“I have drunk, and seen the spider.” This extraordinary quote from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has seldom been better employed than in Barbara Cleverly’s new Scotland Yard mystery, aptly titled A Spider in the Cup. It chillingly refers to one character’s realization that the gruesome murder of an innocent person was committed solely to frighten him and weaken his already “wounded, fearful mind.”
This new release in the author’s Joe Sandilands series is set in 1933 between the two World Wars. Assistant Commissioner Sandilands is on assignment protecting American Senator Cornelius Kingstone, who—with his bodyguard, Bill Armitage—is attending a crucial international economic summit in London. Kingstone, a close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt, is a major player at the conference, and Armitage is a newly minted American citizen who’s well known to Sandilands from their shared military service as Britishers in the Great War. The three form a triad around which the rest of the story revolves, and they become part of a high-stakes political game where the fates of nations hang in the balance and no one can be trusted.
Earlier in the day of the summit meeting, members of the Bloomsbury Society of Dowsers search for concealed metals that may be buried at the tideline of the steamy, polluted Thames River. Instead of treasure, however, they unearth the body of a woman, whose mouth contains an ancient-looking coin.
Impossible as it seems, a thread of connection links Senator Kingstone to the early morning discovery, and Sandilands must do some excavating of his own to unearth a bizarre plot that takes him from a shooting party at a country estate to a private health clinic for women set on a back street of London. The detective finds himself subjected to a crash course in survival in this world of international intrigue, as seen through the prism of clever lawyers, economists, industrialists and other prima donnas (even including some of the Russian ballet variety).
There are a number of asides in the narrative, including a fascinating look at the ancient game of Nine Men’s Morris, which dates back to the Roman Empire and adds a nice puzzle to the plot. The measured pace of the writing does not lend itself to page-turning suspense, but it highlights the historical backdrop as major world powers make fateful decisions and alliances in the prologue to World War II. In-depth descriptions of the main characters are matched by realistic dialogue, historical details and an atmospheric re-creation of those turbulent times.