#850: Penelope’s Web (2001) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2021]

Penelope's Web

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In my recent conversation with Nick about Jonathan Creek, I reflected on how a chance encounter with that television programme ended up having a profound effect upon my interests. No less profound an effect was brought about by my purchasing of John Pugmire’s translation of The Fourth Door (1987, tr. 1999) by Paul Halter back in 2013. The annual Halter translations Pugmire publishes through Locked Room International are a highlight of my year, having provided a window on the French mystery in the Golden Age and beyond (thanks almost entirely to Pugmire’s translations of many other classics), and being a riotously fun time along the way.

Penelope’s Web (2001) is the most recent translation to come from Pugmire and Locked Room International, and it continues the carefree, wildly enjoyable repurposing of Golden Age tropes that marks out Halter as a fan of the puzzle plot’s history: an explorer returned from a distant land after being presumed dead for several years, complete with a dodgy-sounding story about how his convenient doppelgänger, whose body was identified as his, could have been so confused (“…sometimes exchanged our personal effects, depending on the tasks we were performing…”). He has also brought with him a MacGuffin that will enable the rest of the plot to happen: the spider Penelope, who spins webs of magnificent intricacy in a fraction of the time of your common-or-garden overseas spider. And so the stage is set…

And, well, that’s pretty much it. The question of identity is dragged out a little bit to add some intrigue, but the overwhelming focus here is on the murder that results — a shooting in a room with a watched door, with the only functional window covered by one of Penelope’s webs. There’s no mysticism, no background of superstition as in The Demon of Dartmoor (1993, tr. 2012) or The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999, tr. 2018), just a nice, simple country house murder with a small cast of suspicious types and Dr. Alan Twist tracking round after Inspector Archibald Hurst and making obscure proclamations before identifying the killer and their method come the end.

It’s a very un-Halter Halter, and apart from one pun and a butler who vouchsafes an opinion while clearing the table after a meal — in the 1930s! Imagine! — could come from the very heart of the genre’s heyday; hell, it even has the era’s slightly dismissive attitude to women down pat (“The small assembly waited: apprehensively, in the case of Ruth and Penelope; with self-control, in the case of Dr. Hughes, the major, and [the butler] Bates…”). Add a precocious child and the fact that the presumed-dead man’s wife has a form of macular degeneration that renders her virtually blind, and we couldn’t be more loaded with possibilities for Golden Age fun. There are even clues of a sort, not always the surest string on Halter’s bow, though more so in the matter of why than how — I’ll be honest, when the motive and all its attendant details came out towards the end, I was pretty impressed by the threads woven through the prose that I’d overlooked.

The impossible crime itself…well, that was less successful for me. When I first heard of the setup here, years before this translation was ever announced, I had idly speculated on some possible methods, and Halter uses the first one I devised (which, hey, leaves me two other ways to resolve this situation, so if I ever decided to write that copyright-baiting ‘parallel interpretation’ I now could), which I had already looked past and so failed to consider as an option here (if you’re interested, I thought more was happening in chapter 14 to clue us into a solution than it turns out really was…). I don’t know whether Halter was trying to misdirect me with one startling piece of behaviour, but it worked if he did and I felt like an idiot when the actual killer was eventually unmasked. Sometimes, it turns out, overthinking things can work in my favour.

The translation is clean and clear as always, though a couple of odd word choices — “annulment” doesn’t really apply in that situation, and the use of “through” in the explanation in chapter 22 is a little confusing — pulled me up. Mostly, though, it was just sort of thrilling to see Halter set out the sort of thing Ngaio Marsh might write and see it through without adding too much in the way of circumlocution or convolution. The urge to complicate might have been strong, but a simple tale simply told, especially in the output of so gifted a convolutionist, shows an adroitness that I might have honestly not previously imagined in Halter’s DNA. Could he have done more with it? Of course! Does it matter that he didn’t? Not in the least.

If you’re new to Halter, and if the more sedate stylings of the Golden Age are to your liking, this might even be the best starting point thus far translated: fans of Agatha Christie will find this not unlike some of her less involved plots. I could well believe that this would be the book to bring Halter to a wider audience, in fact: snaring them unsuspectingly, piquing their interest so that they investigate further until they either manage to shrug him off and escape or find themselves unable to pull away, almost as if caught on a…dammit, now what would be a suitable analogy for something like that?

