Charlotte Armstrong Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The majority of Charlotte Armstrong’s suspense works detail the perilous voyage of an innocent person who, often by chance, is drawn into an underground world of intrigue and terror. Her stories revolve around whether something will be found or found out before a time limit is reached. Interest is centered on whether something will be done in time rather than on how a problem will be solved. In an innovative manner, she generally traces the progress of both the heroes and the villains as they work to obtain the same goal. Thematically, her fiction brings up a debate between a hard-boiled postwar cynicism and a sentimental idealism; it chronicles the mental distress of a major character who has to forge his own philosophy based on a synthesis of these two attitudes. Her prose also represents a synthesis of these strands, and though generally terse and tense, it is relieved with touches of humor.

Armstrong blends elements from Cornell Woolrich, in the way she reveals a violent underside to the everyday world, and Shirley Jackson, in the way she carefully constructs a dark atmosphere and in her expert character portraiture. Her strong female characters prefigure the independent female characters who were to emerge more fully later in the century, and her frequent use of occult themes anticipated the penchant for the supernatural in popular fiction that was to emerge in the 1970’s.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Cromie, Alice. Preface to The Charlotte Armstrong Reader. New York: Coward-McCann, 1970. Overview of Armstrong’s most important and distinctive work.

Dellacava, Frances A. Sleuths in Skirts: Analysis and Bibliography of Serialized Female Sleuths. New York: Routledge, 2002. Good for contextualizing Armstrong’s gothic mysteries. Bibliographic references and index.

Klein, Kathleen Gregory, ed. Great Women Mystery Writers: Classic to Contemporary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Contains an essay on Armstrong detailing her life and works.

Knight, Stephen Thomas. Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Broad overview of the important trends and developments in two centuries of detective fiction. Places Armstrong in her greater historical context.

The New Yorker. Review of The Case of the Weird Sisters. 18 (January 30, 1943): 64. Brief but useful review of one of Armstrong’s most famous works, the second in her MacDougal Duff series.