In 1933, Professor Frederick Foster was pronounced dead, after he was apparently attacked by native tribesmen. Three years later, his widow is about to marry her childhood sweetheart when, surprise, surprise, Foster reappears. His associate, who bore a stunning resemblance to Foster, was the man killed, whereas Foster was captured and has finally returned home, with a collection of exotic spiders – one of which, Penelope, he has apparently tamed.
As one might expect, Foster’s identity is called into question – is it him or his associate? – but investigations take a sinister turn when Foster commits suicide. It had to be suicide, as he had locked himself in his study, he was shot from close range, there are no other fingerprints on the gun, and the only open window, far from the body, was completely blocked by an unbroken spider’s web. No killer could have left the room that way – but when it becomes clear that Foster was murdered, it would seem that someone did…
This was originally published as Le Toile de Pénélope in 2001, and has now been translated by John Pugmire and has been released by Locked Room International. I’ll be honest, I was surprised when I checked the date and found it post-dated the complex and overfull Dr Twist novels that have been released so far, as this is a much more focused effort, without bringing in multiple distractions such as in The Demon Of Dartmoor. Basically there is one impossible murder – there are other incidents too, but they’re straightforward – and Dr Twist has to solve it. Simply put, this is as close to John Dickson Carr, the author that Halter is always compared to, that he ever gets.
There’s been a bit of a debate recently in my circles about the use of inappropriate terms in Golden Age mystery fiction and whether they should be pruned. Now this wasn’t written in the Golden Age, but it’s a clear homage. Does that make the mentions of “savages” acceptable? And a threatened spanking to sort out a willful young lady? Now this is no Wychford Poisoning Case, but it’s a question possibly worth considering.
Generally though, I think this is one of the best Halter titles to be translated. A good clear central problem – perhaps the clue that the reader is given to mull over points to the solution a little too clearly, as I sussed out how the murder must have been committed quite early on, although I didn’t really have a clue about the “who”, despite a clue that resembled one from another recent read that annoyed the hell out of me. I suppose in that case, I noticed the clue so it annoyed me. Here, I missed it, so it worked exactly how it was supposed to.
All in all, I can’t say too much about it, as it’s a reasonably short book – all of the Halter titles are – but it’s a very good translation (bar the misuse of the word “annulled”) that captures the spirit of the era being channeled. The best Halter title for some time and definitely worth your time.