Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Whatever It Takes to Make a Really Good Suspense Writer She Had in Abundance"

By Charlotte Armstrong (1905-69).
Edited by Rick Cypert and Kirby McCauley.
Crippen & Landru Publishers.
2014. 318 pages: 13 short stories + 2 novelettes.
For sale HERE.
Charlotte Armstrong is most often associated with the HIBK ("Had-I-But-Known") school of Gothic suspense writing, but her work cannot be so easily categorized; as Night Call proves, whatever it takes to make a really good suspense writer she had in abundance.

Our editors Cypert and McCauley inform us that after trying her hand at more conventional mysteries, Armstrong took an editor's advice and started producing one-off stories about people under stress who, if circumstances don't change, will face ruin or injury or worse. Armstrong characterized suspense writing as "juggling hope, time, and fear," and the stories in this volume amply illustrate what she meant.

G. K. Chesterton once observed that "the good detective story is in its nature a good domestic story," and the same can be said of Charlotte Armstrong's tales of suspense. The common, ordinary, human-scale world is the stage upon which some of the most disturbing and harrowing events occur in her stories, making the reader, if even for just a moment, reflect that there but for the grace of God . . . .

As Curt Evans has noted (see "Resources" below), it's a mistake to lump Armstrong's tales in with what is neologistically termed "suburban noir," since true "noir" is hopeless, fatalistic; for Armstrong's characters, however, there is always hope and often, despite all odds, a happy ending.

Night Call is Crippen & Landru's 35th volume in their Lost Classics series, and a fine example of book publishing it is, including a scholarly bibliography and a personal memoir of Charlotte Armstrong, with only a very small number of typos.


The stories:


(1) "Mink Coat, Very Cheap" (EQMM [Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine], 1964) - Young and innocent Anabel Simpson innocently answers a want ad but finds herself under suspicion of being a thief and gets embroiled in a criminal conspiracy that results in murder.

(2) "From Out of the Garden" (EQMM, 1968) - Journalist Maude Seton is determined to get the full scoop on what really happened fifteen years ago at the residence of famous stage actress Elizabeth Rose, who has been missing since that fateful night when her daughter was nearly killed; little does Maude suspect, however, what a large part she will play in the final act of the tragedy.

(3) "Protector of Travelers" (EQMM, 1965) - Toby and Ann Hartman are enjoying a stay on one of Mexico's sunny beaches with a business associate when he suddenly dies; not sure what to do, Toby and Ann cross back into the United States with the body, only to have their car stolen along with the corpse. Unless they figure out something soon, they're in for a world of trouble with the authorities.

(4) "The Other Shoe" (EQMM, 1962) - Jenny Olcutt and Blair Meaghan are attending a house party held by Jenny's rich but detestable step-sister Celia when Blair and Celia, business partners, have a bitter public quarrel. What's worse, Jenny and Blair later find Celia strangled, and neither one has an alibi; foolishly, they conspire to invent one, which leads to even greater complications, especially for Jenny, who unexpectedly assumes the role of Cinderella in the murder of her wicked step-sister.

(5) "A Matter of Timing" (EQMM, 1966) - Jane has finished her shopping and is about to get into her car when a man with a knife tries to kidnap her, but nothing — not even this — is going to keep her from a very important appointment.


(6) "The Splintered Monday" (EQMM, 1966) - Sarah Brady's sister Alice had enjoyed poor health most of her life; it was her way of controlling her world, by manipulating those close to her. But now Alice is dead, and Sarah senses something is very wrong with the surviving family members, something Sarah can't quite pin down, something that insistently points to murder.

(7) "The Case for Miss Peacock" (EQMM, 1965) - Miss Mary Peacock, librarian, retired, has only recently moved to California for her health; she's minding her own business when two policemen escort her to the scene of a crime where the victim swears up and down that Miss Peacock tied her up and robbed her. In the investigation that follows, the fact that Miss Peacock is so ordinary will cause no end of frustration for the detective looking into the lifestyle of our retired librarian.

(8) "The Cool Ones" (EQMM, 1967) - It looks like curtains for Mrs. Finney, age 75, when she is kidnaped by two thugs who, as she well knows, don't intend to let her live once they get the ransom money; but the criminals have seriously underestimated how clever an apparently helpless grandmother with an interest in puzzles can be.


(9) "Night Call" (EQMM, 1969) - In the wee hours of the morning Dr. David Blair receives a phone call from a woman he'd had a thing for years ago begging him for help, but when he arrives at the isolated farmhouse he discovers that he has walked into a dangerous situation involving a criminal plot to assassinate someone. Blair must use all his wits if he is to save his patient, prevent the assassination, and not get killed in the process.

(10) "More Than One Kind of Luck" (EQMM, 1967) - Charles Castle has grand plans for self-enrichment: wine and dine a rich old lady, kill her quickly (because he knows he can't go through with his original scheme of marrying her and her $2 million), and make off with her diamonds. Castle's plan runs smoothly until a careless snip by a barber's scissors changes everything.

(11) "St. Patrick's Day in the Morning" (EQMM, 1960) - Struggling playwright Mitch Brown does the Good Samaritan thing by helping a drunken woman from passing out on the midnight streets of L.A. and thinks no more of it. Weeks later, however, Mitch will see how closely he has come to a charge of being a blackmailer, not to mention his involvement in murder.

(12) "The Light Next Door" (EQMM, 1969) - Sometimes next door neighbors can be a royal pain; for Howard and Stella Lamboys this is certainly the case as conflicts become more frequent and contentious with the folks on the other side of the fence — but, then, Howard and Stella don't have the slightest inkling of what their neighbors are hiding upstairs.

(13) "The Vise" (previously unpublished) - To know the future in every personal detail could be appealing to some, but to others such as Roger Dewey it is a curse leading to a madness that even death itself cannot cancel. [Very Lovecraftian, this one.]


(14) "The Second Commandment" (EQMM, 1967) - On a dark, foggy night newlyweds Reverend Hugh Macroy and his wife Sarah stop their car briefly on a hillside to answer nature's call, but tragically Sarah falls to her death. While the local police suspect foul play, the inquest rules it an accident. For Hugh, however, it all proves emotionally devastating, causing him to lose faith in himself as a minister and to seek peace in an asylum. He would have to wait years for it, but one day someone will come forward who knows exactly what happened that night in the dark, in the fog.

(15) "Man in the Road" (previously unpublished) - It's a cold February midnight and Hallie White, now living in New York, is returning to her small desert hometown when from out of nowhere a man jumps into her path and she hits him; in the dark beside the road, the wounded man urges her to push on to town for help, which she does . . . but when it arrives, the victim is dead. Hallie's spirits take a beating, of course, but things are made even worse when some of the locals start treating her like a pariah. It will take the policeman's instincts of an old flame to change this tragic "accident" into something far more sinister.

- Curt Evans has a review of Night Call HERE.
- The Golden Age of Detection [GAD] Wiki entry for Armstrong is HERE, and the Wikipedia page for her is HERE.
- Hollywood didn't ignore Charlotte Armstrong; see HERE for more.

Category: Crime fiction

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