Friday, October 2, 2020

Friday Fright Night One Murder is the Devil: Mr. Splitfoot (1968), by Helen McCloy

prepare yourselves for
ghoulies and ghosties and
long-leggedy mysteries

This month some of us vintage mystery bloggers are devoting Fridays to posting about spooky mystery and horror fiction, so prepare yourself, dear readers, for some Friday night frights! 

Herewith, the links!

Clothes in Books
Cross Examining Crime
My Reader's Block

My contribution follows....

"My youngest child, Katie, said, 'Mr. Splitfoot, do as I do,' clapping her hands.  The sounds instantly followed her with the same number of raps."--testimony concerning the outbreak of spirit rapping at the Fox house in the village of Hydesville, New York

"Do as I do, Mr. Splitfoot!"--Lucinda Swayne in Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968)

172 years ago, in March 1848, two young sisters, Maggie and Katie Fox, aged fifteen and eleven, effectively launched the spiritualism movement (which is based on the belief in communication with the dead), when they convinced their parents and many of their neighbors in the village of Hydesville, New York that inside their parents cottage, which was reputedly haunted by the ghost of a murdered itinerant peddler, they could converse with this dead man, whom they dubbed "Mr. Splitfoot." 

Four decades later, after having become two of the most renowned spirit mediums in the world, Maggie supported by  Katie shockingly recanted their story (only to recant the recantation later), explaining that they themselves had created the raps and knocks which they had mendaciously attributed to Mr. Splitfoot.  Coupled with the Salem Witch Trials, this Hydesville spirit rapping phenomenon seems to demonstrate that there is no end to the mischief which precocious and bored young ladies can cook up.  

There is a precocious and bored young girl in Helen McCloy's penultimate Basil Willing detective novel, Mr. Splitfoot (1968), fifteen-year-old Lucinda Swayne, who plots some mischief of her known, accompanied by her teenage neighbor, a boy of Russo-Italian heritage whom Lucinda calls Vanya.  (His real name is a matter of some dispute.)  Lucinda resides at Crowe's Flight, a secluded house located deep in New York's Catskill Mountains (where the Fox family originally had lived), with her novelist father, Francis, and her stepmother, Folly, whom she despises.  

Maggie and Katie Fox

When Lucinda discovers that there is a hidden room and attic in the old house, which was originally built in 1840, she and Vanya decide they will stage some fake spirit rapping of their own to frighten the adults staying over the weekend at Crowe's Flight.  But their game backfires spectacularly when, in a scene recalling Banquo's Chair, a famous episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the rapping they had planned to stage takes place seemingly of its own volition!  Does Crowe's Flight have its own "Mr. Splitfoot"--for real?  And is it Mr. Splitfoot who is responsible when one of the houseguests dies mysteriously in the haunted room at Crowe's Flight, where three people have mysteriously died before?

Originally published in 1968, Mr. Splitfoot appeared as the great generation which produced the detective fiction of the Golden Age was itself passing from the scene, into the netherworld.  Many of these writers had died already and in another decade others would go, including titans Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.  Furthermore, no one would argue that Christie, Carr and company were producing their best work in this period. 

In Mr. Splitfoot, however, Helen McCloy, then sixty-four, produced one of the best of her thirteen mysteries starring psychiatrist sleuth Dr. Basil Willing, who had debuted three decades earlier, at the tail end of the Golden Age, in 1938.  The novel makes use of some of the genre's hoariest tropes--the breakdown of the sleuth's car in the countryside, the country house party, the snowbound mansion, the Christmastime setting, the haunted mansion, the locked room--and triumphantly succeeds in giving them a fresh gloss.  I first read the novel over two decades ago and upon rereading it this week I found that I enjoyed it every bit as much as I did the first time round.  It's a late flowering of Golden Age ingenuity to be cherished by lovers of vintage mystery.

Dr. Willing and his wife Gisela are on their way to a skiing vacation after Christmas when their car ends up in a snow drift and Gisela fractures her ankle.  Happily, like with Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, there's a light...over at the country mansion Crowe's Flight, and the couple is taken in to stay for the night.  The adults staying at Crowe's Flight on that fatal night are, aside from Francis and Folly Swayne, who are renting the house (and planning to buy), David Crowe, heir of Crowe's Flight, and his wife Serena; and publisher Bradford Alcott and his wife, Ginevra. 

