The main criticism of Paul Halter’s writing can be summed up in one word — overstuffed. While I don’t share this criticism, it is understandable–particularly because some of the elements turn out to be intricately woven plot strands while others fall by the wayside, rendered as the sort of fantastical flourishes which contain little actual bearing on the case.
I wish to be very clear about this: If you share this criticism, there is no comfort for you in Penelope’s Web. We get Lilliputian myth, deadly Amazonian tribes, even more deadly exotic spiders, accusations of impersonation, convenient blindness, a child who solves the case before the detectives, murder…maybe suicide, past romances, clues planted in the middle of paragraphs, family tragedy…oh yeah, the Ulysses myth is thrown in for good measure.
And it is glorious fun, one of those murder mysteries that builds its own little world and lets chaos reign within. I haven’t even gotten to the best part — The hook is outstanding.
The Problem: Professor Frederick Foster (presumed to have been murdered by Amazonians) reappears just in time to stop his wife Ruth’s marriage to her doctor, Paul Hughes. The atmosphere this creates in the Foster household is remarkably similar to the ones in The Madman’s Room and The Lord of Misrule and just about every other Halter novel. We know something’s wrong, but we can tell neither the cause nor the direction of the unease. One day, a gunshot is heard inside Foster’s room. The door is latched shut on the inside, Foster is dead in a chair with a gun at his feet, and (most intriguingly) a spider’s web has been erected across the only means of escape. The spider (named Penelope) was brought back by the Professor and now serves as the only witness to the murder. You think I’m joking? Think again. It is a testament to Halter’s imagination and willingness to embrace the fantastical that the spider’s reaction is a key clue to the mystery. How the murderer got through the web without breaking it isn’t too shabby either.
The Investigation: Twist and Hurst end up taking the case. One of the novel’s primary delights is the set of coded clues Twist provides his policeman friend, much to Hurst’s frustration — and perhaps to the reader’s as well. When we find out that Twist indeed means all that he says…but now I’m getting ahead of myself, and there will be no spoilers here. The members of the house (godchildren, staff, and an uncle) provide more details about the case than the “bereaved” wife and her doctor/lover. They don’t have much to say at all. It ends up being James (Foster’s godson) who seems to know the method of this murderer, though when it comes to identity…well, he claims the Lilliputians did it. Kids!
The Solution: It’s well-clued and smart. We get treated to a double reveal because the method doesn’t tell us who did it. For that, Halter provides one of those suspenseful sequences without pronouns. We need a list of nouns for theses situations — the killer, the figure, the shape, the fiend, etc.
Admittedly, PW is not a good character study in any way. There’s probably even less here than in the typical Halter novel. I could have done with a bit more (especially with he death of a certain character), but it’s not what Halter does. It’s like watching a Sam Fuller film and complaining about the lack of subtlety.
This book is a game between author and reader, and those are the only two characters that matter. I’m not sure where it lies on the Halter scale (thankfully I still have a lot to read), but it’s well worth your money and your time. I adore it.