book review

Spidery Stratagems — Penelope’s Web

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.

15 thoughts on “Spidery Stratagems — Penelope’s Web”

  1. Wonderful! I’ve skimmed this as I’m looking forward to it myself, but it sounds like exactly the sort of thing we hope Halter will produce — manic, loopy, and plenty of fun.

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  2. Yours is the first review I have seen of this latest translation from Halter. I ordered it today on the strength of your positive review – glad you liked it.

    The Madman’s Room remains my favourite from Halter so I look forward to see how this one compares.

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  3. You had me at “overstuffed”… Honestly, I love how Halter stuffs his novels with all sorts of puzzles and story lines. Yeah, not all the threads play out like I dreamed, but it leads to a fun read. Nice to hear that Penelope’s Web is no different, although seriously, who wasn’t going to buy this already?

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    1. Hey, you never know. Four years ago, I had no idea impossible crimes were a thing. All it took was The Red House Mystery and a few articles, and I was off to the races. Maybe, some kid will stumble on this post in two years. He’ll become intrigued and start digging deeper.

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  4. The main criticism is this: he doesn’t know his England and he can’t write good prose.
    His plots are ok. Sometimes.

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    1. When you say he doesn’t know his England, do you mean the setting? I never got the impression his settings were meant to move beyond the house/villa/castle where the plot takes place. As far as good prose, I consider the purpose of the prose above anything else. Dorothy Sayers wrote “good” prose, but I’d much rather read Halter.

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  5. 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?

    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 pbagvahrf gb ersre gb ure nf gurl, gurz, gurve. Nofheq !

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    1. You forgot the big one, Santosh! In the french version at least, the spider is a brazilian mygale… the thing is, mygales don’t actually weave vertical webs, they live inside underground burrows and use their silk for carpeting the ground. But since Penelope is a special spider… 😛

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    2. 1. N qvntenz jbhyq unir urycrq hf cvpgher gur “ybtvfgvpf” bs gur fperj ubyrf orggre, ohg V vzntvarq gurz orvat dhvgr fznyy. Zber vzcbegnagyl, V srry yvxr gur cevapvcyr bs gur zrgubq jnf zber vzcbegnag guna gur fcrpvsvpf.

      2. Fheryl, guvf vf na npprcgnoyr cneg bs gur traer!

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  6. As Sir Walter Scott put it ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive’.
    I’ve read this one in french, and it’s pretty good, imo. The hook is wonderfully bonkers as usual… And to those who say his England is fake, well, everyone’s is. Every work is conceived through a personal prism which reflects our beliefs, notions and interpretations of place and time. Is Emily Bronte’s England more realistic just because she was British? What the hell even is the real England? Wuthering Heights, as Borges would maintain “takes place in hell, but for some reason places have English names”. And let’s not extrapolate to the world of famous paintings…art is called art for a reason.
    Anyway, what I love about books like this is how they make your head spin when you try to solve them. I’m gonna throw a false solution at you, James, but even though it’s not a spoiler, I’m putting a tag.

    Spoiler ahead!

    All the lilliputian talk made me think of small people and ropes. Where are there tiny guys? Why in a deck of cards! The rope is the web, obviously. I recall Hurst mentioning the cards were sticky or soapy when he played with them, so I put two and two together and decided cards were placed with soap or glue against one side of the window frame, hidden by the pane forming an L. Three cards, one in the middle, the others close to the edges would do. Once the web is built, you don’t need to screw with the sticky center, just the axis built over the cards. You can fill the rest, and that’s why the uncle was quick in destroying the web (to nab the cards) once witnesses saw it was complete and untouched.

    Is my solution the best ever? No, but it’s so fucking fun to play! And that’s the point of it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Another point (rot 13)
    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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