#1017: The Unsuspected (1946) by Charlotte Armstrong

Unsuspected

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I don’t know the exact point at which an author becomes one I want to read in great depth, but I do know that the American Mystery Classics range has introduced me to novels by three authors who, in virtually no time at all, became fixtures on my Long-Range Reading List — those being Craig Rice, Cornell Woolrich, and Charlotte Armstrong. Of course, having now tantalised me with expertly-judged selections, the AMC will abandon all three, never reprint another of their works, and move on to pastures new, but at least my urgent searching out of further reading by these wonderful writers will give me something to do in my retirement. Or, y’know, if anyone wants to reprint them now, I won’t complain…

When Rosaleen Wright is found hanged in the study of her boss, the producer and director Luther Grandison, only Rosaleen’s best friend Jane suspects that anything suspicious might have happened — after all, the dead woman left behind a note and Grandison was otherwise employed in his house at the time of her death. And so Jane finagles her way into the Grandison menage as Grandison’s new secretary and convinces Rosaleen’s fiancé Francis Moynihan to pose as the hitherto-unknown husband of Mathilda Frazier, ward of Grandison and presumed dead when the cruise ship she was on sank at sea, so that the two of them might investigate together and bring an unsuspected murderer to justice.

The patterns of gaslighting and manipulation that spin out of this magnificently compact beginning — established in the first 19 pages of this American Mystery Classics edition — make The Unsuspected (1946) feel like a far more modern book than it is, with Jane and Francis both constructing increasingly elaborate frames of untruth while trying to grapple with a man who, if even half as foul as they suspect, is more than a match for the pair of them. In a way, for all its magnificent examination of double standards and the curiously blinkered vision of a world now changed unalterably by the march of war…

Francis was thinking. Murder. One person dead, that meant. He’d seen them die in quantities, seen the flames come up like an answer from the earth beneath. Yet when it was just one, alone, that was murder. There was something a little bit quaint and out of joint in the mixed values.

…the most chilling and powerful moments herein are those bland, innocent instances which should mean nothing but on which everything hinges (“What were you doing in the garden last night…?”). One of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made about Armstrong is how intelligent her characters seem to be, too, and the meeting of sharpened minds duelling in a conflict that neither is entirely sure is actually happening makes for fascinating reading and some superbly hard-edged moments that thrill as much anything you can name:

Luther Grandison was near a violent death just then, as he walked placidly past the door where it was waiting and went into Mathilda’s room instead.

This is as much a study in manipulation as it is a detective novel, with the presumption of Grandison’s guilt coming a bit too quickly to feel believable even while the man himself clearly wrapped up in some shady dealing and subtle controlling behaviours. Indeed, the one fault I can level at this is that the character of Grandison, so ripe for exploitation as a true horror, is rather too vague and muted, with none of the savage clarity that would mark out the killer in Armstrong’s later The Chocolate Cobweb (1948). We get hints, mostly when in the presence of a man called Press, and some aspects of his conduct are filled in as the story progresses — not least in the impossibly tense finale — but there’s also something curiously empty about never being entirely sure what our protagonists are up against. Armstrong has a good eye for evil (“We are so vulnerable to plain, unadorned violence. We tend to think our enemies will play by the rules. We can’t conceive of the rules being wiped out.”), but maybe it took not quite getting the balance right in this book to perfect it in the later one.

Alongside the core plot there’s also an element of moral obligation as Francis and Jane seek to save other lives that might be at risk, with tiny moments — the position of a foot resting on the floor, a small gasp as someone remember to play their role to the hilt — magnified to escalate tension. Armstrong writes this sort of thing beautifully, with the very real mental agony of one character who cannot understand why everyone keeps lying to her and so seeks solace in the worst possible place being key to the purpose of the narrative, for all the frustration that it may evince in the reader. This is an almost Hitchcockian level of audience manipulation, the same notes being played and played again until the refrain becomes as constricting for the reader as it is for the characters, so that we empathise even as we’re screaming for any other course to be taken.

So, yes, it’s fair to say that Charlotte Armstrong has struck me very favourably indeed in the short time we’ve been acquainted, breathing new appreciation into the Domestic Suspense subgenre and breaking your heart as easily as she raises your pulse (“He almost wished for the peace of hopelessness.”). Surely some enterprising publisher will recognise how smartly these books from a bygone age echo so many of the preoccupations of today and make them readily available…right? There’s doubtless a rich seam of Armstrong’s insight to mine here, and I, for one, would welcome it with open arms.

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Aidan @ Mysteries Ahoy!: Armstrong does an excellent job of constructing her story to slowly build pressure on these two protagonists as they inch nearer to learning the truth. It is quite fascinating to see how she builds tension less through moments of action (and the threat that it might happen) as through the subtle changes within a relationship or even the language used within a conversation.

Laura @ Dead Yesterday: At this time in particular, it’s cathartic to see good people stand up to liars and manipulators. Even outside of this context, however, The Unsuspected boasts a memorable villain and convincing relationships between the characters.

Martin Edwards: My problem with the story is that the scheme to unmask Grandison seemed to me to be totally hare-brained. Provided one can accept the premise, it’s an entertaining enough mystery, with an excellent climactic scene, and I’m not surprised that the book was made into a film, which starred Claude Rains and is sure to be worth watching. But I’m afraid it didn’t live up to my expectations, not least because there is little effort to characterise Grandison. He’s rather a two-dimensional baddie; Armstrong’s real focus is on the young people he torments.

12 thoughts on “#1017: The Unsuspected (1946) by Charlotte Armstrong

    • I’d be interested to see the film, if only because it’s quite widely accepted that it bears little relation to the book…and I can understand why. Be interesting to see which elements were carried over — plus, as you says, Rains is always a delight.

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  1. Hooray! Glad you enjoyed this one and that you are continuing to be an Armstrong fan. Which one do you think you will read next? Catch as Catch Can and Mischief are two other very good ones. After that I have run out of recommendations – perhaps you might unearth another one that I have not read yet!

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    • They have commonalities, unsurprisingly. Not that you’d obviously put them in the same bracket, but there are definitely elements of the writing of each which makes the other a good recommendation.

      Always bearing in mind, of course, that I’ve read a mere scintilla of what either author has put into the world.

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  2. I’m not a fan of modern book covers, but there’s something striking about this American Mystery Classics cover. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the story, as I’ll likely read it as my next Armstrong.

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    • Wasn’t a fan of the AMC branding at first, to be honest, but it’s really grown on me. The styling of the art is very eye-catching and collected together the books look wonderful.

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