~

See also

Xavier @ The (old) Villa Rose: Because he has to deal with only one impossibility, which he solves brilliantly, Halter has more time for the larger plot which is more elegantly and soundly devised than usual with him. For once the reader has his chance to work parts of the truth out of the physical and psychological clues, and the guilty party is not arbitrary nor thrown out of thin air. The writing is tighter, with only occasional slips into clichés…and some characters are reasonably well-sketched, most particularly Major Brough. In the end, the book looks more like Christie than Carr, though neither would’ve condoned the second murder — a reminder that Halter-the-Bleak is always lurking in the backstages and that he takes no prisoners.

Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: It’s a minor Halter: a straightforward locked room mystery.  It reads well; it’s brisk, rather light, but it lacks subplots and complexity.  It doesn’t have his flaws (no psychologically improbable explanations, no poorly motivated situations, no likeable young men who are really Jack the Ripper), but it’s not as creative as his best works, either.  Halter, unlike the tarantulas in this book, doesn’t weave a complex web of mystery.

~

Paul Halter reviews on The Invisible Event; all translations by John Pugmire unless stated

Featuring Dr. Alan Twist and Archibald Hurst:

The Fourth Door (1987) [trans. 1999]
Death Invites You (1988) [trans. 2015]
The Madman’s Room (1990) [trans. 2017]
The Seventh Hypothesis (1991) [trans. 2012]
The Tiger’s Head (1991) [trans. 2013]
The Picture from the Past (1995) [trans. 2014]
The Vampire Tree (1996) [trans. 2016]
The Man Who Loved Clouds (1999) [trans. 2018]
Penelope’s Web (2001) [trans. 2021]

Featuring Owen Burns and Achilles Stock:

The Lord of Misrule (1994) [trans. 2006]
The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997) [trans. 2005]
The Phantom Passage (2005) [trans. 2015]
The Gold Watch (2019) [trans. 2019]

Standalones:

The Invisible Circle (1996) [trans. 2014]

Collected short stories:

The Night of the Wolf (2000) [trans. 2004 w’ Adey]

Individual short stories [* = collected in the anthology The Helm of Hades (2019)]:

‘Nausicaa’s Ball’ (2004) [trans. 2008 w’ Adey]*
‘The Robber’s Grave’ (2007) [trans. 2007 w’ Adey]*
‘The Gong of Doom’ (2010) [trans. 2010]*
‘The Man with the Face of Clay’ (2011) [trans. 2012]*
‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (2014) [trans. 2014]*
‘The Wolf of Fenrir’ (2014) [trans. 2015]*
‘The Scarecrow’s Revenge’ (2015) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Fires of Hell’ (2016) [trans. 2016]*
‘The Yellow Book’ (2017) [trans. 2017]*
‘The Helm of Hades’ (2019) [trans. 2019]*

30 thoughts on “#850: Penelope’s Web (2001) by Paul Halter [trans. John Pugmire 2021]

  1. I was floored that the spider’s “reaction” ended up being a clue. It’s shoehorned into the summation a bit, but it was brilliant all the same. If you’ve got two other solutions, you should def write them. After all, this genre encourages tackling the same problems in different ways like none other.

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    • There are some good clues in this, and that’s one of them. Goes to show that Halter can clue when he wants to, so therefore he doesn’t want to most of the time 😄

      I like the idea of multiple solutions to this problem.Maybe I should commission a short story collection with that as the theme, get it published next Hallowe’en.

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  2. Great to hear that this Halter was up to the quality of many of the others which we have been graced with! The more I read of Halter, the more and more intrigued I get – I’ve finally ordered The Tiger’s Head and The Phantom Passage to introduce myself, and I’m quite excited for those to get into the mail.

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    • I think those are a great pair of books; don’t think I’ve ever done a ranking of Halter titles, mainly because it would become redundant as soon as another one came out, but they’d both feature highly.

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  3. The spiders web across the open window is definitely one of those irresistible set ups that has you speculating over the solution before you even get your hands on the book, proper. It was like that for me with Green Capsule and White Priory (close but no cigar on the former, on the money with the latter).

    Its a fine book, I did like that it focussed on the one problem and did a decent job of shifting suspicion between suspects. I vaguely remember a moment of “If we assume X to have happened, then the culprit has to be the one who arrived at the scene Y minutes later” logic which, while nothing extraordinary within the genre, was by Halter’s standards a nice demo of the deductive process. And the retrospective import of the child’s fanciful insistence i.e. “but they escaped through the…” comment was pretty great, I thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, the folding in of the “nonsensical childhood proclamations” element was well-handled, especially as the mystery story has a tendency to make those things either too nebulous to be genuinely useful or too obvious to provide any bafflement. The line was walked well in this instance.

