This is my 5th Armstrong read. It is nearly time for Ladd Cunningham to return to college. Yet he decides he wants to stay at home instead. The previous winter his father, Hob, died of cancer and his mother married Hob’s best friend, David Crown. Very early on in the book we find out that Ladd thinks his stepfather killed his dad. Looking through a box of his dad’s old things he finds something which convinces him of this, and he then tells his friend, Gary, he plans on killing David.
As mystery readers we are used to wicked step fathers or mothers who murder in order to marry their chosen person. But Armstrong takes this scenario in a very different direction, as it doesn’t take long until we begin to question Ladd’s certainty of David’s guilt. Firstly, there is information we learn from David, concerning Hob’s death. Then there’s Ladd’s own behaviour. The next-door neighbours already categorise him as ‘off the beam’ and his rude, aloof and antagonistic reaction to everyone he meets, means he is not an automatically sympathetic figure. The focus begins with David and Ladd, as each try to fathom the other out and repeatedly fail. David wants Ladd to get some help, whilst Ladd becomes more and more convinced that David is guilty and that others are covering the truth up. Gary, who is no intellectual giant and who seems to lack any common sense, doesn’t pass on any of Ladd’s developing plans to bump off his step father. Is it all just talk or is Ladd going to erupt violently? Mid way through the novel attention shifts to the family next door as they bear the brunt of Ladd’s unfathomable malice. A show down is in the offing, but who will still be alive at the end of it?
The key strength of this narrative is the way it turns the good/bad dichotomy around, when it comes to David and Ladd. We presume David has been up to no good, yet unusually it is he who increasingly becomes the primary victim and his victim-ness is not just because of Ladd’s revenge plot. David becomes ever more trapped by his need to protect his, (rather unhelpful and emotionally controlling), wife, who doesn’t want anything unpleasant to ever be said or done to Ladd; there is David’s need to keep himself safe from Ladd and there is also the need to break through Ladd’s stubborn walls of resistance which compel him to believe David is bad. So, it’s not surprising that David gets somewhat frustrated, as his understanding of what is happening only occurs by degrees as communication is fairly muddled within their household. Even worse for David is that everyone pushes the buck towards David to sort Ladd out, whilst frequently criticising the way he tries to do so.
We get to see the situation from a number of myopic points of view and we see how often other people’s concern about Ladd, is really concern about how it must be affecting Abigail. Interestingly later on in the book misunderstandings and miscommunication actually expand Ladd’s malicious streak, in a way which reminded me of another Armstrong title, Incident at the Corner (1957).
With such a plot the ending is absolutely crucial to the success of the story and will have a significant impact on the readers’ satisfaction with it. So, it is unfortunate that the denouement fell somewhat flat, in my opinion. There is some drama, but it doesn’t contain the twists and turns you would hope for and I think the setup of the story does give you expectations for such. Perhaps the finale moves too much into the realms of fairy tales and the mystery component of this book weakens as it unfolds, at one point becoming more of a discussion on how best to handle those struggling with mental instability.
All in all, it is not a bad novel by Armstrong, but she has written stronger works, which I would recommend trying first.