Today I am returning to the work of Charlotte Armstrong and my enjoyment of her work only grows with each read, so it is a crying shame that her stories are not so commonly read as other writers from the era. Her plotting, her characters and her ability to write suspense all deserve to be better recognised, and I wonder whether cover artwork from editions gone by have done her a disservice, contributing to people writing her off as a HIBK mystery type writer.
This is my 8th read by Armstrong and it is her 4th novel and one which put her on the mystery genre map. According to the American Mystery Classics edition introduction, (written by Otto Penzler), the book was controversial at the time due to it revealing the killer at the outset. However, Penzler grounds this text with reference to its literary forebears in the inverted mystery subgenre.
‘The note discovered beside Rosaleen Wright’s hanged body is full of reasons justifying her suicide – but it lacks her trademark vitality and wit, and, most importantly, her signature. So the note alone is far from enough to convince her best friend Jane that Rosaleen took her own life. Instead, Jane suspects Rosaleen’s boss, Luther Grandison, a man famous for his work for stage and screen. To the world at large, he’s powerful and charismatic, but Rosaleen’s letters to Jane described a duplicitous, greedy man who would no doubt kill to protect his secrets. Intent to uncover evidence against him, Jane takes a job as Grandison’s secretary; her friend Francis soon joins her in the endeavour, gaslighting, manipulating, and impersonating his way into Grandison’s inner circle. But as the duo draw closer to the truth, they come nearer still to their own grisly ends, tangling with a man whose disregard for human life is matched only by his skilful ability to avoid suspicion.’
It may only be the first week of May, but I might have already found May’s Book of the Month, as Armstrong has knocked it out of the park with The Unsuspected. Naturally, with a book this good, it is an absolute pain to get your thoughts in order and to do it any justice. However, I will try my best!
As mentioned above this is not a traditional whodunnit, but an inverted mystery in which the focus is on Jane and her nephew Francis Moynihan, though Jane is a much younger sibling of Francis’ father, so age wise they are quite similar. The opening chapter gets straight to the point. Jane, based on letters from Rosaleen, is convinced that her friend was murdered by her employer Luther Grandison, because she had uncovered evidence which would prove he had embezzled money from one of his wards, Tyl Mathilda. Jane has got herself a job as his secretary and as the chapter closes Francis is determined to make his way into the family circle, by hook or by crook.
Such a first chapter raises all kinds of ideas about how the novel will proceed. We imagine we will be privy to lots of subtle questioning, night-time snooping and time spent peering through key holes, listening in on clandestine conversations. But given how many stories I have read by Armstrong I really should have known better…
Jane may have seemed like a prime candidate for female lead, but in fact she plays more of a background role. Instead the narrative’s focus moves to Tyl Mathilda, the rich ward, who might not be so rich anymore. She was presumed to be dead, her ship having sunk in the Atlantic Ocean, on a trip she was making because her engagement was broken off when Luther’s other ward Althea married her fiancé. However, two months after the first chapter she is back and very much alive and is confronted on her return with Francis, who claims she married him before she set sail. Hotel staff refer to her as his wife, along with the minister who says he married them. Her confusion and her refusal to believe such nonsense is strongly felt by the reader. At this stage you might be wondering if you were reading a different book to the one you started with. Normally the man trying to delude the female protagonist is the enemy and the focus is on that woman fighting the growing fabrications around her. What we know of Francis from chapter 1 and what we see of him in chapter 2 seemingly do not fit together, our hero seems to have become decidedly grubby and scheming. What is perhaps more alarming is that Tyl feels safe with Luther and believes he will sort everything out. Our sleuth has manged to position himself as a threat and it is only as the book unfolds that we see what is really going on.
The shift in attention to Tyl is a masterstroke by Armstrong as she is a woman upon whom everything will come to depend, any happy ending rests upon her. Yet Luther is the sun in her life, a man she can see no wrong in, and as such cannot be warned of the danger she is holding close. You can imagine what this does to the tension levels when everything hinges so precariously upon someone who cannot be taken into any confidences and whose smallest action could mean death for more than one person.
Luther is an impressive villain whose charming mask of a demeanour places him into the Count Fosco category of bad guys. His background is in the theatre business and it still makes its presence felt in his retirement. For example, Jane, when looking at Luther and Althea, muses that:
‘It was like living in the middle of a movie all the time, to be in this house with the pair of them. The way he opened the door of the study. Not merely so that he could go through it into the next room. No, there had to be a flourish, a significant sweep. He opened the door as if he were blowing a fanfare for himself.’
Nevertheless, his will of iron is carefully concealed behind kid gloves and his ability to manipulate those around him, especially Tyl is well conveyed by Armstrong. The members of his household are ‘all his puppets,’ leaving him as ‘the great director.’
Between chapters 1 and 2 of the book two months have passed and during that time much has taken place off the page, and it is only in subsequent chapters that we slowly get to piece together what Jane and Francis have found out. This is a mystery which is more concerned with the time nearing the end of the investigation rather than its middle. Francis nearly has all the evidence he needs, but Tyl’s reappearance, which undermines his subterfuge may prevent him from getting the final pieces. He just needs to buy some more time, the time which comprises the remainder of the novel.
It is uncommon to have the majority of the book be the end game of the mystery, yet Armstrong develops this type of narrative so well. Her building up of a cat and mouse game is pitch perfect and her super villain is so duplicitous that he can commit murder before your eyes, and you don’t even realise it.
A showdown is inevitable, but it has been a while since I have read one which was so nail-bitingly tense. The location for the penultimate scene is unusual, yet only adds to the crescendo of suspense. I can see why this story was adapted for film in 1947 and I have to say it warranted a ‘blooming heck’ from me, a phrase I don’t often bestow on a book.
So all in all this is a wonderful mystery whose premise is worked out along unexpected lines. The inverted mystery structure is very well handled, and I think Armstrong uses this subgenre very creatively. You could not describe this book as run of the mill. It is indeed proof that inverted mysteries can be full of surprises and I am not shocked to read that Howard Haycraft and Fredric Dannay’s list of Definitive Library of Detective-Crime-Mystery fiction included this title. Naturally you must now all go out and buy a copy, forthwith.