Catch-As-Catch Can (1953) by Charlotte Armstrong

Today’s read is a book which has been on my TBR pile the longest, nearly a year perhaps. I bought a few Armstrong titles around that time. I have to admit that I have been holding back on reading this title, fearing it might be a bit of a dud. In fairness this impression was largely due to the blurb and what seemed like a bizarre front cover. However, I am very glad I read it in the end and thankfully it was a much better book than I was anticipating.

Dee Allison’s life was turned upside down a few months ago. Her uncle Jonas returned out of the blue, after years of no contact, with a long-lost daughter in tow, Laila, and a friend of the daughter’s now dead mother, Pearl Dean. Yet Jonas soon dies, and Dee has been tasked with looking after the 18-year-old girl. She may legally be an adult, but the book implies that Laila’s Western ocean/French speaking island home did not prepare her for the Western world in terms of literacy, technology or general common sense. Mentally she is somewhat child-like and just as trusting as one. Dee takes it all upon herself much to the distress of her fiancé, Andy Talbot, whose distress is accentuated not just by the lack of time he can spend with her, but with the fact that Laila has a massive crush on him and he is struggling to not have feelings back. Yet Dee declines any suggestions to take care of Laila which don’t involve herself. On Jonas’ death, Dee and her spendthrift cousin Clive received $5000 each, yet Laila bagged half a million dollars.

The crisis occurs when one day the housekeeper mis-prepares a salad, which leads to the housekeeper’s demise via bacillus botulinus. In the interim Laila decides to run away to Pearl’s home when Andy tells her some hard home truths. It is only then discovered that Laila also later eaten some of the salad and the doctor tells them all that they must find her within a certain time limit to give her the anti-toxin. Given the clueless nature of Laila finding her is far from easy, as she herself does not realise the danger she is in until it is too late. Added to which there are other characters who have a limited knowledge of the situation and act unwisely out of ignorance, as well as one who uses their knowledge of the situation for their own benefit. The plot moves tensely forward as each event moves Laila closer or further away from death, with emphasis on the former. Will Dee be able to find her in time?

Overall Thoughts

From the synopsis above you may wonder where the mystery or crime element crops up. Yet this is a book with a murder plot, albeit a rather unusual one, involving an Iago-like figure doing all they can to stop Laila being found in time. In some ways it is a little bit of an inverted mystery, as you know the who, how and why, but you’re wondering whether they will pull it off. I would also say this book has a concept which Armstrong radically re-works in her award-winning title, A Dram of Poison (1956). There are several familiar tropes in this story: last minute heir, a seemingly unfair will etc., yet I think Armstrong pleasingly does something very different. The direction this book definitely took me by surprise, as the blurb gives no indications at all as to what is going to happen.

Despite being the focus of the book, Laila is not a heroine figure. She has no agency and her ultimate fate is not really due to her own actions. She embodies passivity and naivety to an intense degree. I think this means you can feel sorry for her, especially when she realises the mess she is in, but she is not someone you warm to. Consequently, I found it difficult to understand how she garners so much affections from others. Though she is an interesting figure, as the author avoids the usual personality qualities of a suddenly wealthy woman.

Dee, on the other hand, is the book’s more natural female protagonist. She is someone who you can sympathise and identify with more naturally, from page one. Yet this bond is put under pressure by her obtuse attitude towards Andy and Laila. She admits to feeling jealous and sad but doesn’t try to do anything about situation despite Andy wanting her to. The way this aspect is concluded at the end is perhaps a bit too simplistic, given the initial complexity of the love triangle we have, but it does work. Interestingly, one of the reasons Andy feels tempted by Laila’s infatuation is because she so desperately needs moulding and teaching in his eyes. He says to Dee: ‘A man almost can’t stand not to take that girl in his hands and mould her into what he’d like a girl to be.’ Although I think Andy revises the idea a little over the course book, not least due to his behaviour stymying the search twice, when Dee’s ideas are much more on the money.

So all in all an unexpectedly good book. I found it to be a refreshing change from the typical murder mystery plot and the tension builds up well. It is also very easily available online and for as little as £1.99, which certainly makes a change.

