THE EENSY WEENSY SPIDER MURDER MYSTERY: Penelope’s Web

It’s always a cause for excitement when Locked Room International’s very own John Pugmire translates another Paul Halter novel. What sort of impossible crime or locked room will the French heir to John Dickson Carr give us this time? Will he take us to the Golden Age world of his Gideon Fell stand-in, Dr. Alan Twist, or will we once again return to the Victorian Era and the adventures of Owen Burns and Achilles Stock? Just overstuffed will this one be with myths and legends and body parts in suitcases and atmosphere? And will there be a map???

Spoilers – there’s no map, but then there’s no room for one. At under 140 pages, Penelope’s Web is the shortest (and therefore, the most expensive) Halter novel we’ve received yet. As for the other questions, well, this is another adventure for Dr. Twist and his pal from Scotland Yard, Inspector Archibald Hurst. On vacation in a spa town, they come across Mike Waddell, a former colleague of Hurst’s, who has assumed the job of Chief of Police for Worcester and who invites the pair to visit him. Good thing that they take Chief Waddell up on his offer because in the village of Royston, a bizarre puzzle is unfolding . . . 

In 1938, Agatha Christie responded to her brother-in-law’s criticism that her mysteries lacked the requisite requirement of violence by writing Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. Christie certainly satisfied James Watts’ craving for gore, literally drenching the murder scene in blood. But she did a lot more here: she gave us one of her finest country house family mysteries and, being the brilliant plotter that she was, she made the violence integral to the murder plot. 

In 2001, Paul Halter responded to a different challenge: his friend Vincent Bourgeois proposed a case where a person is found murdered in a locked room, the only access being an open window that is completely covered by a spider’s web. This is the genesis Penelope’s Web, and, like Christie, (or, for that matter, like most of Halter’s own work), he has provided us with another country house family mystery. This time, we are in Black House, home of Professor Frederick Foster, a noted scientist, who at the start of the novel has been missing, presumed dead, after he left his wife and family and journeyed to the Amazon jungle to study spiders. A body was found and identified as Foster’s, making his widow’s attempt to move on with her life completely natural. 

Ruth Foster is doing just that, despite suffering from a strange malady that has left her half-blind. She has taken up with her doctor (and childhood friend) Paul Hughes, and they are planning to be married. But then Frederick Foster returns from the dead, and all their plans are upset . . . or is it Foster????

What we’ve got here then is a neat little problem: a man returns from the dead. Is he the man everyone thinks he is? Does it even matter, when this man’s presence is, at best, an inconvenience to the members of the household? Isn’t it only a matter of time before he is killed? And if so, by whom? His wife? Her lover? The wife’s uncle, a retired major, or her nephew, a precocious adolescent? The victim’s gorgeous goddaughter? The devoted couple who serve him? His next-door neighbors, with whom he was feuding over property rights before his disappearance? Whoever it is, how on earth did they escape from the man’s locked room in an all-too-short amount of time without disturbing the complex web spun by the victim’s favorite spider? 

I have always held that Paul Halter’s short stories account for his best work because his strengths lie more in the tricks of his trade and less in the elements of a good novel, like characterization, setting, and knowing when enough is enough. The short tales focus on one problem, while the novels might be crammed with six! That’s not to say that some of the longer works aren’t wonderful, and even when he overstuffs his plots with ghosts and ghoulies of all sorts, you have to admire Halter’s chutzpah as he jams another headless rider into a tale about vampires. Here, however, I ran into a problem: despite a plethora of references to ancient myths and literature, for once I felt that Halter’s overstuffed stew was a bit undercooked.

“We are the stars of this show!”

Let’s start with the spiders, which are the best part. Foster has brought a whole bunch of rare species back with him and put them in cages under his bed. Naturally, this cries for a scene where they escape and run amok, and it’s the best scene in the novel. We also need the spiders to explain the web, and yet they seem strangely underutilized. 

Then there’s all the attempts to cram The Odyssey down our throats. We’re supposed to equate Foster’s return from the Amazon to Odysseus’ return from the wars, with his wife Ruth substituting for Penelope. And yet there’s barely a parallel to be made between these two stories. To complicate matters, Foster’s goddaughter is also named Penelope, and she is too weakly rendered as a character to figure out the significance of that point.  Oh yes, and the central spider shares the same name and seems to be the most beloved woman in Foster’s life. 

But that’s not all: in addition to mismatched mythology (you can refer to two women as harpies or Furies, but not on the same page – they are completely different entities) and a passing nod to “the Black Widow of folklore,” Halter keeps hammering us with references to Gulliver’s Travels and the significance of the Lilliputians. Are these supposed to represent the spiders? The pygmy natives of the Amazons? I felt it was a bit much, and the book would have been better if it had been all Greek to me! 