      As to speculating about the solution, all I can say is that I have two more to offer — one more feasible than the other, and if anyone wants to offer me a book deal I’ll get working on them ASAP…

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  4. Thanks for the review, JJ. 😊 I quite liked Penelope’s Web, despite the inconvenience of reading it in Chinese. I agree that it’s a solid entry in Halter’s oeuvre, not too whacky, while showcasing with some success his strengths as a mystery novelist. I think like Death Invites You, it’s a good starting point for someone new to Halter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Death Invites You is perhaps a slightly stronger book, but I’d agree that they both make good jumping-off points for the casual reader (and the majority of readers of crime and mystery fiction are, I’d wager, casual about it).

      It’s now a question of whether my French improves at enough of a rate to read one of these before the translation comes out…but Duolingo and I have become distant friends of late, so that seems doubtful…!

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      • Regarding the relative merits of Penelope’s Web and Death Invites You… I think Penelope had a more interesting locked room conundrum and trick. When the solution was unveiled, I felt like the clues were there and I ought to have latched onto the trick. But it seems like you had predicted what was happening? I think I feel less fondly towards Death Invites You because a certain episode in Death in Paradise nudged me in the right direction regarding the locked room conundrum. But as for the culprit, I thought the choice of perpetrator was less obvious and better hidden in Death Invites You than in Penelope’s Web.

        The pains of reading a good mystery novel that isn’t in one’s first language! I have a few more Halter titles on my TBR pile, but I’m reluctant to plunge into them as they are in Chinese, and require more brain power. And of the titles in Chinese, only one of them is meant to be good/great; the others are meant to represent the weaker end of the spectrum of Halter’s output. 😐

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        • The trick in Penelope’s Web is undoubtedly fresher, but I enjoyed the design of Death Invites You more, I think — for all its familiarity (and the oddest last line of any detective novel ever) there’s more of an energy to the setup. I mean, who can’t love a plot about an author being killed in the exact same manner as he’s currently describing in his latest, unfinished novel? It’s too tantalising to ignore, and a strong enough hook for an entire (albeit unlikely) series of mysteries linked on that exact theme.

          Although, since I failed to spot the perpetrator in PW, I’m bound to emphasise how well-hidden they were 🙂 The motive really was quite pleasingly sewn throughout, and is perhaps one of the most satisfying Halter has ever utilised for that reason alone.

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  5. This “fan of Christie” disagrees with you . . . and with Xavier, as a matter of fact. I think one could argue that Death Invites You feels like a “Christie-ish” Halter, just as one calls The Eight of Swords or The Emperor’s Snuff-Box a “Christie-ish” Carr. Me? I’ll side with Nick, who calls this “minor” Halter. It’s much better than The Vampire Tree, but it’s not much fun and the death of the you-know-who is mean-spirited. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I LIKE “crazy” Halter, the one with the country mansion where the master has died in his locked study, with muddy footprints on the ceiling, and the guest list including a master jewel thief while across the countryside the serial killer known as the Slasher is cutting up art students and forming their body parts into pre-Raphaelite masterpieces.

    Oh, and there’s a headless horseman, too, because . . . . . . . why not?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, it’s that time of the month again when we are, more or less, in agreement on something. 🙂

    Penelope’s Web intrigued me ever since reading Xavier’s review back in the late 2000s and it was gratifying not only to see it finally getting translated, but discovering it mostly lived up to my expectations. Just a pity the second victim wasn’t use as a (one-shot) detective character.

    I could well believe that this would be the book to bring Halter to a wider audience…

    And that’s where I have to disagree with you. So much has been translated now that you can present readers with a varied palette beginning with Halter’s best stuff (The Phantom Passage or The Gold Watch) followed by a varied selection (The Madman’s Room, The Seventh Hypothesis, The Man Who Loved Clouds, Penelope’s Web and one of the short story collections). A selection like that would have left a very different impression on none-French readers a decade ago when only The Lord of Misrule and some short stories were available in English.

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    • I don’t know if this is a weird opinion or anything, but I think that there really doesn’t seem to be a best book to introduce Halter to a wider audience, simply because his style is so unique and, often, variable.

