"Do as I do, Mr. Splitfoot."
That spoken phrase was supposed to be at the center of a rather malicious prank, played by a couple of angry teenagers upon adults who were present in an allegedly haunted house. The plan called for one of the unhappy teenagers, named Lucinda, to shout that phrase out suddenly in the middle of the living room as a ritual for summoning the devil, and she'd clap her hands three times. Her friend, another disaffected teen named Vanya, hidden in a secret room in the house, would knock three times in return. The adults, hearing the raps coming from some unknown location in a house said to be haunted, would think the knocking came from a poltergeist or even from Mr. Splitfoot - the devil himself.
But the prank went wrong - badly, frighteningly wrong. Oh, the hand-clapping and return knocking happened as planned - but the responding raps didn't come from the right place or the right person. And that was before the impossible murder in the haunted room.
Fortunately, psychiatrist Dr. Basil Willing is on hand when the trouble begins - and he is less concerned about the supernatural than he is about the human devil behind these mysteries.
It happens in Helen McCloy's mystery, Mr Splitfoot, originally published in 1968. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Helen McCloy was the author of nearly 30 novels, of which about a dozen featured Dr. Basil Willing as the detective. Mr. Splitfoot is an excellent example of McCloy's skills at creating an atmosphere of terror and mystery while providing readers with some well-hidden clues to what's really happening.
The book begins with those two teenagers, Lucinda and her neighbor and sole friend, Vanya. Lucinda has a deep hatred of her stepmother, a hatred which seems to inspire all sorts of bad behavior. As both children seem to be remarkably well-read in the literature of psychic research, ghosts and séances, they decide that they are going to frighten the adults by staging an apparent incident with a poltergeist, a malevolent and mischievous sprite.
Well, things don’t work out that way. First of all, Dr. Willing and his wife – who has injured her ankle and whose car has broken down – arrive at the remote house where all this is happening, and they are offered a place to stay, as a snowstorm has blocked all the roads. As a result, they are witnesses when something goes very wrong with that planned prank with the poltergeist. That incident leads the adults to discuss that supposedly haunted room in their house – and they decide that one of them will spend the night in that room, to prove there’s no danger.
I suspect you know what’s coming next. Despite the door being locked, and despite the room being watched constantly by all the men, the one man who wound up staying in the haunted room is found dead after only a few minutes – with no wound, no weapon, and no visible cause of death. The door, of course, is still locked. There are no fresh footprints except the victim's in the dust in that room or in the freshly-fallen snow outside.
And that will be only the first of the nightmarish incidents. Is the room really haunted? Dr. Willing, of course, insists the answer is no. But if not, how can a man be killed with no apparent wound or weapon? And what of the teenagers and their poltergeist? Finding the answers will lead the psychiatrist to a final, dangerous confrontation.
This is a well-written and skillfully plotted mystery, with an intriguing locked room problem with a satisfying solution. McCloy's characters are compelling and the remote location, isolated by a snowstorm, plays a significant role in the mystery. Mr. Splitfoot is available as an Orion e-book from The Murder Room, and it's very highly recommended.