First published in Great Britain a dozen years ago, this minor work by Diamond Dagger winner Lovesey is set, atypically for him, in New York City, where doctoral candidate Sarah Jordan’s preeminence in spider research is being challenged by Don Rigden, a new graduate student at Henry Hudson University. Department chairman Jerry Berlin, contacted by a documentary filmmaker for help in producing a segment on phobias (in this case arachnophobia), enlists Rigden, but Sarah happens by, charms the TV folk, and becomes the unexpected series hit, putting herself a leg (in spider terms, eight legs) up on Rigden and spawning her obsession with psychiatrist Ed Cunningham, the series narrator, who soon gleans from her an ugly family history, including an early dread of spiders that turned into an intellectual fascination with them, a hostile father, a jealous mother, a genius brother who dies in an unexplained motorcycle crash, and an almost impenetrable wall of defenses. Another arachnid TV feature is planned with Sarah as “Spider Girl.” As it proceeds, those caught in her romantic web are Rigden, Cunningham, a production assistant who will later die from lust, and poor student Meg Kellaway, who only wants to get closer to Rigden. As Sarah’s defenses fail, her behavior becomes less human and more instinctual, like those of a spider on the attack, until the very squishy end.
Any psychiatrist who calls his dinner companion “little lady” ought to be defrocked, but Lovesey does offer a perceptive analysis of TV types, university infighting, and sublimations that barely mask psychosis.