      However, I think a method could be devised to get someone less knowledgeable about GAD from humble beginnings to Halter. Most people are familiar with Agatha Christie – so, once the “audience” (let’s assume, in this case, one person) is familiar with Christie, get them started on some other Queens of Crime (whomever you believe those to be). If they’re still on track, ease them onto a new diet of Carr – Emperor’s Snuff Box and He Who Whispers would be perfect for beginning this. When that’s accomplished, slowly bring in some other locked-room literature – Queen, Rawson, Talbot, etc. If they’re still with you at this point, then unleash the Halter on them – depending on their tastes, either something simpler like Penelope’s Web, or one of the crazier ones like Phantom Passage or Death Invites You.

      Then again, that seems like the kind of over-complicated plot devised by a GAD villain…

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      • Well, if we’re talking good introductory books, I’ll put forward the unsubstantiated opinion that He Who Whispers would be an absolutely appalling choice to convince someone to read Carr…

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        • I think I can understand that sentiment… HWW isn’t what I’d call a “conventional” Carr, since the pacing and plotting are done a bit differently. It’s probably in the same vein in which I would never recommend The Hollow Man as a first Carr despite it being my own first Carr. I could see Constant Suicides or Till Death also being good starting places in my scenario…

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          • Yeah, the recent non-Bencolin reprints — Hag’s Nook, Constant Suicides, Till Death, She Died a Lady, Mad Hatter, Crooked Hinge, the forthcoming Eight of Swaords — are great choices for introducing the unaware to Carr’s brilliance. Only Plague Court, in my recent reread, would I exclude from consideration, but even then I loved it first time around, so maybe it would be a good one after all…

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      • …but I think that there really doesn’t seem to be a best book to introduce Halter to a wider audience, simply because his style is so unique and, often, variable.

        That’s why you introduce new readers to what he did best with his own unique brand of storytelling and plotting, which gives you two options. You either go with something conventional, but amazing, like The Phantom Passage or something only Halter could have dreamed up. Like The Gold Watch. So always take the personal taste of the person you want to convert into consideration. 🙂

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    • Yeah, I think we’re both in agreement with Xavier’s review, though I’m intrigued by that comment that Christie would never have condoned the second murder when she did exactly that (and arguably worse…) in one of her, er, better known (?) books. Not your place to explain, of course, but the combination of points in your comment brought it back to mind.

      As to Halter recommendations, well, it seems everyone is disagreeing with me here. Clearly I need to read more mystery fiction before venturing forth on such ground again 😄

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  7. I absolutely LOVE the idea of the second victim being a detective figure instead. It would have given the book more of a Cat Among the Pigeons vibe and humanized that family.

    The frustrating thing for me about hanging out with you howdunit lovers is that you rate these books on the method and find fairly drab stories wonderful because the window was covered with a spiders web! I agree with TomCat, although for possibly different reasons: The Gold Watch was a hundred times more intriguing and fun than Penelope’s Web, even if it had one too many plot threads and the death on the cliff wasn’t as technically proficient as the murder here. JJ’s beloved The Invisible Circlemay have all the medieval trappings and a cool method, but it’s seriously marred by an identity twist as goofy as that of Murder in Mesopotamia!!!

    Method, method, method! All you guys talk about is the method!! Once again, I feel like the high school drama kid trapped in the chem lab with a bunch of science nerds . . .

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    • The Invisible Circle…[is] seriously marred by an identity twist as goofy as that of Murder in Mesopotamia!!!

      People not appreciating the deliberately OTT nature of The Invisible Circle is honestly one of the tragedies of our time.

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      • Once again, I feel like the high school drama kid trapped in the chem lab with a bunch of science nerds…

        Speaking of trapped drama kids… didn’t we shove you in a locker during recess? Who let you out or did you improv your escape? Hey, look everyone, MacGyver got out of his locker!

        Sorry, Brad, but plot-mechanics, ideas and arcane pieces of history simply fascinate me more than anything else. But at least we agree that the second corpse would have been a better detective than victim. So I’m not completely blind to good characters and storytelling.

        People not appreciating the deliberately OTT nature of The Invisible Circle is honestly one of the tragedies of our time.

        I will defend The Invisible Circle with you, back to back and swords drawn, against the barbarian hoards!

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    • “The Gold Watch was a hundred times more intriguing and fun than Penelope’s Web, even if it had one too many plot threads and the death on the cliff wasn’t as technically proficient as the murder here”

      Sorry Brad, of the two crimes in Gold Watch, did you really mean to cite the half-baked clifftop murder instead of the body in the snow, which is probably the most technically proficient murder Halter has ever pulled off 😀 So actually Penelope’s Web can’t even claim that in the points-for column.

