Charlotte Armstrong was born in Vulcan Michigan (Mr. Spock’s favorite mystery writer?) in 1905 and studied at the University of Wisconsin for two years before eventually earning her degree from Barnard College. Before becoming a mystery writer, she was an author of poetry and prose, publishing in The New Yorker, and even a playwright. Starting in 1941, her first mystery novels were a three-book series following the traditional formula of a mystery-solving amateur, Professor MacDougall Macduff. Her son points out that his mother was a Shakespeare buff, who enjoyed tagging the Bard in her early works. We definitely see quotes and allusions by characters in her novels, with even hints of Hamlet’s Claudius in Uncle Luther Grandison’s smooth power grab and murderous manipulations in The Unsuspected. A Little Less Than Kind (1964) is an outright adaptation of the play. For more detail check my sources at Charlotte Armstrong.org and her page on Mysterious Press.
At this point, I’ve only read three of her novels, so I’ll focus on them. Published in 1946, The Unsuspected was filmed the very next year by Warner Bros. Fast work! There are some interesting changes from page to screen, which make a lot of sense. For instance, the smoothly manipulative “Luther” Grandison of the book is described as outright “ugly.” However the film’s “Victor” Grandison is transformed into Claude Rains, whose charming features and voice strengthen the character’s allure. Consequently, his ability to gaslight everyone from his family to police to his victim’s family is so much more believable. The audience is even sometimes swayed in his favor, though we know he dunnit!
Nevertheless, Armstrong’s book is riveting. We know from the start that Grandison has deftly framed murdering his secretary Rosaleen as suicide. We also know that Roslaeen’s relative Jane Moynihan has seen through his plot, but, with no reliable proof, must recruit her nephew Francis Howard to craft a plan to insinuate themselves into Grandison’s family in order to tear through the silken web her has woven ’round family and authorities, blinding them to his true nature. Courageous, as well as sharp, enough to take over as Luther’s secretary under an assumed identity, Jane leads Fran in some gaslighting of their own to convince Grandison’s wealthy ward Mathilda she had married Fran before being shipwrecked. The suspense, then, builds not from wondering whodunit but from the inner turmoil of the characters: Fran’s guilt over using Matilda as he falls for her smarts and the independence Grandison has almost squelched with tender, subtle disparagement; Matilda’s resistance to Fran and Jane’s plot even as she senses something warm and admirable in Fran; Jane and Fran’s frustration as Grandison constantly sidesteps their moves to reveal him. Perhaps the most excruciating unfolding of suspense comes when Fran, after overplaying his hand with Grandison, is trapped by the clever manipulator in an old trunk, out cold, at a waste disposal site, just minutes from the jaws of a crane snatching him up to drop into an incinerator. Grandison repeatedly plays on the obliviousness and social deference of police and workers to his charm and standing to forestall their discovering Fran and saving him from cremation. Jane and Matilda, however, have the insight to figure out what’s going on and the courage to act boldly, while the passive men of authority stand around ineffectually, snowed by Grandison.
These two women’s portrayal emphasizes a significant characteristic of the three novels that I’ve read by Armstrong. It is women who will slice through the social claptrap or self-centeredness that binds people from acting intelligently, independently, in their own best interest. She may give us some standard issue femme fatales like Althea in this novel. Or a horrific psychopath like the baby sitter in the chillingly understated title Mischief (1952). However, it is the Matildas, the Janes, the mother in Mischief, and the young Amanda Garth of The Chocolate Cobweb who see through restrictive social conventions to act with insight, courage, and assertiveness missing in the men who hold authority.
Mischief (1950) was also made into a film in 1952, Don’t Bother to Knock. Again, there are some significant changes from book to movie, with the viciously psychopathic antagonist softened into a sympathetic, if still dangerous, female. Armstrong’s Nell embodies the worst aspects of anima: sexuality as devouring and deadly, elusiveness and mischievousness as lies and manipulation, passion as cruel violence. But this character predominates by playing on a man’s selfishness, unreliability, and uncontrolled sex drives or a woman’s social conditioning to be passive. The woman who takes her down, or at least holds her at bay, is a wife and mother; however, she’s no iconic passive fifties housewife. Ruth had her doubts about this surface-charming babysitter from the start. She only goes against her better judgment to allow Nell to watch their child under the pressure of her husband’s insistence they attend a dinner where he’ll receive an award for his business success. A woman’s clear sight deferring to the male household head’s preoccupation with his own power and ego proves tragic. However, Ruth decides she can’t deny her instincts any longer and risks disapprobation of spouse and society. She abandons her husband’s ego fest, returns to uncover the truth, and battles the psychopath for her child’s safety with a power and commitment that the selfish or short-sighted men or the properly passive Miss Ballew could not muster against the viciously manipulating, violent Nell. True several, men do break in to separate Ruth and Nell when they are locked in a death grip; nevertheless, it was Ruth’s breaking through convention that brought them to the showdown.
