Notes On Spider’s Web (A Play)

Adapted into a novel by Charles Osborne

Year of Publication: 2000

Rating: Four out of five

Motive of Murder: Wealth

Plot: Clarissa Hailsham-Brown stumbles on a dead man’s body in her home at Copplestone Court in the evening. Earlier that day she saw the man, Oliver Costello, alive. Moreover, she saw him leaving the house with Mrs Peake, the gardener.

In the meantime, Clarissa’s husband has told her that he will bring an extremely important guest back home later, who will determine his political career. Clearly, the discovery of the body must be hushed up.

Clarissa turns for help to the three men, with whom she has spent time in the afternoon and entertained them before Costello turns up. She manages to persuade them to help her remove the body from the house.

Just before two of the men begin to drag it outside, Elgin, the butler, announces the arrival of two police officers. It is stored quickly in a secret room behind the bookshelf. Apparently the police came after receiving a mystery call about a murder at the Hailsham-Browns’s.

Furthermore, their alibi of spending time in the evening playing bridge is put to the test. As the police interview them individually, four different stories emerge.  Inconsistencies in the version of events lead to the discovery of the body. Then Sir Rowland Delahaye, one of the guests, asks the hostess to come clean.  To his surprise, Clarissa confesses to manslaughter.

When Inspector Lord asks Constable Jones to check on the body, he cannot find it.

Highlights:

Spider’s Web is the play Christie wrote in 1954 and it has never made it onto the stage. It is a shame that I have not read the play script yet and therefore cannot comment on the discrepancies between the novel and the eventual script.

Firstly, a port-tasting game as an opening is enchanting as it puts readers in the mood.  Clarissa tricks her guests Sir Rowland Delahaye and Hugo Birch into believing that the three glasses of wine she has brought for them and marked with numbers are of different vintages. But the third guest, Jeremy Warrender, guesses correctly.

Personally I really like that circumstantial humour; the wine tasting is quintessentially English. Also, it serves the purpose of having introduced each character in a light-hearted way. Nonetheless, I am aware that the critics at that time seemed to disagree to Christie’s ‘making fun’ of a crime. Well, I suppose a number of scenes in The Mousetrap also makes the audience chuckle while A Murder Is Announced (1950) is peppered with gentle humour and a ‘nice’ murderer, who is nether greedy nor cruel.

Next, the ‘importance’ of French windows.  Everyone seems to go in and out of the drawing-room through them – not via the front door. The scene when Mrs. Peake stands on the window step and calls Warrender reminds me of Detective Sergeant Trotter  and Christopher Wren who also use the French windows the same way (The Mousetrap).  In The Murder At The Vicarage, Miss Marple also does likewise. In fact, it gives her the idea as to how the shot at Colonel Protheroe has been carried out on passing similar windows at the Vicarage. Perhaps there are fond memories attached to such windows that makes Christie include them in her work.

Furthermore, the flow of the book is due to Osborne’s great understanding of Christie’s way of writing. He follows her style to the best of his ability, having presented engaging dialogues throughout and the dynamics between the characters are clear. The transition from one scene to another is also smooth.

Boodle’s Club, a gentlemen’s club at Pall Mall, London was found in 1762. It is the second oldest club after White’s. In Spider’s Web, Sir Rowland Delahaye is a member  of both prestigious clubs.

More importantly, to some extent his way of arranging words are better than Christie’s . The economy of words is outstanding; fewer adverbs are used and he avoids repeating the same words in a page. Nonetheless, I wish he had been more careful with his spelling and punctuation. For ‘ apologise’ and ‘realise’ are spelt with ‘z’.

Anyhow, over three months in the “Christie In A Year” challenge, I have noticed that a child a certain age often appears. For instance, Terence Christow (The Hollow) is thirteen and Leopold Reynolds (Hallowe’en Party) is between nine and ten year old. Geraldine Brown (The Clocks) is also ten; she likes watching everything that happens in Wilbraham Crescent from her flat on the other side of the road using her opera glasses.  I suppose the age of these children might have been near to Christie’s only grandson, Mathew Pritchard, at that time. In this play Pippa, a twelve-year-old girl, is Clarissa’s stepdaughter.

I imagine what interests Christie is a child’s naivety and spontaneity. Pippa’s presence often makes an adult character alter his/her course of action. Her comings and goings can be abrupt, to which credits are due to Osborne’s marvellous interpretations of the girl’s response and reactions to the turn of events.

Be that as it may, I wonder about Pippa’s belief that she had killed Oliver Costello. On the one hand she hates him and is also frightened of him. On the other, I believe she would not have had the opportunity to ‘kill’ him as she thought.

What she does resembles Linda Marshall’s (Evil Under The Sun). She puts wax into a mould to make a  figure of a person she hates and sticks pins into it. The next day the person dies and it shocks her.

In Pippa’s case, however, she encounters Costello in the house after she comes back from school. There is no mention of her possessing wax but a second-hand ‘recipe’ book. Although she asks Warrander, ‘What’s the difference between a wax candle and a tallow candle?’ In my view it just suggests that she has already brought the wax with her and hidden it.

By the same token, she has not seen Costello for over six weeks. The encounter might trigger her to use the wax later. What is fascinating is that the length of time between Costello leaving the house and the finding of his body is probably under an hour. Would wax harden in half an hour then? And, wouldn’t it take a while before Pippa recovers from the shock?

If anything, what fascinates me most is the title. Initially I thought the murderer would have set a trap or framed others for a murder. The reference to a spider reminds me of “the ghost spider” Gweena Reed has glanced outside Walter Fane’s office (Sleeping Murder). Moreover, somehow I believed that the murderer must have been female (because female spiders tend to eat the males). Instead of a trap Sir Walter Scott is quoted:

O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive!

How very true. Clarissa, smart though she may seem, has learnt her lesson by trying to mislead the police.

Finally, who would have thought that an old desk, an invisible ink and a personal assistant are involved in the crime?

The Twists:

-Photographs with autographs are found in a secret drawer of a desk in the drawing-room

-A phone call to the police that evening

-The body in the secret room is removed

-The missing ace of spades in bridge

-Three pairs of gloves are found under a cushion on the sofa

Cast of Characters:

Clarissa Hailsham-Brown (Henry’s wife – the hostess at Clopperstone Court)

Elgin (the butler)

Henry Hailsham-Brown (Clarissa’s husband)

Hugo Birch (a guest at Clopperstone Court)

Inspector Lord (local police)

Jeremy Wallander ( a guest at Clopperstone Court)

Constable Jones (local police)

Miss Peake (the gardener at Clopperstone Court)

Sir Rowland Delahaye (Clarissa’s guardian)

Clues:

Clarissa Hailsham-Brown:

[to Hugo Birch and Sir Rowland Delahaye] ‘Mind you, there are one or two disadvantages about this house. Only yesterday, a man in a violet check suit drove up in a sports car and wanted to buy that desk. I told him that it wasn’t ours and therefore we couldn’t sell it, but he simply wouldn’t believe me and kept on raising the price. He went up to five hundred pounds in the end.’

Sir Rowland Delahaye:

[to Miss Peake] ‘After all, a horse chestnut in hardly the same thing as a chestnut horse.’

Pippa Hailsham-Brown:

[to Sir Rowland Delahaye and Hugo Birch] ‘A girl at school collects stamps, and her brother’s got a smashing collection himself. Last autumn he thought he’d got one like the one he saw in the paper  – a Swedish something or other which was hundreds of pounds….’

Miss Peake:

[to Jeremy Warrander] ‘Curious how often people can’t see what’s right in front of their eyes.’

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