Night Call and Other Stories of Suspense (2014) by Charlotte Armstrong

Having enjoyed some of Armstrong’s novels, I have had my eye on this collection for a while. It was edited by Rick Cypert and Kirby McCauley and all but two of the titles featured were published in Ellery Queen Magazine in the 1960s. The other two titles are published here for the first time. Whilst Armstrong is better known for her suspense novels, she actually started out in advertising before moving onto reporting, playwrighting and then writing whodunnits.

Mink Coat, Very Cheap (1964)

Armstrong and her husband wanted to create a TV series where each episode started from a newspaper advert; be it a help wanted ad or an advert selling something. This never happened but ‘Mink Coat, Very Cheap,’ is one of the short stories that she wrote around this concept. 21-year-old Anabel had been planning on buying a stole, but instead decides to look up the address which has advertised the sale of a new mink coat. Her mother is not keen on the idea and doubts her $500 will cover the cost. Yet the sale does go through, but we and Anabel soon get the idea that something is not right, when a policeman looms on the horizon… This is a story which injects strong vibes of the disbelief that the heroine of Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins encounters, but because it is in a short story context, the tension doesn’t get time to be racked up.

From Out of the Garden (1968)

Maude Seton is as keen as mustard for her reporting job, though consequently no one really likes her. She is determined to excel on her next assignment, that of writing an anniversary piece on the unsolved disappearance of Elizabeth Rose, the famous actress. Maude is confident she can solve the case. I have to admit she’s not a protagonist I particularly warmed to, as her blunt and tactless approach, is somewhat cruel, rather than good intentioned. Nevertheless, Armstrong well and truly pulls the rug from underneath the reader’s feet, as you’re so sure you know exactly where the tale is going but right at the last minute she delivers a sharp sting of an ending, with some very slippery dialogue.

Protector of Travellers (1965)

Ann is very unhappy on her camping beach holiday with her husband, Toby, as it unfortunately includes a third wheel – Byron Reynolds, a work colleague of Toby’s. Yet she never imagined that she and her husband would wake up to find him dead in his sleeping bag. Their thoughts both turn to Mexican law and order, panicking that they would be thrown into jail, with no ability to contact American friends and family. So, of course, they naturally instead decide to pack up and head back across the border… with Bryon in tow… Not sure this is the wisest of thinking… This story successfully throws a spanner in the works, inflicting the duo with a dilemma I didn’t see coming. Although coincidences and hunches enable a speedy resolution.

The Other Shoe (1962)

This is another example of the plot revolving around an object. It begins at the aftermath of a wedding, with guests still partying on. Jenny and her stepsister, Celia, are two of the bridesmaids, yet Celia is causing a scene with a seemingly drunk Blair. She used to be engaged to him and then threw him over and now she wants to remove all of her investments from his film project unless he accepts all of her demands and requests. Interestingly the way this argument is shared to us, means that we initially see Blair as a financial leech. But then the narrative very much turns against Celia, suggesting she is a controlling and unlikeable figure. With limited details it is hard to get to the truth of the matter.

Anyways, Jenny takes Blair home, yet it soon turns out he is not drunk and that whilst these two were chatting away in a rural layby, a murder is committed. Not that much further down the road they find the body of Celia. Yet when did she leave the party? Since no car has followed them away from the party, they fear the police will assume they are the guilty party. They soon begin to manufacture a fake alibi. But will it pull the wool over the eyes of the police? The culprit is a little obvious in this one, given the small pool of suspects.

A Matter of Timing (1966)

This is a very short story in which Jane is threatened with a knife in a supermarket carpark, yet her determination to be home in time for her child coming home from school, means she won’t take this lying down. To be honest the comic ending of this one was a bit too saccharine for my taste.

The Splintered Monday (1966)

It has been 3 days since Sarah Brady’s sister, Alice, was buried. Her death was not expected, despite the self-centred Alice having ‘gone in for ill health.’ Sarah is meant to be going home tomorrow, yet she increasingly feels as though something is being held back from her about her sister’s death.

The Case for Miss Peacock (1965)

Retired librarian, Miss Mary Peacock is accused of robbing a lingerie shop at gun point and binding the shop owner up so she could serve the morning customers and pocket their money too. Yet she did not do it. But unlike Ann, in the earlier story who panicked and generally lost her head, Miss Peacock is far from upset about the lack of evidence to prove her innocence, despite the shop owner identifying her as the culprit. An unusual tale which looks at a police officer trying to prove Miss Peacock’s alibi, though the ending avoids being too sugary sweet.

The Cool Ones (1967)

Mrs Finney is kidnapped leaving an art museum. Yet she is also not like Ann and has plenty of guts:

‘Mrs Finney, at 75 years of age, considered herself more or less expendable – but not as expendable as all this. So she pretended to be in somewhat more terror of death than she actually was, and cowered down into the seat as if stricken dumb and overcome with fear. This relaxed her captors and enabled shrewd Mrs Finney to watch the street signs.’

