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.
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!
Ultimately, it all comes down to how satisfying are the answers to who, how, 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?