Nail Biting Read in Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief (1950)

This is one of Armstrong’s most well-known books and was adapted for film in 1952, under the title Don’t Bother to Knock, which was directed by Roy Baker and starred Marilyn Monroe.

Peter Jones, a newspaper editor and publisher, and his wife, Ruth, are getting ready in a New York hotel room for an important evening. Peter is doing a speech at a convention, so their 9-year-old daughter named Bunny needs a babysitter. Peter’s sister bails out on them at the last minute, so they end up hiring the elevator operator’s niece, Nell Munro, to take her place. As any mother would, Ruth has the odd qualm filtering through her stream of consciousness, as does Nell’s uncle, but the big night out goes ahead. Nell is a bit awkward and quiet, but surely, she’ll be okay? All she has to do is read Bunny a bedtime story and then read magazines in the other room. What could go wrong? Well that’s what the story goes on to reveal… The narrative also takes in the night of another hotel occupant, Jed Towers. He is about to leave town for a while and it is his last night with Lyn, a woman he is getting serious over. Yet a difference of opinion over a beggar alters the mood and leads to date night ending early and Jed inwardly fuming. He goes back to his room, eager to find another woman to spend his last evening with and then he sees Nell… Dishonourable intentions, poor judgement and ill-advised actions produce a cocktail of violence and terror, which no one could have imagined.

Overall Thoughts

I’ve got to admit the first few paragraphs of this book did not appeal to me. In these lines free indirect discourse lets us see into Ruth’s mind and to be honest I wasn’t that keen to stay there. Her thoughts on the hotel room are a bit nauseating in their extensive listing of essentials and the tone is one of how wonderfully exciting they are. Later, we learn that she is from a more rural background and New York is a big adventure for her, but for first impressions it wasn’t such a great start. I didn’t give a monkey about the bedside table and the fact there was a desk. Suffice to say this encounter left Ruth looking rather empty headed and somewhat irritating.

However, after this point, once the Jones’ have gone to their convention, buckle up because you’re in for a hair raising** and edge of your seat ride!

First up we have the change in character from Nell, from how she appears whilst under observation, to when she was left alone, when ‘her whole face was vivid, more sly than shy, not in the least demure.’ I think the way Armstrong depicts this transformation is very effective in that it takes place whilst Nell tries on Ruth’s jewellery, perfume, shoes and then clothes. This accumulation of trying stuff on and removing some of it and breaking other items gives us a very early sign of the dark metamorphosis taking place within Nell. It is when her costume is complete that she begins to call married men.

Moreover, a key part of the successful terror and tension of this book is that Armstrong does not give us a villainess who is cool, collected and forward thinking. Time after time characters tell her about her lack of foresight and her inability to consider the consequences of her actions. It is someone like this who perhaps poses the greatest level of danger, someone who does not think and does not care. Add to this a strong case of when good men do nothing or get duped in the process and you’ve got a nail biter of a story.

SPOILERS – ONLY READ THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU HAVE READ THE BOOK

Of course, when Jed and his injured ego see Nell, he sees none of this from his bedroom window. And when he does begin to piece together this true picture of Nell, he unfortunately does not have the integrity to handle the situation properly. Now Jed, is not perfect at the start of the book, but the reader may imagine he will enter this trap of his own making, realise the errors of his ways and then redeem himself into the hero he is meant to be and save the day. Yet that doesn’t happen… If anything his mere presence escalates the problem and his anxiety over saving his own skin and getting out of the room override any other considerations. In the end he is a weak man who gets a fright when he bites off more than he can chew and he certainly meets his match in Nell, an impulsive, self-interested woman, with a highly myopic viewpoint and a tendency to act out on negative feelings. I would go as far as saying that Nell is the sort of person Jed could become if he doesn’t watch out, as they share a number of personality traits. Consequently, I am at a loss as to why Lyn wants anything to do with him. I am also wondering at this point whether a feminist reading has been done of this book, because if not it is certainly overdue. So yes, at the start of the book Ruth was not my cup of tea, yet I don’t think a character has ever redeemed themselves so much and so rapidly, as she does in the book’s finale. After all this story shows that Ruth is the real hero, she is the one who saves the day. Perhaps I don’t buy her new superhero status entirely, as her underreaction post-finale seems a little unbelievable, but it is her who is left standing as the strong person, whilst the remaining characters are left in a state of shock, realising their own fallibility and weakness.