Rating: 4.25/5

16 comments

  1. Well, if you think this edition has a cover art problem, brace yourself for the French one.

    For some reason this book and several others by the same writer (including A Dram of Poison) were published here by the local equivalent of Mills & Boon, with no one bothering to write blurbs or choosing adequate cover art (the Dram of Poison one in particular is WTFery) As a result, “serious” crime reviewers ignored them despite Armstrong already being a well-established writer in France at the time. For the record, the same imprint went on to host other big names such as Patricia Moyes, Estelle Thompson, Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, Mary Roberts Rinehart and even Josephine Tey whose Brat Farrar made its first French appearence there! I guess both publishers and readers thought that anything written by a woman was necessarily “chicklit” though the term didn’t exist yet back then.

    Back to the book itself, I haven’t read it even though I’ve owned it for at least two decades (I don’t choose books – you know the rest) Its day may come now that I finally know what it’s about! More seriously I think you’re dead on to compare it to Dram as both seem to be built on a technique that I’d call “snowball plotting” in which a trivial, not even criminal, event turns out to have disastrous consequences, with people trying to help and actually worsening the situation a little more. Armstrong was very good at it and it appears this book is no exception. Now if only I knew where it is again… 😉

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  2. This is not one of Charlotte Armstrong’s books that I have a copy of. It sounds very good. But I do have plenty to choose from for a while.

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  3. At this point if I had the opportunity, I would pick up any of her books that I don’t already have. I have read The Unsuspected and The Case of the Weird Sisters. I have unread: The Innocent Flower, Mischief, The Gift Shop, The One-Faced Girl. And … this is embarrassing… I actually do have a copy of Catch-As-Catch-Can. So I am glad I took a second look.

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  4. Thanks for the review – sounds like this is more of a mystery than Armstrong’s renown novel ‘Mischief’? But not sure if this is one to pick up after my current novel!

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    • It’s Anna Katharine Green’s ‘The Affair Next Door’ – will aim to finish it tonight, I think and hope. For all the comparisons, I’m afraid Amelia Butterworth strikes me to be a self-indulgent, more annoying and less insightful Miss Marple. 😅 Which might explain why I still haven’t finished the novel.

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      • Well I think it is important that she was prototype. There is a danger in looking to Miss Marple first and then looking back to Amelia. Without Amelia you may not have got Miss Marple. Detective fiction when Amelia was created was also different from 1930 when Miss Marple starred in Murder at the Vicarage. That difference in style I think affects the type of detecting the pair do.

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      • Yes, good point – my comparison was somewhat anachronistic. (Oops as a fellow English Literature major I should have avoided the schoolboy error! 😅) I suppose I was also less sympathetic to the gender dynamics of Green’s time, with Amelia Butterworth experiencing some need to break out of boredom and female domestication? I suppose Green was also righting vis-a-vis the Sensation Novel, where boredom and domesticity were key discourses for feminine experience; certainly all the tropes of secret letters and feminine transgressiveness appear in Green’s text.

        Then again, we never hear Miss Marple for herself – in that I don’t recall many, if any, novels narrated from her perspective? Might she be more annoying were we to hear from her directly? We often see her from the eyes of the other characters, who perpetually perceive her as an endearing. 👵 Then again, when I re-read ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ recently, I was amused to see her presented as a gossip and snoop – and possibly suspect in the early stage!

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        • Yes Miss Marple does somewhat morph over her first few forays, even between The Tuesday Night Murder short stories and MATV. I think it took until her second or third novel for her character to remain more consistent.
          Butterworth is also probably several decades younger than Miss Marple – getting at least two marriage proposals in her future cases. I wonder if Butterworth’s class and American-ness alters how the spinster amateur detective is depicted.
          By the time Miss Marple emerges onto the scene the GAD novel has become more established and the idea of village/country house mysteries, (detached from the sensation fiction novel), – so her character has a natural place to fit into. I think Butterworth might seem a bit more of a fish out of water in her more urban environment

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