It’s even better to come across one in a second hand bookshop and, for some whimsical reason, to be taken with the title, the cover or description (though I try not to read those too much) and decide to go with it. So begins my relationship with Holly Roth.

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Very little information exists online about Roth (any experts on her work out there I would love to hear from you), but what I gleaned about her from this 1957 paperback of The Mask Of Glass and other online sources is very interesting. Roth was a highly intelligent woman of the world, born in Chicago and moving between America, England and Europe, she finally resided in New York. Beginning her career as a model she left that for newspaper and magazine work before settling on the mystery and suspense field, publishing 12 novels under three different names and writing a number of television and film mysteries. Her works were serialised in magazines and very much are part of the pulp genre, although with a GAD feel and twist.

Roth composed extremely tightly plotted stories and The Mask of Glass is no exception. Clocking in at only 154 pages and containing really only two main characters this is a pacy, contained piece. The Independent in their forgotten authors series ‘Invisible Ink’, described Roth’s thrillers as ‘high-concept before the term had been created’, and The Mask Of Glass fits that bill perfectly:

Jimmy Kennemore of the US Army Counter-Intelligence Corps, wakes up in hospital to find himself unable to move, bandaged and cast all over, his head wrapped up with a few spaces for eye holes. He has been saved by a Doctor Steinfeld (‘Doc’) a long term family friend, but the Doc doesn’t know what has happened and by the looks of it neither does Jimmy. As he slips in and out of consciousness Jimmy is forced to mentally reconstruct the last few days events, that lead to the intense night of violence he experienced. As each piece of the story unravels it builds into an exploration of corruption, murder and the haunting nature of a shifting identity, as Kennemore decides what action he can take in the wake of this terror.

I find it very frustrating when reviewers say things like ‘I wasn’t sure at first but then it turned out to be brilliant’, but in this case this really sums up my experience with this book. As you begin the writing is deceptively sparse, extremely tight, with absolutely no fuss, and therefore quite quiet in how it initially comes across. But it’s this restraint of description, plot and dialogue that carries you as the reader into a intriguing and refreshing space, and the simplicity in her writing allows the tension to be turned up to high when it comes; something that Roth was also a deft hand at. We follow Kennemore the entire time, each chapter only serves to advance the story, with very little deviation away from stepping forward.

There are some lovely ideas in terms of counter intelligence mixed with detection style deductions and reveals. The cypher and solution to the six pages of stencilled black dots found in a stolen file, and Kennemore’s ability to decipher telephone numbers by listening to the clicks on the dial through the wall are satisfying examples.

The whole book had that feeling (can you relate to this?) where something about it gets under your skin and when you are not reading about it you are thinking about it. Not so much a ‘I must know whats going to happen’ but just something about the precise and stripped back context she has created makes me want to get back to that world and to inhabit it again.

My one objection to Roth’s style is her desire for naturalism in dialogue. The dialogue is not ‘novelistic naturalism’ but reads like actual dialogue you would say or hear, and therefore can be so natural it becomes obvious, unneeded or stilted. But on the other hand this ‘slice of life’ style works well in setting up the atmosphere of New York, and the little instances in cafes, taxi’s and sidewalks serve the narrative well.

Roth came to a tragic and mysterious end herself. In 1964 she was sailing on and living aboard a ketch with her Czechoslovakian husband Joseph Franta, when a large ship hit the boat and sailed on into the night. Roth fell from the side and her body was never recovered. The strangest coincidence here is that in Roth’s book Operation Doctors, written just two years before her death, a woman falls from a boat and loses her memory. Frank Roth, Holly’s brother, a rare coin dealer, said at the time of her disappearance that he hadn’t seen her since she got married in 1960. The Mask Of Glass, written in published in 57, is dedicated to Frank ‘with love’.

The Invisible Ink piece closes with this notable passage:

In the Fifties, female suspense writers proved very popular, and Roth was compared with Mary Stewart, Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar, frequently tackling the kind of Cold War-influenced subjects that have now become a strictly male province. Her books were critically overlooked at the time, and if the plots seem far-fetched, her ability to turn up the tension is unquestionable.

I’m looking forward to reading another Roth, and although much more in the pulp/thriller genre, there was a lot about this little book that won me over, I hear as well that others count Shadow Of A Lady as her best work so I hope to find a copy of that soon.

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A little after thought, I am yet to read any Earl Stanley Gardeners ‘The DA…’ series, but from what I have read from the rest of the GAD community, this tight and sparse beauty of writing and plotting that I see in Roth could be said to be a similar experience in reading Gardener? Many of the ‘DA’ books clock in around the 150 page mark as well. Any thoughts anyone?

 

 

 

The Men Who Explain Miracles, Episode 2: Interview with author Robin Stevens

Super excited to announce that the second episode of The Men Who Explain Miracles podcast is now online! Started by myself and JJ of The Invisible Event, the series explores locked room mysteries and impossible crime fiction. In this episode we had the great privilege of interviewing the hugely popular YA detective fiction author Robin Stevens.

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In this interview we talk writing locked room mysteries for a modern audience, Robin’s MA in classic crime fiction, female agency in detective fiction and much more. We also discuss Robin’s new book The Guggenheim Mystery which was written as the sequel to Siobhan Dowd’s wonderful impossible crime novel The London Eye Mystery, which I reviewed here.

We hope you get as much insight, intrigue and laughter as we did recording it. Enjoy, and do let me know what you think! (The Podcast can also be downloaded for listening on your devices by clicking the download button on the top right)

 

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.