Perilous Discoveries: The Feminist Murder-Mysteries of Charlotte Armstrong

Armstrong's women opened the same forbidden doors as Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth's, but her characters also opened those doors for other, more pressing, reasons.

When author Charlotte Armstrong passed away in 1969, she left behind a volume of work that, at the time, had received the kind of accolades coveted by most writers. Having been the recipient of the Edgar award (the highest honour amongst mystery writers everywhere) and nominated for five more, it would seem as though Armstrong should have reached a level of notoriety that would have earned her a wider readership. And yet, for all her prolificacy, her work barely occupied even the most marginal corner of the literary community.

Very little, in fact, is known about the author’s life; born in 1905, Michigan, Armstrong managed to write continuously for 30 years, quietly and studiously working right up until her death. In the years that spanned her career, she earned the praises of Anthony Boucher, had her work adapted for film and, perhaps, created in her stories some of the very first anti-heroines who predated the brink of the feminist movement. Armstrong’s stories dealt with women of all ages, who often found themselves at the behest of a looming mystery that had surfaced in the unassuming quarters of bourgeoisie life.

Armstrong began writing plays at the start of her career, her first one (The Happiest Days) was published in 1939. Unsatisfied with the medium, the aspiring novelist switched over to murder-mysteries and found success with her first book, Lay on Mac Duff! The novel’s protagonist, a would-be detective and former history professor curiously named MacDougal Duff, would also be featured in the two novels that followed her debut. Intended to be a full series featuring the detective, those plans, for reasons unknown, were aborted and Armstrong began work on mysteries that featured women, young and old, as amateur sleuths. The plots of her novels, at times, became increasingly complex while she plumbed the deep psychological depths of human behaviour, often challenging the status quo on women of the time.

The Unsuspected would mark Armstrong’s break from her Duff series, and she would begin to explore the world of the kept woman. The novel passed by with little notice but the author kept a momentum of women-centric motifs going strong in further work. The Chocolate Cobweb, a far more successful work, contemplated the ideas of women in power in the male-dominated workforce. It also explored the age-old theme of rivalry between women, exposing the subversive dimensions of jealousy and hatred that sometimes fall between the generational gaps.

In the story, a young girl imposes herself on a wealthy family once she learns that a mix-up at the hospital when she was born nearly landed her a place in the family of a famous painter. The second wife of the painter, an heir to a fortune from a lucrative and successful chocolate company, starts plotting the young girl’s murder in order to ensure that she will not threaten the family fortune by unrightfully inheriting any money. Armstrong explores an age-disparity dynamic that sheds light on the struggles in the social class demographics. In no way a whodunit (Iona, the second wife, is revealed to be the culprit from the start), the author subtly draws upon the misrepresentations of power between gender and class as a catalyst to examine the ways in which upper class women view their role within the familial and workplace infrastructures. The men stand on the sidelines and watch as their constitutions of patriarchal ideology are torn apart by the two embattling women.

French film director Claude Chabrol used The Chocolate Cobweb for the basis of his 2000 film Merci pour le chocolat (re-titled for the American market as Nightcap). Chabrol’s minimalist version of the story pared back much of the mystery elements in favour of the deeper psychological shadings and subtext. In the film adaptation, the role of Iona (renamed Mika and played by the supremely composed Isabelle Huppert) is stripped of the personal motives that initiate the murderous cycle. Instead, Chabrol chooses to play out the more understated dynamics of Armstrong’s narrative, focusing on the female pathologies that exist within the familial structures of bourgeoisie societies. Chabrol wisely tunes into Armstrong’s admirable practice of genre deconstruction, wherein she forgoes the usual cycles of the mystery-plot and, instead, explores the impetus of murderous desires. Chabrol’s reading of Armstrong’s technique is fairly pronounced in his film version; it is a mystery-film in which the real mysteries are the characters themselves.

Armstrong would find other facets of the woman to examine in her other works. Mischief, another chilling psychological study on social status and mental illness, explores the sexual dynamics of gender. Here, a woman’s sexuality is both the weapon with which she will use to target men and also the noose with which she will hang herself. A craftily-sketched study on the ways female sexuality, when misappropriated by both sexes, can beget dangerous consequences once social barriers have been obfuscated, Mischief handles the emotional readings of a damaged woman with sincerity and sympathy.

