Quite some time ago, I was made a very generous gift of a random selection of old Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines and anthologies and, aside from the odd story, they’ve sat largely unread on my shelves since. Well, no more. From today, they will (probably) make regular appearances on The Invisible Event where longer or notable entries are concerned.
First up, from Ellery Queen’s 1964 Anthology, is A Gun is a Nervous Thing, a.k.a. Ride with the Executioner (1955), a “short novel” by Charlotte Armstrong, whose two novel-length stories I’ve read to date have each been completely superb. And while the claim on the cover above that this volume represents “A Who’s Who of Whodunnits” isn’t inaccurate, it should be noted that we’re squarely in Suspense territory here — not even an inverted mystery, but a straight up ‘someone is taken hostage while others search to find them’ which does very good work in keeping the tension high and the considerations interesting given that it doesn’t vary much in its setup and approach for the approximate 15,000 words of its duration.
The start is a little lumpy, and it’s a shame that Armstrong, or her editor, didn’t trim perhaps the opening 200 words from this, since it lays everything bare right from the off where a little more — for want of a better word — mystery would make the setup more arresting.
“Woman says her husband beat her up after their kid was shot. Says he’s out gunning for the boy’s teacher now — thinks she let him die.”
You have to admire Armstrong’s economy: Martin Mariot, rising early one morning to go hunting with friends, left a loaded gun behind which his 9 year-old son Danny found, took into school, and, in demonstrating his belief that it wasn’t loaded, shot himself with. Eve Ames, the teacher present to witness the shooting, was unable to save the boy’s life and now Martin Mariot, bent out of shape with grief and shame, has transferred all his anger onto the women who surround him: his wife for not getting up to see Danny off to school, having risen at 3 a.m. to cook her husband breakfast before his trip, and Eve Ames for, as he sees it, delaying the calling of a doctor and so allowing Danny to die.
In fairly short order, almost quicker than I’m telling it here, Armstrong establishes that Eve is getting counsel from the school’s elderly headmistress Frances Connor, having told her gentleman friend Geoffrey Taggart that that’s where she won’t be going, and so when the announcement is made over the radio that Martin Mariot is out gunning for Eve she must get to a phone to let the police know where she is. And so, of course, the first person she encounters is Martin Mariot who, never being one to attend PTA meetings, confuses her for Frances Connor and insists that she, Eve, drive him around to track down Miss Ames.
His brain, Eve divined, was running smoothly and freely, separate from his broken heart… She’d better be careful. He was terribly dangerous, she knew.
The story is, then, essentially a three-hander: one thread concerning Eve and Martin Mariot driving around, as the former does what she can to alert people to her situation without giving away her identity — known by so many in the small town — to the man who is seeking to kill her; a second thread concerns Geoffrey Taggart and Frances Connor coming to the realisation that all is not well and trying to do what they can to help; and the third concerns the police, in the person of Lieutenant Lord, trying to make sense of the few hints they’re able to pick up on and secure both Eve’s safety and Martin Mariot’s arrest. And…things play out pretty much as you’d expect, but the telling of this, while not quite of the top-drawer suspense that Armstrong mined in The Chocolate Cobweb (1948), certainly helps the pages fly past in a never-less-than-compelling tale that hits all the anticipated notes in a most pleasing way.
The majority of the story, of course, belongs to Eve as she tries to leave sufficient clues for others to piece together, at the same time trying to appear on the side of the man who is seeking her out to kill her. And, as my limited experience of Armstrong has led me to expect, there’s a fair amount of intelligence behind her protagonist’s actions, leaving “a whole series of little points of contact that would connect [so that] sooner or later the police would know”. Equally pleasing, however, is the little ways these schemes go wrong: someone failing to recognise a nickname, someone else stealing the wallet she deliberately drops on the ground. The agonies Armstrong puts you through are all the more keenly felt for how realistic their failure feels.
And throughout all of this we have the surprising humanisation of Martin Mariot as he sits by Eve’s side, his gun hidden in bandages she wraps around his hand, his unknowable state of mind illuminated by Eve’s own hopeful reflections on this killer-to-be:
He was on vacation from tension, on detour from his own drive to destruction. She felt a pang of pity and a pang of hope. Sometimes an assumed attitude solidifies and becomes a real one. As a forced smile in a fit of blue starts the low mood swinging away.
What I particularly liked about Eve was that her sense of tragedy at Danny Mariot’s death comes from more than just the standard boilerplate at the death of a child, tragic though that obviously is, and widens to include both sympathy for the father who is desperate not to face his own culpability and a sense of regret at how the death might well be packaged in the town:
“The things that bothers me…is that Danny was a bit of a bully. The children were a little afraid of him. Now every parent in town is going to be saying, ‘See what happens to wicked little boys,’ and I wish — I wish the whole thing weren’t going to seem to the children exactly like the villain getting his just deserts at the end of the program.”
It’s in taking the time to acknowledge considerations like these that Armstrong’s simple tale is elevated. It’s still not a classic for the ages, and at times you feel the restrictions in the word count, like in the sole piece of characterisation dropped on Lieutenant Lord so completely out of the clear blue sky that you feel it’s even a shock to him, but Armstrong shows a keen grasp of psychology in the little moments of cavilling which Eve allows herself — her disdain when Mariot suggests she might be found in a local greasy spoon café is actually quite funny — and clearly knows the woman at the centre of the melee very well indeed.
Other characters don’t come out of this so well — you have to feel a little sorry for Geoffrey Taggart in the closing stages, especially when the agonies he’s gone through are so keenly related…
Neither of them had enjoyed their ride out into the canyon, where beside any fence post, horror might hide against the ground. Horror might wait in the car, for all they knew, parked, abandoned.
…but it’s pleasing, and apt, that salvation comes from the quarter it does, and is communicated again with such a tight eye on the little character wrinkles which make so much more than just names on a page out of the people who populate fiction (“[And he] was help, was strength, was wisdom.”). Having killed a child in the opening pages you’d imagine the outcome here might be more uncertain, but I don’t think, for all her excellent insight into the darker side of life, Armstrong had the streak of nihilism found in the likes of Jim Thompson and Anthony Berkeley to end this any way other than how it does close out. And while the sense of inevitability doesn’t put you through the wringer as magnificently as the unbearably tense finale to The Unsuspected (1946) did, there’s much to be gained in taking a moment to consider just how many actual people you encountered in the pages you’ve just read.
Good stuff, this, and boding well for future encounters with Armstrong — of which I hope I will have many.
2 thoughts on “#1050: Teacher Knows Best in A Gun is a Nervous Thing, a.k.a. Ride with the Executioner (1955) by Charlotte Armstrong”
What you describe kind of reminds me of the one Armstrong novel that I’ve read: A Dram of Poison. It’s in no way a mystery, falling more into the suspense category, and where it’s headed seems inevitable about midway through the story. And yet, damn, it was a fun read.
Armstrong has pulled out a couple of fabulous reversals in the novels I’ve read, and so the straight ahead nature of this one is a little different…but it’s good suspense writing, which makes all the difference.