      “Method, method, method! All you guys talk about is the method!!”

      Hey now, drama owes a lot to “the method”. I mean, without it, would we have had Brando, De Niro or Pacino…?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hey now, drama owes a lot to “the method”. I mean, without it, would we have had Brando, De Niro or Pacino…?

    ab, you gave me a great laugh to start my Sunday!!This is turning out to be the most entertaining difference of opinion I have followed in a long time!

    I tend to read Halter very quickly. The prose lends itself to that, and the books are, by and large, pretty short. Consequently, I seem to forget much about them a few months later. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve read Christie’s work so many times that it’s deeply ingrained in my memory. One of these days, I’ll have to – gulp – re-read Halter??????

    I bring this up because the question of “which book to recommend as a first” for any mystery author fascinates me. Since we all clearly have different tastes – as illustrated by a half dozen folk here who would all rank Halter completely differently – that becomes such a challenging question. Do you tell a person to start with the “best” or give them a more middling or “traditional” title? When I was twelve, reading mysteries for plot alone, my first Christie was And Then There Were None, arguably her best and certainly one of her the “traditional” Christies. My first Carr was either The Mad Hatter Mystery or The Arabian Nights Murders. I bought them together and can’t quite remember which came first. I would consider them both “middling” titles. I can only remember the killer from TMHM; what I recall most was how funny they both were! My first Queen around this time was The Greek Coffin Mystery, which many would call one of his best, certainly one of the best of the First Period. I distinctly remember jumping out of my chair when that murderer was revealed.

    I have re-read ATTWN a dozen times, and it holds up as one of the greatest mysteries ever. I have re-read Greek Coffin and was disappointed in the slowness of it and the total lack of characterization; even the killer doesn’t appear as much as I remembered. I haven’t re-read the Carrs because there is still so much Carr to read – something I consider to be one of my luckiest breaks!!

    My point is: would I recommend any of these books to someone about to try their first Christie or Queen? I don’t think so. Go with a more traditional Christie, like Death on the Nile. Go with a less dense Queen, like The Siamese Twin Mystery or There Was an Old Woman. As for Carr, I’m at a loss. I do think that might depend on what other authors a person likes. If they’re like me, get more Christie-ish about it with Till Death Do Us Part or The Emperor’s Snuff-box. If they’re more technically-minded, like TomCat, why not start with The Hollow Man??

    As my doppelganger, the King of Siam, might say, quite appropriately in these circumstances: “It’s a puzzlement!”

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    • Glad I could induce a chortle!

      No disagreement here, at least not between you and I. I was casually scanning the comment section and read what appeared to be PW being given the edge over GW on the grounds of it containing the superior howdunnit. Being a self-confessed fanboy of the latter (of the METHOD, mind you; not the tale) I simply had to redress that egregious fallacy!

      On the “which book/s first” topic, its not one I’ve given much consideration. But I agree with the wisdom of recommending something thats very representative of an authors work, rather than the “best”, which may well have been something more atypical and unorthodox. Halter is a tricky one, in the sense that he seems less adherent to a strict formula than many of his golden age predecessors, though he is notorious for observing one particular trope to excess. I’m tempted to say The Demon of Dartmoor, which not only contains one of his most inventive impossible crimes but, rare for him, is actually very well clued. Maybe the only one by him that elicited a ‘’Oh man I should have figured that out, he couldn’t have played any fairer” from me. And its for that reason that I wouldn’t recommend anyone begin there, as it would only set false expectations of his other works. I would instead suggest they start with Death Invites You. Or Invisible Circle so I could revel in their ‘’What the hell did I just read” expression afterward 😀

      Thanks for reminding me I need to re-read And then there were none. And, you know, read the remaining 20 chapters of The Greek Coffin Mystery one of these days.

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  9. Looking forward to reading this, as well as one day reading JJ’s alternatives in some form. As for introductions to favorite authors, I once handed a cousin the first volume of Haycraft’s A Treasury of Great Mysteries so she could read JDC’s The Incautious Burglar (aka A Guest in the House), and I recall her liking it. I think Carr works brilliantly in the confines of the short story and—as JJ has recently pointed out so well—the radio drama, and these seem like very good points of entry, especially in this narrative-saturated age.

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