David Crowe works for Bradford Alcott and Francis Swayne is one of his authors.  There is also a cook, Martha, who appears briefly and blessedly speaks without resort to the heavy dialect speech which McCoy employed in a much earlier McCloy novel I reviewed here.  Then there is Vanya's mother, Vittoria Radanine, who lives at a neighboring house.  That's pretty much the whole cast of this tightly-knit closed circle mystery, aside from a couple of investigating cops.

During the Willings' short stay at Crowe's Flight, the aforementioned ghostly rapping occurs, leading to a discussion of the house's haunted history.  It seems that there is a small bedroom at the top of the stairs, which is always kept locked, on account of three people having mysterious died there since 1870.  David Crowe tells the story, which involves the three daughters of the original builder of the house and the young man with whom they all were infatuated.  (The daughters, Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis, were named for the three Fates of Greek mythology.)  Basil Willing offers to spend the night in the room to dispel belief in deathly manifestations, but instead the four men--Basil, Francis, David and Bradford--draw lots to see who will sleep in the room.  The "winner" soon dies there--of no apparent cause!  After having rung a bell to let the men downstairs know that he was not in the room alone....

Although the door to the dead man's room was open when he died, the entrance was observable to the other men downstairs and the dust on the floor (the room had been closed for decades) was undisturbed.  So we effectively have a "locked room" situation, as Basil Willing explains, when a character tells him, "The room wasn't locked....the door was left open so we could hear the bell.  Remember?"

When I said a "locked room" I meant a room that no one but the dead man could have entered before death.  No one could have gone upstairs to the room where Crowe was without our seeing and hearing him....No one could have scuffled with Crowe without leaving some marks in the dust on the floor.  To all intents and purposes, it was a locked room even though the door stood open.

The novel's locked room situation is a nice one indeed, the mechanics of which are very fairly clued.  I don't know who else besides John Dickson Carr himself was still doing locked room mysteries in 1968, but McCloy constructed a fine addition to the canon.  The solution in the matter of culpritude also turns on a nice point of psychology.  Additionally, McCloy's novel, with its setting of the lonely old house in the brooding Catskills, is a memorable one.  The climax of the mystery has a nice twice and is satisfyingly dramatic.  The novels closes with an elucidation scene with Dr. Willing that is firmly in the classic mold.

While the adult characters are not more than sufficiently characterized, I would say, the heart of the novel lies with her appealing young people, Lucinda and Vanya.  Here in 1968, a dozen years after the appearance of the previous Basil Willing detective novel, McCloy was interested in the "generation gap" and the sweeping changes being made in Western society and she writes about them with greater assurance than not only Christie but Carr, who was actually slightly younger than she was.  You can tell that McCloy disapproves of a lot of modern fashions and permissive attitudes--in dress (Moira at Clothes in Books really needs to write about this one), in architecture, in her perennial favorite subject, psychology--but she doesn't come off as blindly reactionary either.

when a character in a mystery novel is wearing
something like this, you know it's the Sixties

Some of McCloy's asides can maunder on a bit in what is a short novel (I think it's not a great deal over 60,000 words), but McCloy had always been hipped on psychology, for example, since her first novel.  Basil Willing, after all, is a psychologist; yet all the characters, even the teenagers, like to talk about psychology, like other people talk about the weather.  In McCloy's defense they do come from an arty, intellectual milieu.  Overall, this is a model of the Thirties "manners mystery" from the Swinging Sixties, highly literate while not neglectful of the fundamentals of the puzzle.

One of the bits from the novel which I recalled after two decades was Vanya's silly mother--who we are told is an "inverted snob" from the downtrodden Thirties (Ngaio Marsh also was much concerned with inverted snobbery. i.e., prejudice against wealthy people)--announcing "We are mug people" when she offers people coffee.  Mrs. Radanine serves coffee in mugs, you see, not cups and saucers.  And, worse yet, it's instant!  I am old enough to remember people with their jars of instant coffee, dropping a few teaspoonfuls of desiccated crystals in a piping hot mug of microwaved water and thinking this was a great innovation.  It certainly saved time! 

I used to have a small jar of instant coffee myself when I was in law school.  I remember relating this bit in the book to my Mom years ago, when I was telling her she should read it.  It's little things like that which make this novel such a pleasure to read, though I suppose S. S. Van Dine would have condemned it as "literary dallying."

For fans of the Willing series in particular and vintage mystery in general, there are additional pleasures.  Although Basil's wife Gisela does not play too great a role in the book, her presence is welcome as the couple recollects episodes from their past history in the series.  At several points characters make meta observations on mystery fiction, as McCloy looks over the genre from her thirty years' experience within it.  This comment won't be appreciated by fanciers of "Humdrum" detective fiction (about which I literally wrote the book):

"....you and I should be able to solve this case and find the murderer long before they [the adults] do."

