Sunday, December 30, 2007

Spider Webs - Margaret Millar

First published 1986; cover shown is the 1988 IPL (USA) paperback edition. Cover art by Roger Roth. 324p.

Millar's last novel covers a Californian murder trial from slow beginning to explosive end. The accused is West Indian Cully King, handsome skipper of the yacht Bewitched.

He is suspected of murdering a wealthy middle aged woman, who he says he hired as the boat's new cook. The day after Mrs Pherson arrived on board she disappeared. Cully King then went ashore to pawn her diamond earrings; Mrs Pherson's nude body was found some time later, tangled in a kelp bed.

Millar focuses on the characters as apposed to the crime or even the criminal, building layer upon layer until the judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, witnesses and the court clerk are as three dimensional as fictional characters can be. Each has their own agenda, own life... and many have plans for Cully King, whether he wants that or not.

Donnelly, Cully's attorney, has decided to finally leave his wife and come out of the closet. He is representing Cully for free, and the one jarring note in this book is the fact that Donnelly plans to take Cully with him to his ranch - as his very unwilling lover - once Cully is found innocent, as Donnelly has ensured he will be. Eva Foster, the court clerk, also has plans for Cully. She is infatuated with him, despite warnings from the judge and Cully himself.

As the various witnesses take the stand with their evidence, the case builds strongly against Cully, until Donnelly has a stroke of luck. Mrs Pherson's jewel case - believed to be Cully's motive for the killing - turns up. It doesn't contain what it should, and Cully's presumed motive disappears. The odds are that Cully will be exonerated. But - with Donnelly, Eva, his common-law wife back in the West Indies and a teenager who is certain Cully is his true father all wanting a piece of him - is this really what Cully King wants?

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