Like Miss Peacock, she finds her predicament gives her a sense of adventure. There is a $10,000 ransom demand. Yet when Mrs Finney gets to call her daughter to seemingly give her instructions on where to get the money, she is in fact trying to send a different message across. But can any of her family figure it out?

Night Call (1969)

Dr David Blair is called at 4:30 in the morning by Connie Miller, who was the most popular girl at the high school he went to all those years ago. Now she is married and needs David to come to her home as her husband has an infected hand and seems to be feverish. The location is a remote and poorly kept farmhouse, something David is surprised by. David is sure her husband needs to go to hospital urgently, yet Connie is violently adamant he cannot go. Only then does David begin to realise the danger he has landed himself into, a danger which could ultimately destroy those he loves. This is a plot which becomes incredibly tense, though I think Armstrong does not write quite so darkly in the short story format.

More Than One Kind of Luck (1967)

A man named Johnson is funding a lavish lifestyle for Charles Castle. Yet this is no peculiar form of philanthropy as the current expenses are for further monetary gain. The plan is for Charles to marry a Mrs Meade, a rich older woman, with the marriage leading to a nice pay-out for Johnson. But time or rather money is running out and Johnson wants some results. Yet Charles is reluctant to press ahead, lacking enthusiasm for marrying an older woman. He comes up with an alternative plan, but can a broken mirror scupper his plans? The tension dissipates too quickly at the end for my liking, in this one.

St Patrick’s Day in the Morning (1960)

Mitchel Brown has just finished revising a play he had written. Before heading off for a plane to New York, he has a night free and decides to head for a local bar. The owner wants to close, but a young woman, expensively dressed, is sufficiently drunk to be unconscious. He doesn’t want to turf her out but is not sure what to do with her. Mitchell tries to help her walk it off, but this doesn’t work, and nor can he find a policeman or a cab. So, he ends up taking her back to his place. When he wakes up, she is gone and he thinks no more about it, until he returns home 6 weeks later and sees her in a restaurant wearing the exact same clothes. But little does Mitchell know what he is getting into when he decides to go over and talk to her… I felt like there was material for a very good novella in this short story, as though it were the seeds of something better, if given the space.

The Light Next Door (1969)

Howard Lamboy is definitely of opinion that if you love me, you love my dog, so is very unimpressed with his difficult neighbour who takes against his dalmatian. His neighbour is newly married, yet aside from making increasingly bizarre accusations against Howard’s dog, other peculiar things are happening next door. Thoughts begin to turn to the neighbour’s first wife who mysteriously died, but what really is the secret next door? Personally, I don’t think the solution would sit well with the modern-day reader, as it is not appropriately grounded or sympathetically portrayed in context. Armstrong’s prose is fairly rushed and as almost comes across as dismissive or reductive.

The Vise (2014)

This is one of the stories which is published for the first time in this collection and it is a peculiar fusion of genres. A man tells a friend a story by the fireside, of a man he met at a party. This man seems to be weighed down by something he knows and acts in self-harmful ways despite knowing the consequences. Things are all eerily vague for a while, yet I don’t think Armstrong is as confident in including sci-fi components, as the ending, which I supposed is meant to deliver a big twist, was just confusing and incoherent to me.

The Second Commandment (1967)

This is the first of two novelettes included in this book. It begins with Sheriff Deputy Halley investigating a fatality on a very foggy mountainside road in California. Reverend Hugh Macroy says his wife left the car to answer a call of nature and during the attempt fell over the cliff edge somehow. They had only been married for two days and she was well-off. So understandably much suspicion is thrown at Hugh. Yet this story is mostly not a police investigation and instead the focus is centred on the aftermath of the event and how it affects Hugh psychologically. This tale delivers a twisty combination of awkward dark humour and sadness.

Man in the Road (2014)

Hallie White is returning to her hometown and is driving through the night to surprise her mother. Yet before she reaches the town a man leaps out into the road. When she tracks him down in the darkness, he insists she goes to town for help rather than making on foot to a nearby shop. By the time help arrives the man is dead, and it is her old school sweetheart who investigates the case. Her version of events is believable until evidence at the scene begins to dispute it. The coat she put over the man is missing. She said she smelt alcohol on him, but the man was a teetotaller. His neck was broken and died instantly, so how could he have talked to her? The length of this novelette allows for more of a police investigation and it is interesting to see how the town turns against her. Readers will probably predict some of the later developments, but the story concludes with a dramatic flourish.

On the whole I think these stories showcase Armstrong’s originality of thought and how she can spin a yarn from a single object as the focus. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I enjoy Armstrong as much in her short story form. I think the strengths we see in her novels are displayed best in the longer format, as in the short stories there is often a sense of them being cut short.

Rating: 4/5

Calendar of Crime: March (4) St Patrick’s Day

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