“Sorry, but you’re just too much, little man.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to how satisfying are the answers to whohow, and why, and if – this being a mystery in the classic style – we are capable of suspending our disbelief as the solution is unveiled. This judgment is a personal one, amounting to each person’s own scale from “oh God, that’s clever!” to “what utter bullshit!” 

In terms of the how, . . . . well, I never understand these things. I suppose the explanation for the spider’s web over the window is quite clever, but I didn’t buy it for a second. That’s partly because of the answer to the who, and of course I can’t go into the reasons for my doubts without spoiling things. I will say this: Halter sets most of cases in England, probably to honor the ghosts of Carr and Christie and all the GAD authors he admired. But the explanation in the final chapter felt so unbelievably French to me that I had to laugh. And although Dr. Twist takes some pains to show us the clues, I feel there are some problems with certain truths coming out of the blue and certain actions being totally out of character. 

In the end, Penelope’s Web is a quick, fairly enjoyable read, but I would place it as a minor effort in the Halter canon. I’m used to the author providing us with a certain amount of crazy, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but this one wasn’t crazy enough! 

God in heaven, what is happening to me?

“We’re here for JJ when he gets around to reading this . . . “

18 thoughts on “THE EENSY WEENSY SPIDER MURDER MYSTERY: Penelope’s Web

  1. Your mentioning of the “Frenchness” (Frenchocity) of the ending reminds me that Halter mixes the fantasy and (detective-world) realism without apology. The poetic nature of this novella accounts for a lot of its pleasure. It’s only been a day after reading it, but I’m still smiling at how this story is literally (rot13) Crarybcr’f jro. In that respect, the “who” is terrific.

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    1. I suppose this one is clever in that regard because gur gvgyr yvgrenyyl fpernzf bhg gur xvyyre’f anzr. I didn’t solve it – I didn’t even try – but I would suggest that abguvat nobhg Crarybcr’f punenpgre fhttrfgf fur vf pyrire rabhtu gb pbaprvir bs guvf vqrn naq pneel vg bhg jvgu fhpu nynpevgl. Ohg gura, gurer ner nfcrpgf bs ure punenpgre gung Unygre qbrfa’g erirny hagvy gur shpxvat rcvybthr.

      I still have the dream of writing mysteries, but I think they will not be impossible crime stories for the simple fact that V qb abg cbffrff gur nphzra bs n Serapu/Oevgvfu ovzob be n svsgrra lrne-byq obl . . .

      Is that enough ROT-13 for everyone??????

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  2. Interesting to hear that this one could have used a bit more going on. In the lead-up to this release, I have heard some say that this is – relatively speaking – simple Halter, a point which interested me greatly. I’ve only read one of his novels, The Demon of Dartmoor which I liked but not loved because it was just so overstuffed, and though one solution delighted me in its simplicity, another underwhelmed me greatly. I have considered giving Halter another go (I have read great things about The Seventh Hypothesis ) but when there are so many books to read, I just don’t know if Halter is worth making a priority.

    To each their own, I guess…

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  3. Nick, I think you’re more fond of impossible crime stories than I am, so you might want to give Halter a few more tries. His books are short, and some are quite clever. However, every one of us will probably hand you a different suggestion. I was a fan of The Demon of Dartmoor, even though I acknowledge its flaws – but then every Halter is flawed, whether with too much effluvia or a ridiculous final twist at the end. I found The Seventh Hypothesis less interesting than other readers, although it does attempt to do something quite different from the usual. JJ will forever sing the praises of The Invisible Circle, but while the HOW is clever, the WHO is absolutely ridiculous. I think we can all agree that The Vampire Tree is mediocre to bad, but we will probably part ways on all the others.

    Meanwhile, there are classic authors galore, and you would easily be well served to look there. How much Christianna Brand have you read? She’s classic! Are you up on all your Carr/Dickson?? So many great books. You read Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery, but how about The Siamese Twin Mystery or Cat of Many Tails?? There’s Helen McCloy and Margaret Millar and Patricia Moyes and Jack Vance and Harriet Rutland and . . . . LOTS of better writers than Halter, many of whom have crafted excellent plots.

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    1. You simply confirm my point: SO many writers, so little time. I do admit that I have a fondness for impossible crimes though, I think, like you, I can easily get lost when the explanation is of the more technical persuasion. (One of the solutions in Carr’s The Case of the Constant Suicides simply baffled me with its sheer technicality being a prime example.) Nonetheless, I want to make my way through as much of Carr/Dickson as possible. I have read about a dozen and have a handful of others sitting on the shelf waiting to be read.

