Thursday, September 25, 2014

Suspense is on the Line: Night Call (2014), by Charlotte Armstrong

Since I  last blogged two years ago about mid-century American crime writer Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969)--see here and here--she was anthologized in Sarah Weinman's well-received and much-publicized book, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. Now another notable Charlotte Armstrong publishing event has occurred: the publication, by Douglas Greene's Crippen & Landru press, of the third, and presumably final, collection of Charlotte Armstrong short fiction: Night Call and Other Stories of Suspense.

During her lifetime Armstrong published two short fiction collections: The Albatross (1957) and I See You (1966); a third collection, composed of pieces that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the 1960s, probably would have followed in the 1970s had not Armstrong passed away from cancer at the age of 64 in 1969 (it's sad to think we missed possibly two decades more of original fiction writing from this gifted author).

Crippen & Landru's Night Call collects these works, which had never appeared in book form, plus two previously unpublished pieces. This makes a total of thirteen short stories--one a short short--and two novelettes.

Thirteen of the pieces appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in the 1960s--editor Fredric Dannay was a great fan of Armstrong--and, as stated, two of the pieces, a short story and a novelette, have never before been published. Night Call's editors, Rick Cypert and Kirby McCauley, have divided the book into four sections: Younger Female Protagonists, Older Female Protagonists, Male Protagonists and Novelettes.

Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969)
My favorite of the short story groupings is the section that concerns the "older women protagonists." One of these tales, "The Splintered Monday," about an old woman who solves a domestic murder in her family, is included in Weinman's anthology.  The two in this section I had not read before are "The Case for Miss Peacock" and "The Cool Ones."

Writer Kevin Killian has memorably dubbed Armstrong's wise elderly women her "Norns." They are indomitable women who invariably surmount the various crises thrown into their lives in Armstrong's tales.

In "The Case for Miss Peacock," the protagonist of the title is an older woman living alone in diminished circumstances but quiet dignity.  When she is accused of having robbed a lingerie store she must prove her alibi to an investigating policeman.  In the course of this excursion we learn much about Miss Peacock, just as she learns much about herself and the way the world sees her.  This is the essence of Armstrong in her mature years: gently humorous and life-affirming.  In tone I was reminded quite a bit of her classic, Edgar award-winning suspense novel, A Dram of Poison (1956).

"The Cool Ones" is more overtly dramatic, in that it deals with the kidnapping of an elderly woman and her efforts to save herself from the certain death that awaits her after her ransom is paid.  The theme of this suspenseful tale is the affinity between grandparents and grandchildren.  Old Mrs. Finney knows it is her grandson who can save her, if she can only leave him the right clues....This fine story was published in 1967, at the height of talk about "the generation gap." Here it isn't grandparents who are clueless about young people, but middle-aged parents.

contemplating the foibles of man?
"The Light Next Door" is included in the "male protagonists" section. It's a tale of suburban suspense that focuses on a man and his Dalmatian dog, Miggs (personally, I think Miggs is the real protagonist).

The editors note that Armstrong's books have been dubbed "suburban noir"; yet as is so often case, I think that here the term "noir," while no doubt important-sounding, is inapt.  Armstrong's work doesn't seem to me to have noir's requisite bleakness. To be sure, there is bleakness in "The Light Next Door," but there is also a redemptive image left flickering at the end.

This is another fine story, dealing with that classic scenario of a couple who begins to suspect that there is something odd going on with their neighbors (a middle-aged man, a former widower, and his new bride).  It cleverly updates Gothic motifs to suburban California in 1969.  Had it been published earlier in the 1960s, one might have seen it televised on the series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Of the stories with "younger female protagonists" I liked best "From out of the Garden," another tale that draws on Gothic tropes (especially the work of Edgar Allan Poe). However, in contrast with then-popular (1968) neo-Gothics, Armstrong takes the relationship between the young woman--an intrepid journalist investigating the long-ago disappearance of a wife--and the brooding, middle-aged man in the gloomy, old house in rather a different direction....

Night Call's two novelettes occupy  a third of the book's 300 pages; happily both are very good tales. "The Second Commandment," about a minister suspected of murder when his wealthy, decade-older bride falls to her death over the edge of a cliff, is a quite moving story that uses the occasion of sudden death to probe deeper spiritual issues about the human condition.

