The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) by Charlotte Armstrong

I have read six novels by Armstrong previously. Some were better than others, but they all share a nod towards the unusual. Catch as Catch Can (1953) particularly took me by surprise with how well it executed a plot involving an almost accidental murderer, who starts to fulfil this role by doing nothing more than withholding some pertinent information.

Armstrong similarly carves an unusual narrative structure in today’s read, though the outré nature of the book is signalled early on by its rather striking title. The writer of the introduction for the American Mystery Classic reprint, A. J. Finn, was not particularly enamoured with the title, but it worked for me; not least because it got me wondering. Piquing the curiosity of a reader is certainly not a bad idea.

Synopsis

‘When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.

But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface…’

Overall Thoughts

The Saturday Review, on the 3rd July 1948, in its’ Criminal Record section summed up this book as a ‘“How-dun-it” rather than “whodunit,”’ going on to write that the ‘identity of slayer [is] never in doubt’ and that the piece has ‘high suspense, much emotion, satisfactory if breathless writing, and clinch ending.’ All in all ‘good entertainment.’ I would say this is a fair assessment of the book, though I think perhaps, due to space constraints, it does not display the novel’s strengths as fully as they deserve. Unfortunately, I mean thankfully, I do not suffer from those same restrictions…

Armstrong’s book is not the first to include a potential accidental baby swap plot component, yet to me her handling of this trope felt more creative. She steers away from Victorian melodrama, and any notes of such, are soon upended. Amanda doesn’t seem to fully buy into the idea that the Garrisons are her real family, though she enjoys toying with it in her mind and it does fire her imagination enough to make her initial introduction with the Garrisons. Other characters also pour cold water on the idea, and I don’t think the reader is meant to give it too much credence. However, as well as providing Amanda with an entry point into the Garrison household, it also plays upon the mind another, a killer in fact…

Armstrong adopts an omniscient narrator for this tale which worked very well, as we are able to come at the characters and situations from different viewpoints and we can pop into people’s heads from time to time. This enables us to see more of the bigger picture and to identify when a character’s impressions may be skewed, such as Amanda’s.

This book comfortably falls within the category of inverted mystery and quickly reveals itself as such in the opening chapters, with Amanda lurching head long into it. Nevertheless, I don’t know if I would say it is a conventional inverted mystery, as it shapes the plot around a cat and mouse variant in which the mice, in this case, early on become aware of, and more of knowledgeable of the danger, at least one of them is in. This worked really well for me and Armstrong definitely packs a lot into her story, especially the first few chapters. It makes it hard to predict in which direction the plot is going, for quite some time, as the narrative threads, which in some books would take up the whole novel, in this one are quickly terminated or pushed down a different track. I enjoyed how it wasn’t immediately obvious what the writer was heading towards.

This tale is also an unusual inverted mystery, as the murderer’s plans very much change and again it took a while to see what their new plan was going to be. As the reader you are noticing the small actions which occur, and you are engrossed in trying to see how they might contribute to a bigger sinister plan. What is more you’re doing it along side Amanda and Thone, for whom the stakes are much higher.

Now you may be wondering why Amanda does not go to the police, and I think Armstrong handles this aspect competently, providing enough, albeit temporary, tangible evidence to start Amanda off on the trail, but not enough permanent material to make her decision to not tell the police straight away implausible. It also makes it more challenging for her to warn the person she thinks is in danger and instead, at the start, they just assume Amanda is trying to stir up trouble because she loves drama. This disinclination towards Amanda even for a time unites that person with their would be killer and I found this weird bond quite intriguing. This lack of trust also creates an unusual beginning for our accidental sleuthing duo and their strategy for how to trap the killer is engagingly unorthodox.  

There is a thread of romance woven through this narrative, yet it does not overwhelm the plot and for a time it even provides further obfuscation. Moreover, the initially distant and cold Thone, is provided with a poignant backstory, which Armstrong skilfully employs later in the plot.  This made the romantic notes here and there feel less like a forced add on and instead made them an important part of the plot.

As we are propelled towards the denouement, Armstrong picks up the pace and tension beautifully, as The Saturday Review noted, and I found this to be a brilliant page turner of a book. I was desperate to find out what happened in the end, as the narrative does not guarantee a happy ever after conclusion. As in other books by this author chance and unanticipated events ensure this is a nail biting, edge of your seat read, as you race to the last page. Interestingly Christie herself picks up, (though I am not saying she read this book per say), one element from this finale and employs it in one of her later books, though it is used for a different purpose.

So perhaps with a mug of hot chocolate I would recommend buying this book. Just be careful to make the hot chocolate yourself…

Rating: 4.5/5

12 comments

  1. Ha, to me it is a terrible title, and the summary of the plot didn’t grab me, but you’ve piqued the edge of my interest with this review. Can’t say I’ll rush out right now and buy it — well, we’re under lockdown, so I can’t — but I’m intrigued to see the shifting of the killer’s plans and the awareness of the “mice” that they’re in danger. Colour me much more interested in this than I was ten minutes ago…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I may well be in the minority on the title!
      I think Armstrong’s plotting is far more creative and original than she is given credited for. I don’t think it helps that the cover artwork, particularly of earlier editions, plants her books within the heroine in jeopardy, let’s go investigate the spooky house in our nightie brigade. I think that puts people off from trying her work who are less keen on suspense fiction. Psychological suspense is definitely Armstrong’s bag, but I think she couples it with strong plots that are structured in ways which make it less easier to predict what is going to happen next. I didn’t mention it in the review but there is actually an unusual clue which initially you might say came out of nowhere, but then you think back to the rest of the story and you can then see how she built up to that moment.

      Like

        • I have my fingers crossed that maybe this will be one of those rare reading crossovers of ours. Fair enough if you still don’t enjoy her work when you try it, but at least you would be disliking it based on what she wrote and not on the general aura which surrounds her work.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Not read anything by her in ages, thanks for the reminder Kate. Incidentally, this one was made into a decent little movie by Claude Chabrol in 2000 under the (better) title, MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT, starring the peerless Isabelle Huppert.

    Liked by 1 person

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