The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) also reveals the strength and intelligence of women to liberate themselves, and the men around them, from suffocating, delusive, even dangerous enthrallment. Cobweb draws on the pattern of fairy tale with misplaced heirs, an evil stepmother, a supplanted angelic mother, an enfeebled father, and a heroic figure rescuing an imprisoned, endangered lover – only here, a young woman is the knight riding to the rescue. Budding artist, with a practical side in studying fabric design, co-ed Amanda Garth learns from her mother of a mix-up at birth of her with the baby of artist Tobias Garrison. Armstrong settles fairly quickly that there was no real exchange of babies; however, intrigued, Amanda visits a gallery showing the artist’s work and sees him with his wife and son, Thone, obviously Amanda’s age. Like the protagonist in Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, Amanda leaves the safety of her home and, driven by a curiosity she doesn’t fully fathom, presents herself at Garrison’s house, ostensibly to learn about art. Yet her own thoughts reveal she is both drawn to the son and curious about a world outside her mundane middle-class life of school, office work, and a faithful but dull boyfriend. Once there, an initial warm meeting reveals that all is not as it seems on the surface: the wife is not Thone’s mother but stepmother, confusingly first and third wife; Thone’s mother had died tragically; and an inadvertent glance in a mirror when alone with the stepmother strongly suggests to Amanda that this woman, frequently described as “jolly” and “pink,” had actually tried to poison her stepson.
Ione Garrison is Charlotte Armstrong’s soothing, warm deceiver in this novel. Frequently characterized as “pink,” “round,” “jolly,” or “Mrs. Santa Claus,” she camouflages herself in the traditional image of loving, domestic, charming grammy. She’s the keeper of the hearth, the comforter with her healing soporifics for physical and emotional pain, the purveyor of sumptuous meals. Yet, in truth, she is the ultimate anti-mother, devourer rather than nurturer. She uses her soporifics to render others emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically, unconscious and at her mercy; her bedtime hot chocolate is designed to induce the “Big Sleep”; her fine meals lull others into dangerous trust; her tender words set others up to doubt themselves and mistrust their friends. Ultimately, she keeps that hearth only for herself, plotting the dispatch of those standing in the way of her full and complete possession of every inch of the Garrison home and its contents, material and human. And this “jolly” seeming lady does so under the disguise of pink cheeks and white curls with a relentless, cold, and precise logic that would do a Vulcan proud—if Vulcans were amoral murderers. No one can see her for what she is because she plays the role expected of her as sweet, ineffectual little woman so well. No one except Amanda, whose youthful confidence, imagination, and spunk enable her to recognize and hold onto the significance of the truth a mirror reveals, a truth the others’ socialization prevents them from perceiving.
Amanda Garth finds herself driven like the protagonist in the hero’s journey to find her identity so she can set the world right by defeating darkness and deception. However, she also comes up against the fact that after she leaves the safe place created by the early guidance of a freeing but practical mother, youthful energy, imagination, and sense of right are not sufficient against a coldly shrewd plotter who knows how to wield social expectations about women as both sword and shield against her enemies. Like the hero on a journey into the world of danger and deception, Amanda has to discover that her identity is more than a knight justified by boldness, self-confidence, and laudable intentions. The young woman must transcend a naïve trust in the superiority of her righteousness and recognize both her vulnerability to chance and the terrible power of darkness to deceive. Only then can she shrewdly trick that darkness to reveal itself, while still maintaining her integrity. In doing so, Amanda reverses the gendered roles of sleeping or imprisoned princess awakened and freed by a brave, adventurous knight from a deftly spun curse when she liberates Thone and Tobias Garrison from emotional and mental passivity created by Ione’s spells of guilt and delusion.
For more information on Charlotte Armstrong and her writing, see the following:
The Charlotte Armstrong Site, maintained by her estate
The following images are used for educational purposes only and not for any kind of profit. Evidence at their sources indicates there are no copyright restrictions on them. If there are any problems, let me know and I will remove them.
Photograph of Charlotte Armstrong from Good Reads: https://www.goodreads.com/photo/author/89400.Charlotte_Armstrong
Photograph from the film The Unsuspected from Warner Brothers Presents, Ted Sennett, Arlington House Prtoductions, 1971.
Cover Art for The Unsuspected, International Polygonics, 1988.
Cover Art of Mischief from Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1824048.Mischief
Cover art for The Chocolate Cobweb, American Mystery Classics, 2020
Grandmother image: http://www.clker.com/clipart-766163.html
Hero’s Journey Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heroesjourney.svg