#969: The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) by Charlotte Armstrong

Chocolate Cobweb

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There really is no accounting for taste. When I read The New Sonia Wayward (1960) by Michael Innes following a rave review from Aidan, I found it rather wanting; now that I’ve read The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) by Charlotte Armstrong following a rave review from Aidan, I wonder if he praised it enough, because it’s very probably the best novel of pure domestic suspense that I’ve ever encountered. We can add this to the likes of The Voice of the Corpse (1948) by Max Murray on the list of Books I Should Not Like Yet Absolutely Loved, an experience so enjoyable that it stalled my reading for about a week since I had no idea what I could possibly follow it up with.

So, what makes Armstrong’s book so special? Firstly, that she writes exquisitely, from the gentle humour of the opening paragraph…

Cousin Edna Fairchild had designed her life on the principle that far fields are greener. During a quarter of each year she flitted about Southern California, visiting a week here, a fortnight there, hinting delicately, among barbarians, of her nostalgia for the riper culture of the eastern seaboard. The rest of the year she dwelt in New York City and basked in some glory as one who wintered on the west coast and could speak wistfully of relaxed and freer customs among those who had escaped toward the sun.

…through to moments of almost unbearable suspense that are all the more affecting for being hewn from the simplest of actions and motivations (“The hand was still held out. It would never move, never retreat.”). Not only is Armstrong’s prose delightful, she has a trick of writing — and I’m going to mess up trying to communicate this — as if you, the reader, is already aware of so many of the points the characters are thinking on or referring to, so that what comes across is so free from exposition that you almost feel like one of the family, simply being encompassed under the wing of shared knowledge, rather than the outsider that you are, ravening for every titbit.

On the subject of outsiders, Armstrong’s plot is also pleasingly straightforward and — praise the day — advanced by intelligent people acting intelligently. When twenty-three year-old Amanda Garth learns that a brief mix up at the hospital when she was born resulted in the famous artist Tobias Garrison believing temporarily that she was his daughter, her interest in the Garrison menage is piqued, and she inveigles herself into the household. Crucially, it doesn’t matter to Amanda whether a mix-up occurred…

What would it mean if she were his daughter? Amanda bit her lip. It would mean, she thought, exactly nothing. She didn’t know him, had no feeling about him, hadn’t been subjected to his influence or his teaching, didn’t know what he thought, didn’t care…. And the fame or wealth of a possible blood parent whom she had never seen, and probably, she told herself, wouldn’t even like, meant nothing at all. Her “What if …?” led nowhere. It was a strangely empty dream.

…she’s simply initially motivated by passing curiosity, and then by a growing attraction to the baby she was confused for, Tobias’ son Thone. And this is where the problems begin, because someone is trying to kill Thone; and, if Amanda isn’t careful, they might just kill her as well.

Armstrong makes no secret of who the killer is, but I’m not going to tell you, because the moment you realise what a warped perspective one of the characters you’ve met has on the world is one of the most bracing shocks I’ve had in my reading this year, and it comes in the first 30 pages. When I think over the authors who have written the most terrifying blank-eyed psychopaths in my fiction to date — Jim Thompson and Dean Koontz spring foremost to mind — it’s hard not to feel that they owe something to Armstrong’s work, since she does this so adroitly that it can’t be her first or only foray into the typifying of this manner of evil. To watch one of these characters go about their day as normal only to then be dropped into the machinations as they plan for various murders to sail by undetected (and join the other undetected murders in their past…) simply never gets old, and Armstrong pulls the strings on this part of her plot magnificently.

What’s most impressive is the intelligence on display, both from a killer whose patience is shored up by the certainty that their aim will be accomplished one day, and by other characters who, just as you fear they’ll hold their tongue or fail to make a connection, either speak as they should or put together the pieces they hold. Armstrong’s suspense is mined not from the frustration of people behaving stupidly, but from the exquisite agony of watching intelligent and reasonable actions nevertheless bring innocents ever closer to the maw of the sociopath in their midst. There’s intelligence, too, from the author who chooses not to overload her plot with too many threads — perhaps best appreciated by the way the entire enterprise is boiled down to the wonderful final line of chapter 9.

Armstrong’s use of psychology, too, plays a huge part, with so much unspoken yet realised as events build, and with the scheme coming to a head in expert style where we know that the planned killing isn’t going to go down as Amanda expects. And then there’s the small matter of attributing guilt come the end, all the more horrible because of how easily the killer is able to dissociate from their urges and simply play a long game that they know they will eventually win. If you sat down and explained this book to me, I’d probably dismiss it as something interesting that wouldn’t necessarily float my boat, but having read it I’m willing to send a whole flotilla out in its honour now — what a magnificent surprise it was to find something this suspense-laden not written by Margaret Millar (and Armstrong plots here better than Millar ever has in my experience), and from someone who left plenty of titles for further investigation.

I can level one genuine fault at it: the fact that two of the main characters are called Thone and Ione, and I have no idea how to pronounce either of those names (okay, two faults: the title is terrible). This aside, however, you can expect more Charlotte Armstrong to show up on here in the years ahead; if the rest of what she cooked up tastes even half as good, she and I are going to get along famously.

~

See also

Kate @ Cross-Examining Crime: I don’t know if I would say it is a conventional inverted mystery, as it shapes the plot around a cat and mouse variant in which the mice, in this case, early on become aware of, and more of knowledgeable of the danger, at least one of them is in. This worked really well for me and Armstrong definitely packs a lot into her story, especially the first few chapters. It makes it hard to predict in which direction the plot is going, for quite some time, as the narrative threads, which in some books would take up the whole novel, in this one are quickly terminated or pushed down a different track.

13 thoughts on “#969: The Chocolate Cobweb (1948) by Charlotte Armstrong

  1. I was delighted to see that you enjoyed this so much. I thought it was a superb story too and you make an excellent point about her motives for going there.
    The tension builds so perfectly towards the end and I think Armstrong does a magnificent job giving us insight into the villain’s mind. I love the way this plays with the uncertainty of the situation and the doubt it causes for everyone involved.
    Just a superb book that I now want to go off and read all over again!

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    • It’s the general cussedness of things that one man’s rave is another man’s rubbish, but I’m grateful to you for bringing this to my attention — I’d have easily passed over it otherwise and that would have been a real shame (not, of course, that I would have known it).

      It’s the intelligence of everyone that’s most pleasing here: no-one keeping their mouth shut just so the plot can happen, but instead just reasonable people speaking out when anyone with a scintilla of intelligence would, and events still conspiring to make it difficult and uncomfortable for all involved. Who knew that was even possible?! 🙂

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      • Glad to have made up for the Sonia Wayward in any case! 😀
        As for the decision making, I quite agree. I think everyone in this feels quite realistic. At times characters do foolish things but their reasons are always quite logical and grounded in their established character traits. It’s really very impressive and one of the reasons I have grown to love Armstrong.

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  2. I have been looking forward to this review, since you mentioned how much you enjoyed it. Given what you enjoyed in this story, I would suggest The Unsuspected as your next Armstrong read, from 1947. I think this is the book which took her down the more unconventional inverted mystery plotting path.

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    • I’ve read some enjoyable domestic suspense — mostly at the hand of Magaret Millar, it must be said — but also plenty of dreck which wearied me of the subgenre and really highlighted how, when poorly written, it’s possible to fall into ridiculous topes just to forward paper-thin plots. Armstrong is, thankfully, far more intelligent than that, and really delivers here. If you’re already into this sort of thing, I predict you’ll have a great time when you get to it.

      No refunds, though; just in case…

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