Friday, December 07, 2012

FFB Review: "Mischief" by Charlotte Armstrong


Please welcome back Patrick Ohl for this installment of Friday's Forgotten Books......



Anyone who reads my blog regularly has, by now, noticed two things about me. First off, I’m positively insane. Second, whenever I get introduced to a new author and am very impressed with the book in question, I tend to go on a reading binge. I did this earlier in 2012 with Donald E. Westlake, devouring Dortmunder and Parker novels as though they were potato chips until I realized that I would soon run out of my supplies if I kept at it. But I just can’t learn my lesson, and I’m at serious risk of doing it again with the work of Charlotte Armstrong. The symptoms are all there, and I just got finished reading Armstrong’s novel Mischief.

In Mischief, Mr. and Mrs. Peter O. Jones are on their way to an important social function, where Mr. Jones is due to deliver a speech. They have to leave their daughter Bunny behind, and they planned to leave her at the hotel with Mr. Jones’ sister. But at the last moment, she cancels on them, and they’re forced to scramble around to find a replacement. Fortunately, an elevator operator named Eddie Munro hears of their plight and volunteers the services of his niece, Nell Munro. The Joneses are only too happy to accept Eddie’s offer, but something feels odd the instant Nell steps into room 807…

When they leave, Nell quickly puts Bunny to bed and soon, the mischief begins. It’s relatively harmless at first, as Nell tosses some papers around and does a mad dance of sorts. But then she begins to make malicious phone calls to random people in the phone book. But that’s only the beginning. Things go very wrong indeed when a stranger is lured into the hotel. One thing is certain: the Joneses should never have allowed Nell to babysit Bunny…

Mischief was originally published in 1950, but happily, it’s been brought back into digital print by The Mysterious Press, along with several of Armstrong’s novels. I can’t begin telling you how glad I am about this. Charlotte Armstrong was a supremely talented writer, capable of conjuring suspense out of thin air, creating memorable characters and perilous situations. I was aware that I was reading a work of fiction, but I felt a deep emotional investment in the entire story, and was on the edge of my seat throughout the book. It’s a short read, and that’s in its favour: the story unravels quickly and neatly.

But at the same time, Armstrong creates some truly memorable characters. I particularly liked the character of Jed Towers. He’s about to fly out of town to take up a new, important job, and so was spending potentially his last evening with Lyn Lesley. The date had an air of decisiveness around it: this would either make or break their relationship. Unfortunately, things get off to a bad start: when they are accosted by a beggar in the street, Jed walks away and drags Lyn along with him. This upsets Lyn, and they argue about just how much you can really trust other people. Jed argues that the beggar was probably quite comfortably off and didn’t need the money, while Lyn says that even if that were the case, she’d at least have felt better had Jed given the man some money. With a huff, the two separate, and Jed goes back to his hotel room… where, from his window, he looks into Room 807 and spies Nell Munro. He decides that, what the hell, he might as well flirt with her, and so he inadvertently gets sucked into a deadly game played between the insane Nell and the rest of the world.

It’s through Jed that Charlotte Armstrong weaves not only an intricate plot, but also fascinating themes through which she explores the human condition. Jed begins the evening as the cynical man-of-the-world, scoffing at Lyn’s naivetĂ©, but he himself is lured into a trap. He soon realizes that Nell is insane and must figure out a way of escaping her clutches without exposing little Bunny to the dangers of being left alone with this madwoman. But nothing quite works out, and everything slowly leads to a tense climax, where miscommunications, misunderstandings, and delays all add up to create a memorable conclusion to the novel. As much as I’d like to say more (both on the plot and the thematic levels), that would necessitate spoiling the ending… so instead, I recommend reading the book for yourself.

When Mischief was originally published, Anthony Boucher’s review for The New York Times stated that “Miss Armstrong is amazingly adroit at fusing action with character development, and at utilizing the most theatrical devices not only to thrill but to say something about Man and his world.” I can think of no better way to describe Charlotte Armstrong’s talent as a writer. Mischief is an extraordinary achievement, a short but sweet book full of tension. It’s one of those books that you must read for yourself to fully appreciate it. I, for one, highly recommend it, and can only scratch my head in amazement that Charlotte Armstrong could have fallen into obscurity.

Note: This book was made into a film, Don’t Bother to Knock, starring none other than Marilyn Monroe as Nell! I have not seen the movie but am interested in the idea. Monroe never entered my mind as a possible actress to portray Nell, but the idea of her playing an insane babysitter is too delightful for words. I might review the film on my blog in the future.

For more on how you can get Mischief as an e-book, visit this link from The Mysterious Press.



Patrick Ohl ©2012

At 19 years of age, Patrick Ohl has already read the complete works of Agatha Christie and has almost done the same with John Dickson Carr. His taste in mysteries is very comprehensive, including the intellectual challenges of John Rhode, the psychological suspense of Margaret Millar, and the violent world of master thief Parker. He currently plans to write his autobiography, tentatively entitled I can’t stand postmodernism, and to sell millions of copies worldwide, gain international fame and influence, and use this to get some attention for criminally neglected authors such as this one. His reviews can be found on his blog, At the Scene of the Crime.

9 comments:

Jerry House said...

Armstrong wrote magically and this book was no exception. Thanks, Patrick, for bringing the memories back.

Don't Bother To Knock is a movie well worth your time. Besides Marilyn, there are good performances by Richard Widmark, Anne Bancroft, Elisha Cook, and Jim Backus.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Kevin, Please keep us posted on Sandi's progress. Tell her she is in my prayers daily, as are you. Blessings on you two and your boys! You guys need a round of good luck.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

Thank you, Caroline.

And big time thanks again to Patrick Ohl for providing another great review for FFB.

LadyMuse said...

I really enjoyed reading this review and look forward to the book. Thanks for this!

Marilyn Levinson said...

Kevin,
I love Charlotte Armstrong's books. I never read Mischief. As I read your review, I was aware that the story never sounded outdated, though it was written some time ago.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

I have never read any of hers, Marilyn. the review is not mine. The review is from Patrick Ohl who has graciously started contributing reviews here.

Marian Allen said...

Terrific review, Patrick! I love Armstrong's books, but Mischief may be my favorite. Not one I can read often, though. As you say, it grabs your emotions and ties them into knots. Monroe didn't come to my mind as Nell, either, but as soon as I heard about it, I thought, PERFECT! Monroe is undervalued as a serious actress; I'll bet she nailed the part!

Marian Allen
Fantasies, mysteries, comedies, recipes

Jake said...

Thank you for refreshing our memory.

Patrick said...

I'm very pleased that so many people have commented on this review. It was a pleasure to read, and I'm glad to see people agree with me on the book's merits!