Charlotte Armstrong Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Marilyn Monroe brutally strikes her uncle from behind with an ashtray. A dead look is in her eyes. This is one nightmarish scene from the film Don’t Bother to Knock. Charlotte Armstrong’s works were particularly suitable for film treatment because of her tight plotting, her skill at cutting back and forth between the actions of different characters as the work builds toward a climax, and her use of visually striking images. Furthermore, her themes were those that were found in film noir of the 1940’s and 1950’s. She often described how an innocent character was drawn into a web of intrigue and murder, or she described the machinations of a manipulative, controlling, and murdering father figure.

To illustrate how easily an average person could be led astray, Armstrong often opened with some trivial event that became the first in a series of events that led inexorably into a troubling underworld. Even in her early, amateur detective works—Lay on, Mac Duff!, The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), and The Innocent Flower (1945)—she had the sleuth, MacDougal Duff, become accidentally involved in the crime he would have to solve. Yet these novels, which make up the MacDougal Duff series, were not characteristic of her mature work, in which she focused on how an average person had to call up his own resources to escape or solve a crime.

The Witch’s House

Typical of these works in which the opening emphasized the way an average citizen can be caught in an undertow is The Witch’s House (1963). Professor O’Shea is leaving his office and notices a colleague slipping something into his pocket. It looks like a stolen microscope part. Unable to question or even stop the observed professor in a mob of passing students, O’Shea ends up chasing him in his automobile. The chase leads him into a plot involving blackmail, incest, and murder.

A Dram of Poison

Another, even more original strategy Armstrong used to ground a suspense plot might be called the nonopening. A Dram of Poison uses this technique. The novel describes the bachelor life of Professor Gibson, chronicles his courtship and marriage to Rosemary James, and finally tells of his disillusionment with his wife. More than half of the novel has passed before the suspense plot proper—in which a disguised bottle of poison is mislaid—begins. All the materials and human predispositions that will lead to a harrowing tale of suspense are rooted in a simple, undramatic tale of a May-December romance.

Armstrong noted that she was not interested in puzzling her readers with a mystery, but in creating suspense. She distinguished between the genres by bringing up the hackneyed scene of a heroine tied to the railroad tracks. According to Armstrong, “If we were to come upon the scene after the train has been by, we will be involved in a whodunit.” If the work is suspense, the girl has not yet been run over: “It has not happened yet. We, as readers, don’t want to see it happen. We fear that it may.”

In The Witch’s House, for example, O’Shea is badly hurt and taken in and concealed by a senile old woman. All the necessary clues are plain to the reader, but the question remains: Will he be located by the people who are searching for him before he dies of his wounds? It is the pressure of time, then, that turns the screws of suspense. Armstrong pointed out that an “ordeal is converted to suspense with the addition of a time limit.”

The Dream Walker

Not only did Armstrong give her heroes a small and rapidly dwindling amount of time to achieve their object, but she gave equal time to the villains as well. In keeping with her ideas about the transparency of suspense, Armstrong did not hide the villains’ attempts to carry out their plots; she made them an integral part of the story line. In The Dream Walker (1955), for example, much of the suspense and fascination of the tale arise from watching how the mastermind of a plot to discredit an elder statesman works to cover his own tracks and tries to outguess both those battling him and his own henchmen. It is not only the observation of the heroes’ reactions, but also the back-and-forth reactions of each side in a deadly game that create an engrossing text.

In Armstrong’s novels, tremendous stress is placed on the Everyman who is put in a desperate situation. Not only is the protagonist faced with a crime, but also he or she is often forced to look at the world in a new way. The result is a synthesis of realism and idealism, with those starting too far in either direction learning to be either more caring or less sentimentally dependent.


Jed Towers in Mischief begins as a cynic. He is introduced while in the act of breaking up with his girlfriend because she wanted to show charity to a panhandler. By the end of the novel, he has grown enough to return to the hotel room where he had left an innocent child with an unbalanced babysitter, telling himself, “Mind your own business. Take care of yourself, because you can be damn sure nobody else will.” Knowing his involvement may hurt his career, he nevertheless discards his unconcerned worldview and acts like a man.

The Unsuspected

In The Unsuspected, Mathilda Frazier must make a change...

(The entire section is 2221 words.)