The previously unpublished "Man in the Road" is a real find: a fully-developed mystery "situation" about a career woman, Hallie White, returning home to visit the small desert town she left behind years ago, who in the early morning hours on a deserted road outside town hits a man darting in front of her car, by a store building called "The Rock Shop."


When after reporting the accident Hallie returns to the scene with the police, they find a dead man; and some in the town are soon muttering that Hallie is a hit-and-run killer. This tale is more a full-fledged detective story--and a real winner of one at that.  In addition to the interesting mystery, there is a richly-developed small-town atmosphere and a pleasing heroine with an appealing love interest in her old grade-school sweetheart, now a cop.

With its previous collections of short fiction by Margaret Millar and Vera Caspary--stories from both these collections, incidentally, are found in Weinman's recent anthology--Crippen & Landru had already made an important contribution to the field of mid-century women's crime fiction.  That contribution has become even more profound with Charlotte Armstrong's Night Call.  If you liked Sarah Weinman's Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, you should definitely consider picking up Night Call.  It is available in paperback and hardback, the latter an especially well-fashioned edition.

Note: Also included in the book are an Afterword about Charlotte Armstrong by her son Jerry Lewi and a bibliography of Armstrong's published short fiction, serialized novels and novels.

Also note other Crippen & Landru volumes reviewed at The Passing Tramp:
The Casebook of Jonas P. Jonas (2012), by Elizabeth Ferrars

More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2006), by Edward D. Hoch
Banner Deadlines (2004), by Joseph Commings

13 comments:

  1. I just did a short review of this one for my column in the holiday issue of MYSTERY SCENE. Very entertaining stories.

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    1. Bill, thanks for "stopping by." I look forward to seeing your review!

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  2. Curt, great review of a great new book. (Yes, I am an Armstrong partisan of course.) Cypert and McCauley have done a beautiful job of putting together a number of the uncollected stories published in EQMM over the years. I don't know if this is the book that Armstrong would have herself put out. Those who have read it know how dramatically "I See You" differs from "The Albatross," and basically it's that she chose to include mostly "straight" stories, work outside the genre of suspense and mystery. And the mystery stories included in it I sometimes wonder if she was forced into putting them in—with all the riches at her disposal, why pad out I SEE YOU with repeats from THE ALBATROSS? I think she wanted to do a "seven ages of man" book and they made her appeal to her core audience.

    So if she was given her head for a third book, I think she might have gotten her way and done a book that would have been genre-free.

    The present book is one I want to review myself, but for now I just want to add that “and presumably final” in your opening paragraph is premature, thank goodness. Among the remaining uncollected, yet published material are two long 50s stories better than anything Cypert and McCauley print in Night Call, while anyone who has visited the Charlotte Armstrong papers in Boston will attest that there are at least a dozen terrific, and mysteriously unpublished stories which might have made the cut. I’m hoping that this book does well and that Cypert and McCauiey, who are probably holding back these gems for a sequel, will give the world of “domestic suspense” exactly what it wants. For now, this new book Night Call is a wonderful boon, he book of the year..

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    1. That's very interesting, Kevin, I'll have to ask Doug about this. I had no idea from this book that there were *additional* unpublished stories. I agree that frequently Armstrong seems to be straining at the "crime fiction" limitation. Tales like "The Case for Miss Peacock" and "The Second Commandment" have crime but really seem to be moving into mainstream lit territory.

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    2. By the way, Kevin, what are the two long 1950s stories?

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  3. Oh, this may have to be found: for some reason I don't get on all that well with Armstrong's novels, but her shorter fiction is another kettle of fish.

    That said, the prospect of a new Armstrong collection is entirely outshone by your mention of a Margaret Millar collection. Lead me to it.

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    1. It's The People Next Door. You;ll find it on Amazon! Love Millar too!

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  4. Sounds great Curt - can this now be ordered through the C&L site because it seemed to be having huge problems at one point?

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    1. I understand you can order it direct, Sergio.

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  5. Curt, thank you, and please keep me informed when you speak to Doug. I'd edit the book myself if Cypert and McCauley have had their fill of CA!

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  6. This sounds very interesting, especially the novelettes. I don't get on too well with short stories, and I have to work on learning to enjoy those.

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    1. Tracy, the one novelette especially is 56 pages and definitely reads like a reduced novel.

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