"Oh, Vanya!" Lucinda looked at him with a respect that must have satisfied even his adolescent ego.  "You are wonderful!  How do we go about it?  Will we have to draw up lists of suspects and timetables and all that sort of thing?"

"Certainly not!" said Vanya.  "That's the part I always skip in detective stories.  The really good ones don't even put it in."

The spirit of Freeman Wills Crofts would not have been pleased.  But he was a nice guy so he would probably have let it pass.  As an orthodox Christian I don't know that he would have believed in spiritualism anyway.  But even old, timetable-loving Freeman devised a few locked rooms and I think he would like the one in Mr. Splitfoot.

McCloy does seem to bobble the timeline, but it is not really an important matter.  As near as I can figure out, the sisters Clotho, Atropos and Lachesis would have been born around 1850, so when David Crowe announces that one of the sisters is still alive in her nineties, this does not add up, since the novel is clearly set in the late Sixties.  Atropos would have to be nearly 120.  Elsewhere it's stated that she has died.  I almost wondered whether McCloy might have originally written this novel twenty years earlier and not published it for some reason, later substantially expanding and updating it. 

After all, 1948 would have been the one hundredth anniversary of the advent of the remarkable spirit rapping at the house at Hydesville, how appropriate it would have been for Mr. Splitfoot to make its appearance then.  Two decades later the novel seemed like an anachronism in crime fiction (McCloy herself had been writing suspense novels for the last decade.)  However, it is a most charming one indeed, a perfect read for a lonely winter's night--though when I reread it I was sitting outside in a deck chair on an eighty degree late September day.  That worked too, actually!

Note: this novel has been reviewed quite a bit my vintage mystery bloggers in the last decade.  I will try to post links later.

14 comments:

  1. Lovely post, Curtis! I didn't read too too closely because this is one that's still on my TBR mountain scape. One of these days, I'll actually get to it and I'll come back for a closer read.

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    1. Bev, I swear, you are like the only blogger who hasn't read this one! ;) And I know you have read a ton 'o book too!

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  2. This is my favorite McCloy and not just because it's an excellent locked room mystery. It's an excellent mystery novel period. Highly recommended.

    Here's a link to my 2011 review: moonlight-detective.blogspot.com/2011/06/inhospitable-guest-room.html

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    1. Yes, I remember your review. Either you or John Norris were first on the net, I think. I read it back on the 1990s, a large print copy borrowed from the library in Northport, AL. I used to read quite a few vintage mysteries in library copies in those days.

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  3. Thanks for the post Curtis. I enjoy your blog and continue to learn much about GAD from your experience and insights.

    I read this on the strength of TomCat's earlier review and pleased to see you highlight it today. It is my favourite McCloy and has strong reread potential given the clever solution to its locked room puzzle.

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    1. You are indeed welcome. Yes, I think this holds up as a model "classical" mystery.

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  4. i knew you were going to write about this! I almost reposted my own review of the book. But I had a Carolyn Wells book that I planned to write about and never got around to go doing it until last night. Just finished it this morning. Would you please add me to the list of links?. I'm a day late, but it was definitely meant for "Friday Fright Night." I'll be contribute every Friday unlike some of the others. And I'll be writing up Halloween related books all month.

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    1. I'll try, but I'm having trouble editing this piece because on edit it shows up as html, which never happened before. I remember your Splitfoot review, I think you were the first person on the net to review it. A bunch of people have reviewed it since. Definitely email me your link next week and I will post it if I'm the one doing this.

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    2. I believe my review was the first, yes. Back in 2011 when I was addicted to reading McCloy for about a year.

      Helpful hint for the edit: On the edit screen along the top border the very first icon on the left hand side is what you click to change back to regular text. That should help you.

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  5. I remember enjoying this one when I read it a year or two ago. I've read three of McCloy's Willing novels (one of which doesn't reveal that part until the end) and it doesn't look like she ever settled into a rut.

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  6. hello to the passing tramp. I found a past post which referenced my grandfather's book "wings of mystery" (William Gavine). I know some information about him if anyone is interested.

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    1. I most definitely am, please email me at thepassingtramp@gmail.com

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  7. You are absolutely right Curt - I must read this and write about it! Big fan of hers anyway. I thought I had read it many years ago but can't find it in my records. Sounds a real treat, thanks for giving me the push to find it.

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    1. There's a lot about fashions! Only you could do it justice.

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