This latest read by Armstrong was a matter of happenchance, finding an old copy going cheap. However, a kindle version is available. Yet I was surprised by the different tone each blurb went with. Beginning with my 1965 Collier Books edition, on the front cover it has this tagline: ‘A bachelor detective… A divorcee with a houseful of children… And a corpse on the living room couch!’ To me this indicated a tale of zany comedy or screwball adventure, yet when I returned to this tagline after finishing the book, it occurred to me that actually it wasn’t an overtly comic mystery after all. This got me thinking and I wondered if the publishers were trying to market the book as something like Craig Rice’s Home Sweet Homicide which was published a year before Armstrong’s, in 1944. We will probably never know, as it was two decades apart for the marketing, but perhaps Armstrong was riffing on Rice’s theme – albeit inverting it somewhat.
This brings me to the blurbs, and they are interesting to compare:
‘It was a rainy Sunday in New Rochelle when sleuth MacDougal Duff met Mary Moriarity hurrying from her home with a feverish child in her arms. Behind her, on the shabby red couch in the living room, lay “Aunt” Emily, the victim apparently of a massive dose of poison in a glass of wine. And upstairs, in their pajamas, the five other Moriarity children huddled, round-eyed at the prospect of policemen in the house. a tall order of business for a bachelor, even if Mac Duff sets out not just to solve the mystery, but to keep the bogey man from the Moriarity’s front door in a tale whose principals are as warmly drawn as its solution is surprising.’
Collier Books, 1965
‘A sudden cloudburst forces MacDougal Duff to stop his car in front of the home of Mary Moriarty. The history professor turned detective is reclining in his seat, waiting out the torrential rainstorm, when Mary knocks on the car window holding a feverish child and jabbering about a dead woman. After years investigating murders, Mac Duff is not fazed by a dead body, but the sick child moves his heart. He speeds to the hospital, and while the doctor is seeing to the child, he asks Mary about the dead woman. Her name was Brownie, Mary says, and she was poisoned. Unable to resist an interesting death, Mac Duff moves in with the family, pretending to be a distant relation. To his delight, he finds a home corrupted by secrets, whose residents do not hesitate to kill.’
Mysterious Press 2014
In many of the details there are a lot of similarities, yet it is the closing sentences which see a divergence. The Mysterious Press present a dark mystery with murderous children as a given, or at least a very strong possibility. Collier Books, conversely, are keen to stress the ingenuity of the solution alongside the pleasantness and friendliness of the characters. I would say Collier Books’ blurb hits the mark better in terms of accurately depicting the story. Yet perhaps controversially, I wish the Mysterious Press’ blurb had been more accurate, as that is the sort of novel Charlotte Armstrong would go on to write later in her career, with much more intense character psychology.
Before anyone asks, Moriarity is the spelling provided in the book, even if Microsoft Word wants to tell me it is wrong and yes, the surname is a reference to Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis. I found it an unusual surname choice, yet felt it reflected the ambiguity of the family and their questionable innocence. Although I would argue that this ambiguity is dented by narrative choices later in the story. The situation is revealed to reader slowly, as despite being a detective of some kind, Duff at the start of the book asks little in the way of questions. He is happy to be intrigued and find out more later. One example of changing times is that these days as a single mother you would be very unlikely to agree to an unknown man to go to your house and watch your kids whilst you are in hospital with another child Or maybe even then this was an unlikely choice of action? However, Duff is a series character, having appeared in two earlier stories: Lay On, Mac Duff! (1942) and The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), so perhaps Armstrong figured the reader would not mind this means of getting Duff involved in the case, as they would know he is one of the “good guys”.
Today’s read though is the last in the series and I wonder if Armstrong found Duff as a character unsatisfactory to work with. I have read 7 other novels by this writer, as well as a collection of short stories, and predominantly her narratives are anchored around a female protagonist and often the events of the book are seen through their eyes. So in coming to this book I was surprised by Armstrong’s choice of focal character and again I was led to much pondering. Would she have chosen the same protagonist if she had written the book later in her career? And equally how might the story have differed if she had picked someone like Mary Morarity or one of the children? Would we have felt the same high pitch of psychological tension, as we do in The Unsuspected (1947)? [N. B. This other book by Armstrong is an almost must read in case you are wondering!]
Returning to Rice’s novel, Home Sweet Homicide, I think the children in Armstrong’s book are as emotionally robust as Rice’s, though less comically precocious. Early on we are informed that the death in the household does not seem to faze them much:
‘Duff sat down on a toy chest. No, they weren’t, as far as he could see, grim. They weren’t scared, either. They didn’t seem to think he was there to keep away the bogey man. In fact, Duff got the impression that any bogey man who showed up in this company would soon retire, a confused and frustrated fellow.’
Yet, in comparing the two sets of children, I think I prefer Rice’s, for the simple reason that we get to spend more time with them and gain a greater understanding of what they are really thinking. With Armstrong’s book we are limited to the impressions Duff obtains of them.
At the start of Duff’s investigation, we discover how the murder oscillates around the two bottles of wine and the fact other people seem to have drunk out of both. The question is when did the poison get added. The net seems to tighten around Mary as well as Taffy. Is her admission to hospital a ruse to keep her away from the police? The child killer was not an overly used trope at this stage in crime writing and Duff’s horror of this possibility quickly becomes apparent. Moreover, it soon infects the way he conducts his investigation. He mucks up some of his questioning, by allowing Mary’s children to ask loaded questions to steer question answerers, he often does not ask the questions he thinks he must issue, and he does not reveal when the children lie to the police. In some ways he becomes irritatingly passive, unable to face the possibility of who the killer might be, yet at the same time is ‘committed to saving Taffy no matter what.’ The problem with all of this is that it leads to some very unproductive scenes in which Duff achieves very little. It is not encouraging when he says to one suspect:
“Something seems to have gone wrong with my faculties. I haven’t asked the right questions […] I don’t analyse. I drift. I don’t follow a direct line. I veer. I wander. I am not organised. I am not logical. One must, at least, begin with logic. And I haven’t begun at all. I am making no real investigation whatsoever. I am batted around by worries. I do not think. And even my intuition, which sometimes saves me, has gone to hell.”
Now, you can argue that Duff says all of this to lure the suspect into a false sense of security but reading in context I think Duff does believe what he is saying, and this reader at least agrees with these concerns he has of himself. His love at first sight with Mary and her children mar the investigation in my opinion as not only does it hamper Duff’s actions, but it also means the reader is pretty sure that Duff’s fears are not going to be realised. This somewhat narrowed down the pool of the suspects, if the dear Moriarity family members were not allowed to be guilty. Furthermore, I think the reader is less invested in them than Duff, as for example, we really don’t get to spend much time with Taffy, to build up sympathy for her.
As such the final solution did not overly satisfy, though in a different story it could have done. Unfortunately, a visual clue is rather important and therefore not one the reader can fully utilise. Moreover, Duff hangs on a lot of importance on the way different suspects interpret one of his dreams. A rather nebulous clue. I also disliked some parts of the confrontation sequence in the final quarter of the book, in which one character is pretty much verbally abused. They are made to be unpleasant previously in the book, to perhaps make this action of Duff’s more justifiable, but nevertheless it left a bad taste in my mouth.
I think like all the mysteries I have read by Armstrong this book has a lot of good ingredients, yet I don’t think they are deployed as well as they could have been. In my opinion Armstrong would have made a much better job of this plot later in her career.