Mr Splitfoot by Helen McCloy

Lucinda is planning a cunning trick to play on her family. She will, during a dinner party, call out and summon the devil himself – Mr Splitfoot – and he will respond by… um, knocking three times. He’s a nasty piece of work, that devil. Of course, it’s just going to be her friend Vanya hiding in the walls. The trick goes off as planned – with the slight exception that Vanya never made it to the house…

Dr Basil Willing and his wife have been stranded at the house by a snowstorm and soon is in discussion about a haunted room – you know, one of those where anyone who stays the night ends up dead. After drawing lots, one member of their party spends the night, armed with a bell to ring if there are any problems. Needless to say, the bell rings. Even more needless to say, when the door is opened, the man lies dead…

My one experience with McCloy, The Goblin Market, was a disappointment, but this one was recommended by some of my fellow readers, so I thought I’d give it a try. And it’s an absolutely cracking short story. Shame it’s a novel though…

“He saw a wan, narrow face, speckled like the egg of some wild bird and a body that was all angular adolescence in a mini-skirt. A Modigliani consumptive? No, a Cranach Virgin.”

And so on…

McCloy has a way with words, but unfortunately that way is a twisty-turny country lane that is five times as long the direct route. Admittedly, I’d prefer a scenic route to a bypass, but I don’t need to see every blade of grass along the way. This was written in a period towards the end of her writing career, and was the first appearance of Willing for eight years, having been concentrating on standalone in the intervening period and perhaps that is reflected in her writing style. Or maybe that’s how she always writes…

Anyway, there’s a good central mystery here, with a nice inversion in the motive, but once the murder weapon is revealed – and while it’s more convincing than the one from The Madman’s Room, it still seems pretty damn risky, although admittedly that does fit here – it does make the murderer pretty obvious. And it did feel padded in places – the author seems more interested in Vanya and Lucinda and these passages, while entertaining, do go on a bit, and the car chase just seemed unnecessary.

Still, a bit padded, but a generally good read, with a well-plotted mystery. Well Worth A Look, but not the cast-iron classic that I expected.

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7 comments

    • I too really enjoyed this, despite it being undeniably over-long — with the exception of the final chapter, this was one of those rare books where an excess of verbiage didn’t bother me. The characters are all intellectual snobs, and the prank is – as PD rightly says — really, really minor given that all somsone’s going to do is knock on the wall, but I had a great time with this.

      The other two McCloy’s I’ve read have been much weaker, though. Through a Glass Darkly was…fine, but rather unlikely to say the least, and The Slayer and the Slain is holy cow the prime example of a short story-worth of plot streeeeetched out to an exceptionally thin novel. I’d hoped the obvious “massive twist” was something she was deliberately foreshadwoing as a bluff, but nope, she just rolls right through it and drops it three long chapters from the end and you’re still supposed to be surprised by it. Ugh. That’s put me off McCloy now, I have no desire to read her ever again.

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  1. Must admit, I felt the same when re-reading THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, still regarded as probably her best. It was based on a long short story and frankly would have been better if it stayed that way. I do really want to read SPLITFOOT after so many raves though – but only when I find a really cheap copy!

    Liked by 1 person

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