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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Web of Murder

Harry Whittington

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To purchase Web of Murder

Title: Web of Murder
Author: Harry Whittington
Genre: Novel
Written: 1958
Length: 129 pages
Availability: Web of Murder - US
Web of Murder - UK
Web of Murder - Canada
Im Netz - Deutschland
Telaraña para matar - España
  • With an Introduction by the author
  • Web of Murder was made into the TV film Dead in the Water in 1991; it was directed by Bill Condon and stars Bryan Brown and Teri Hatcher

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable standard-fare pulp, with one hell of a resolution

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Web of Murder is narrated by Charles Brower. He is in his thirties, and already a successful lawyer in Summit, "an overgrown town, but no city". He is married to Cora, but no longer in love with her; in fact, he really wants out -- but Cora still devotedly clings to her husband and she won't even consider divorcing, as he repeatedly proposes they should. Cora not only still hopes Charley might see what a good thing he has, she also has a good deal of money, having inherited half a million, allowing them to live in considerable comfort.
       Part of Charley's resentment certainly stems from the fact that she's paid for nearly everything, from the house to his education to the law library in his offices; he might be successful in his chosen profession, but he's anything but a self-made man. Cora doesn't rub it in -- in fact, she generously seems to like making Charley's life as comfortable as possible -- but it apparently still grates; Charley isn't able to forget how very much she controls the purse strings, at least regarding the big-ticket items.
       A new secretary he hires, Laura, beguiling and intriguing ("She knew what I wanted in a secretary and played the part expertly") leaves Charley wanting to scratch his itch even more. He knows keeping her around probably means trouble, but Charley just can't bring himself to fire her. Joining the mix then is also Victoria Haines, a former client -- he'd helped her with her divorce ("I'd handled the angles for her") -- who runs into Charley again and clearly wants to get her claws into him. Cora doesn't get too jealous of Victoria's attentions -- she's astonishingly forgiving, knowing that Charley is bound to her by that marriage contract that she won't break -- but Laura certainly does, hoping to get Charley all to herself.
       Charley can't resist Laura, but he knows there's only one way he can really have her: he has to get rid of Cora. And since a divorce isn't in the cards, there's only one solution: murder. Laura isn't shocked by the idea, she even encourages it. But Charley is cautious. He's a lawyer, and he knows the possible pitfalls of this path -- including that:

A murder you might get away with; it was lying that tripped you up.
       But with Laura at his side, he can't help but mull the possibilities over. Soon enough he finds:
I'm talking myself into the one way it can be done -- and done so I'm never even suspected.
       He comes up with an elaborate plan, which includes sending Laura to distant Florida and having her pretend to be Cora and petitioning for a divorce there in Cora's name -- something that has the added benefit of keeping them apart, since it wouldn't be good for anyone to see or learn that they were an item, not until things are well over and settled. Laura is annoyed by Victoria Haines' interest in Charley, but Charley thinks he can use that to their advantage, too -- a more visible affair with her should provide the cover they need, and the explanation behind the faked divorce.
       It is an elaborate plan that Charley hatches and then sets into motion -- "Sure, it was a complicated gimmick I was attempting, but if it kept me out of the law courts, away from the cops and the hint of suspicion, that was what I wanted". The plan is complicated some by Victoria proving to be rather more demanding than he might wish -- she really has her sights set on him -- but everything seems to fall into place as he proceeds.
       It isn't, however, smooth sailing from the get-go, or at least the point of no return: a Fifth District circuit judge dies while Charley is making his preparations, and well-connected Victoria thinks he'd be well-suited for the position. It's a dream job for Charley -- "something I wanted with all my heart" -- but Victoria's phone call dangling the possibility he could actually get it oh so enticingly near comes at an ... inopportune moment.
       Once the first domino falls, there's no turning back. And Charley's descent into the abyss, slow and gentle at first, keeps picking up speed as events unfold. The long build-up allowed Whittington to put a lot of pieces into place, and he deliciously allows all these -- some of which also feature corollaries and consequences Charley wasn't prepared for -- to factor in the catastrophic unraveling that ensues, a crescendo that builds far beyond the obvious and expected.
       The plan is complicated, but that's a feature, not a bug. When a neighbor comments to Charley about the goings-on: "It's just that everything is so strange" she's hit the nail on the head -- but Charley is depending on that very strangeness to so muddy any waters that it'll be impossible to connect all the different pieces. It does and doesn't work out that way: Charley's efforts to keep suspicion at bay prove hopeless -- but the connections that the authorities make, to events both within and beyond Charley's control, result in a very different web than the one he feared getting caught in.
       It's inspired plotting: the plan does, in fact, mostly seem to work as planned -- only to have the pieces fall into different sorts of places, leaving Charley in a whole different kind of mess, and one that's many times worse than any he could have imagined. Justice here is crueler than any the authorities could see to.
       For a very short novel -- just over a hundred pages --, Web of Murder is a surprisingly substantial read, Charley's machinations, and his juggling his three very different relationships, with Cora, Laura, and Victoria, a well fleshed-out story, unhurriedly told but still with the snappy dialogue and observations of traditional pulp. Once things start going south the tension rises -- culminating in a breakneck cascade of a finale, where you almost can't believe how much Whittington can heap onto his protagonist, lifting the novel to quite a cut above your usual pulp thriller.
       If the original set-up is a bit thin, and Charley and Cora and their relationship rather underdeveloped, Web of Murder does get readers caught up in the story quickly. For the most part, it is standard pulp fare and dialogue -- solid enough, but familiar stuff and suspense. But Whittington has expertly structured his little thriller, and all the little pieces and asides come back into play. The pay-off is a grand one, a stunner, as Web of Murder has a memorable, first-class finale, packing one hell of a punch -- and haunting as well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 October 2020

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Reviews: Dead in the Water - the TV film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Harry Whittington lived 1915 to 1989.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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