SAFE TO RESUME READING

With this type of plot, those of us who are a bit more squeamish and are not one for horror films, may be having some concerns. But with Armstrong whilst she wracks up the tension, she never recourses to graphic details and gore to give you goose bumps and the compulsive need to see what happens next. In fact, the author creates her biggest moments of suspense through negation, through what she does not write, and through what the characters do not say. The absence of a certain noise, the delay in seeing a certain thing generates a much larger sense of apprehension for the reader, than the writer giving us these things straight away.

So, this is a brilliant story, just not one you should read if you have young children, as I’m not sure you’d ever have a babysitter ever again!

*Beneath my final ratings is a final spoiler! paragraph in which I share my thoughts on the ending, so again I would advise not reading it if you have not read the book.

** This is a sentiment that is corroborated by the reviewer for the Criminal Record in The Saturday Review, when they reviewed this title.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Librarian/Bookseller/Publisher

See also: Patrick on his blog At the Scene of the Crime and Kevin at Kevin Tipple’s Corner have also reviewed this title. Sergio has also reviewed the film adaptation.

SPOILER PARAGRAPH

As you might expect from such a plot, the writer does not give us a fairy tale ending, which I think is only fitting. No one dies and Nell is apprehended, but there are all those characters who had their part to play in the sequence of events, those characters who I would say are in the grey zone and for them there are no neat and rosy endings. I’m still not wholly satisfied with how things end for Jed. Yes, he does get shot and you can see that as some kind of retribution, but his poor behaviour is not particularly condemned by the those around him, not even from Bunny’s parents. For me I don’t think this is psychologically realistic. Also, I’m definitely not impressed with Lyn who starts blaming herself, thinking that if she didn’t quarrel with Jed then he wouldn’t have gone back to his hotel and then he wouldn’t have gone to Nell. Yet I think most female readers will be wanting to go around to Lyn’s house and point out that Jed shouldn’t have immediately gone off to find another woman the instant Lyn disagreed with him. Though I think Armstrong tries to steer around this by having Jed consider how Lyn has stuck around despite seeing the sort of ‘rat’ he is, elevating her to sort of moral high ground. I think the clipped nature of the ending makes it more difficult and problematic. Armstrong’s tendency to leave things unsaid continues into the denouement and maybe part of me felt the concluding pages didn’t say enough. Nevertheless, out of the three titles I have read by this writer, this is the darkest one I have read yet.

For those who have read the book I would love to hear your thoughts on the ending.

9 comments

  1. Glad you liked this. By chance, I just finished the same author’s “The Balloon Man” yesterday, an intelligent study of evil with a really fine (and finely drawn) heroine. A bit gruelling, perhaps, and maybe not as brilliant as “Mischief” sounds, but a thoroughly good piece of writing with a satisfactory ending nonetheless.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had to skim-read this review for fear of uncovering spoilers. 😅 Would you recommend this one to me? I’m aware that it’s a suspense rather than a mystery novel – which makes me hesitate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ahh it’s a tough one. If suspense fiction was a chocolate cake, then this book would be an excellent chocolate cake. Yet if you don’t like the taste of chocolate cake, it won’t matter if its made by Mary Berry or it’s Tesco Value. Unlike Fear Stalks the Night, there is no conventional murder mystery to solve. The only figuring out the reader has to do, is what will happen next. I’m not sure whether that would be puzzling enough for you.

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      • Do you mean “Fear Stalks the Village”…? 🤔 If so, I should start on that one first! 🤓 I presume you’d encourage me to proceed to Celia Fremlin after that, rather than stop by Charlotte Mitchell?

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      • Yes Village not Night! And you’re probably right about Celia Fremlin next, as again I just think there is a bit more for the reader to puzzle out and make conjectures about.

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