Sure enough, that evening, Lucinda finds an opportune moment and calls out “Do as I do, Mr. Splitfoot!” and claps her hands three times. She gets the reply: three taps sound in reply. It’s unsettling to the adults, and she is ready to call the prank a success… which is when she gets the phone call from Vanya. He’s been kept at home and is unable to play the part of Mr. Splitfoot this evening! But if Vanya was not making the ghostly taps… who was?
Luckily, Dr. Basil Willing is on hand to observe the peculiar events. The potentially-supernatural manifestations lead to a discussion of a haunted room in the house, a room that supposedly kills anyone who dares to spend a single night there… But in our modern enlightened times, who would believe in such nonsense? In fact, just to prove what a silly idea the whole thing is, they decide to choose a lucky winner who gets to spend a night in the cursed room…
Helen McCloy is one of my all-time favourite authors, and I’m very pleased that The Murder Room has brought many of her Dr. Basil Willing stories back into print and e-print. It’s been a while since my last McCloy review, but I was delighted to return to her work and to discover that it really is as good as I remembered it. Her writing is, as always superb. It can make the supernatural menace of “Mr. Splitfoot” come to life most vividly. But she also does a very convincing job with her teenage characters, Lucinda and Vanya. Teenagers and young people are very difficult to write about – it’s very easy to reduce them to a series of pop-culture catchphrases (like, you know?) and clichés. But McCloy infuses her young protagonists with liveliness and individuality – they’re clever in many ways, but naïve in other ways, and cannot quite understand the bizarre ways of the adults. For instance, when they’re discussing the inverted snobbery of Vanya’s mother, they come to the following conclusion:
“Do you know she still reads Pavlov and all his camp followers and takes them seriously? She tells everyone that I’m an outgoing boy and well adjusted to the group because she never spoiled me. Of course the whiz now is not to adjust to the group, and God knows I work at it, but she doesn’t even realize that conformism is old-hat. People don’t outlive their youth. Everybody dies at thirty.”“Do you suppose we will? Will we have children someday who’ll think we’re old-hat?”“No. We’ll be different.”
It’s a really nice, bittersweet moment, which captures the limbo between childhood and adulthood very well. It’s an example of the kind of characterization you can find in this book.
Overall, I really enjoyed Mr. Splitfoot and unhesitatingly recommend it. It’s well-plotted, well-paced, and has terrific writing. The characters, particularly the young’uns, are a delight, and the solution is an ingenious one. This is a fine entry into the locked-room mystery subgenre, and it also does a good job with its supernatural suggestions.
Please be sure to tune in for my next review, when the supernatural threats at work are a little more… tangible, shall we say? [Insert the sound of Vincent Price laughing maniacally here]