Thursday, January 23, 2014

Do as I do, Mr. Splitfoot!

Lucinda had a wonderful idea for a prank. To pull it off, she needed the help of an accomplice, so she enlisted the help of Vanya. The two teenagers decided to pull off a much-deserved scare on the grown-ups, faking supernatural activity. Vanya has a secret hiding place (which he refuses to disclose to Lucinda), and he’ll be hiding there. Upon a verbal cue from Lucinda, Vanya will make series of ghostly raps in reply. That’ll be sure to scare ‘em.

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…

Unfortunately, time apparently does not heal all wounds, and the room’s murderous edge is still razor-sharp. A corpse is discovered, but the room was locked the whole time, there were no footprints in the dust apart from their own, there are no footprints in the freshly-fallen snow surrounding the house. So… what on earth happened?

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.

But quality of writing aside, Mr. Splitfoot is remarkably plotted. It can proudly stand side-by-side with the best of John Dickson Carr’s locked-room mysteries. The solution is logical, simple, and you have just as good of an opportunity of solving the crime as Dr. Willing. This is what the Maestro dubbed “The Grandest Game in the World”: an intellectual duel between reader and author, as the author tries to surprise you with the twist ending while you fight back with your perception, logical thinking, and previous experience within the genre. Even with all of that, I was unable to come out with a victory. Helen McCloy overwhelmingly won this round.

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]

11 comments:

  1. I still remember how much I liked reading this one and writing the review in my first year of blogging. As a locked room mystery, Mr. Splitfoot aught to be better known than Through a Glass, Darkly and the mischievous teenage characters were my favorite. They are indeed hard to characterize convincingly and the worst of them resemble creepy, borderline psycho mini-adults who should haunt the upstairs hallway of an abandoned hotel (Nicholas Blake's The Widow's Cruise has a good specimen on display).

    Are you sticking with this new layout?

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    1. "As a locked room mystery, Mr. Splitfoot aught to be better known than Through a Glass, Darkly"

      I may have enjoyed Through a Glass, Darkly a bit more than this one, but Mr. Splitfoot undoubtedly has the superior locked room puzzle.

      Gladys Mitchell's The Rising of the Moon had some pretty good young characters as well. When done poorly, though, they seem more like Norman Bates than actual teenagers. Ngaio Marsh's Tied up in Tinsel has an unintentionally hilarious young character (a young woman), and Marsh really seemed to hate her, giving her all these bad slang catchphrases and the like and treating her with pure scorn whenever she was around.

      As for the new layout, as I explained yesterday, it was kind-of forced on me when I wasn't quite ready for it. See, the set-up of the Internet connection around here has changed, and I now have a much weaker, slower connection. The old layout kept freezing up on me and made regular blogging almost too much of a chore. So I was looking to simplify and speed up the layout. I was looking at this layout as an option and accidentally clicked on it. I haven't the heart to go through and scour for the old template when I know that I'll just end up changing it all over again. So for now, I'm going to keep it like this. I don't think it's too bad, and it's certainly loaded up much faster. The shortcuts for creating new posts and editing existing posts are also showing up for me now, which is a big plus.

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    2. Well, I hope this won't be the final version of the layout. It's do-able to navigate on a computer, but it becomes a chore on the tab. The overall look is not bad, though. I just hate how everything older than a month has become more defficult to access.

      Oh, and posting comments on a tab and typing the security code isn't a walk in the park, either.

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    3. I hadn't even considered tablets. I made a very simple mobile outline for such devices and that's what I use when accessing the site on my tablet. I'll look into it...

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    4. I've adjusted the sidebar so that it doesn't go into hiding automatically. I hope that helps.

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  2. "Insert the sound of Vincent Price laughing maniacally here"
    An even more sinister laugher is Tod Slaughter, the British melodrama actor. Specialised in Sweeney Todd and villainous squires...

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  3. Based just on the description, I would not think I would like this book. But you have convinced me I should try it. I am going to have to try some Helen McCloy books someday.

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  4. Right, if this has been reprinted on paper then I am definitely getting it as I have not really been able to get hold of a copy at a sensible price - thanks Patrick. By the way, what's happened to the site? All kinds of unusual display things seem to be happening ...

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    1. You can get most, if not all, of The Murder Room's books as POD print books.

      Oh dear, you have me worried now. What kinds of unusual things are you talking about?

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    2. I had missed your post about your inadvertant re-design of the site's functionality so you can ignore that bit of my last message ...

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