      As to the others…I have read both Siamese Twin Mystery and Cat of Many Tails , the latter of which was actually my first exposure to Queen. I loved both of them, but then again, I have enjoyed all the Queens I have read so far to some degree or another. The early period stuff is so fun. I am happy to be the dissenting opinion and admit that I love pretentious Ellery, that the solution to The French Powder Mystery was one of the best I have come across in GAD, and that The Dutch Shoe Mystery actually kept me riveted – riveted, I swear – from the get-go. I have a lot of work to go with Queen (I haven’t even tapped into the Wrightsville books yet) but I’m excited for it.

      I also have a bit of work to do with Brand, but after Green for Danger (now honestly one of my favorite mysteries) and Death of Jezebel (which I liked but much less so), I am looking forward to diving into her others which sit patiently on my shelf.

      I like to rotate my reading so that I don’t fixate on just one writer. So, who knows. Maybe an Halter will slip its way back into my TBR pile (more like TBR shelves, honestly) but only after another Carr, another Christie, another Brand, another Queen, another…

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      1. I also love early Queen. I think French Powder is superbly constructed where the culprit is not revealed until the last line. I’ve read a few Paul Halter short stories and was less than impressed so I’ll pass on this new book I think.

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      2. Nick, what is it you liked “much less so” about Death of Jezebel? I admit to a blind spot about that book, but I have trouble seeing what one can take issue with it (though I’ll readily admit it doesn’t have thr emotional resonance of a work such as Green for Danger).

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  4. My knowledge of Halter is limited only to a couple of books but, substitution ciphers notwithstanding, I can well imagine how there is plenty of cleverness but that the rest depends on the mood of the reader and how much they are willing to indulge the author. Always a fun read but … there is always a but 😁

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  5. You just pipped me with your review, but it was the simplicity of the problem that made this one of his better books, in my opinion. Although I completely agree, the Odysseus references seemed forced, and I just didn’t see the point about pulling Gulliver’s Travels into it.

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  6. I guessed who the culprit was when the trick was being revealed.
    (rot13)Gur jvaqbj frrzf dhvgr fznyy. Vg vf fnvq gb zrnfher 18 vapurf va jvqgu naq fyvtugyl ybatre va urvtug. Fnl 18 ol 20 vapurf. Vg jbhyq erdhver dhvgr n ovg bs npebongvpf gb cnff guebhtu vg! Bayl Crarybcr jbhyq unir gur ntvyvgl gb cnff guebhtu vg rnfvyl! Gur bgure crefba pncnoyr bs qbvat fb, Wnzrf, vf bhg bs gur cvpgher .

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  7. Some flaws noted (in rot 13)
    1. Jura gur sebag bs gur qenjre vf qrgnpurq sebz gur erfg, gurer jvyy or tynevat ubyrf ba gur sebag jurer gur fperjf hfrq gb or. Nyfb jura gur sebag vf nggnpurq qverpgyl gb gur sheavgher ol fperjf, gjb rkgen fperjf jvyy fubj ng gur rqtrf. Ubj qvq gurfr ubyrf naq gur rkgen fperjf rfpncr gur nggragvba bs Wnzrf jura ur gevrq gb bcra gur qenjre whfg orsber Sbfgre’f zheqre?( I wrote to Paul Halter about this, but he did not bother to reply!)

    2. Fb ybat nf gur traqre bs gur phycevg vf abg xabja, ur be fur pna or ersreerq gb nf gurl, gurz, gurve. Ohg va puncgre 23, gur qrgrpgvirf xabj gur traqre bs gur phycevg ohg pbagvahr gb ersre gb ure nf gurl, gurz, gurve. Nofheq !

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  8. “In terms of the how, . . . . well, I never understand these things.”
    Actually, the French version is much more clear regarding the mechanism than the English translation.

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  9. “you can refer to two women as harpies or Furies, but not on the same page – they are completely different entities”
    I realised this and hence I didn’t use the word Furies. My translation reads as
    “My God ! They are crazy, they are fighting like mad! “

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Hello I won’t be attending any summer classes taught by Elliot but I came across a weird one you might enjoy, MOONRISE 1948 with Dane Clark and Gail Russel. Also had a short segment with Lloyd Bridges. Definitely a noir film but darker psychological twists. It is free on Utube which I accessed thru DISH. Enjoy the summer. Kay McGuire Stanford Continuing Studies Group

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  11. BREAKING: The next release of LRI (owned by John Pugmire) is the honkaku novel DEATH AMONG THE UNDEAD by Masahiro Imamura. It is the translation of the Japanese novel Shijinsou no Satsujin (2017). It is the author’s debut novel. I believe it involves zombies !
    (By the way, today is John Pugmire’s birthday. He is now 86 years old.)

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