Armstrong’s story of a sensually-aware, young woman hired one night to babysit a little girl in a hotel, is complicated by the darker terrors that emerge as a result of the woman’s mental illness. Finding a sensitive counterpoint between the spine-chilling plot-points of a routine thriller and the empathetic reading of its touchy subject matter, Armstrong achieves a textured evaluation on the deeply-embedded feminist ideologies within suspense-thriller conventions. Nell, the disturbed babysitter, is no mere villain; rather, she represents a matriarchal distortion of the perceived common traits of women and motherhood.

Armstrong reconfigures much of the feminine ideals of the time (the novel was written and published in 1951) and redresses the issues of female sexuality, reassessing and revising the roles of victim and victimizer. A superb adaptation of the film (featuring an uncharacteristic and nuanced performance by Marilyn Monroe, no less) was released just a year later, following the novel’s publication. It retains the darkness of its literary counterpart; the psychosexual readings further articulated in Monroe’s sensual interpretation of the role.

Often in Armstrong’s novels, women are working within the constraints of a Had-I-But-Known subgenre of mystery fiction; these stories are not too concerned with whodunit but, rather, the foils of a situation that lead to murder. Women, here, are of the commonplace sort; middle-class, habitual and generally, to begin with, clueless. But the author uses her characters as mere templates; feminist designs to be shaded in gradually with the acumen afforded by trial and experience. In particular, Armstrong structures her women as tools to deconstruct the patriarchal systems that stretch as far as the political conceits of governmental machinations to the idyllic neighbourhoods of middle-class suburbia. In these literary landscapes, women are designed in a two-fold conception of personal growth and retuned behaviours; a young woman’s naivety is tested by a hiccup (a murder, perhaps) that interrupts some routine in her mundane agenda.

Later, complications of the resulting drama and the ensuing troubles will redefine the principles of women existing within the schematics of male-oppressed societal spheres. Murder is the afterthought; self-insurgency is the objective.

Such is the case with The Turret Room (1965). In the novel, social-worker Edie Thompson, living with her extended family, invites a dishevelled young man into her family home one night. He claims to be the estranged husband of her cousin and that he has come back to see his child. Pieces of the story don’t seem to add up; however, Edie decides to take him in and hides him from the rest of the family when it comes to her attention that they believe he is responsible for the murder of her aunt. Edie, for some reason, doesn’t believe her family’s side of the story and must contend with keeping the young man a secret (hiding him in the unused turret room) while she tries to uncover the truth.

Edie, who’s been orphaned since childhood, has always been at the mercy of her wealthy extended family, who look upon Edie with antipathy and a begrudging sense of moral duty. The young woman soon finds herself locked in a battle of wills with the head of household, a blundering, trigger-happy manchild, and the local sheriff, a self-righteous and pitiless woman-hater. Armstrong carefully lays out the emotional blueprints of the familial dilemma; Edie is a confident young woman earning her own keep, yet relies on the home and shelter of her unsympathetic and intolerant family. The author makes a clear divide here, pitting Edie and her burgeoning feminist ideals up against a backwards and regressive family. But Armstrong also obscures the line within Edie, the one laid between her unwavering ideas of women and power and an enduring maternal bond with the man she’s assigned herself to protect. As Armstrong pointedly essays, Edie must work through her internalized notions of gender ideals, giving in to the traditionalist principles of male-female relations before she can assert an independently woman-centric system of belief.

In other words, Edie must offer herself as a victim to her family and allow for the subjugation of the female sex in order to protect her charge. Once the maternal bond has been established and chaptered, Edie takes up the emotional and mental battles, which activate and establish the feminist convictions within her; Armstrong presents Edie as a transitional body of ideas, ideas that both bridge and divide an era of gender ideology. The Turret Room, published in 1965 at the dawn of the second wave feminist movement in North America, outlines the struggles between ideologies that produced a shift and interstitial gap of beliefs and cultures. Armstrong’s understated shading of Edie relays a sense of 50s-era domestic complacency that Edie can’t seem to shake off until it clashes with the autonomy of inner city life. The suburban housewife syndrome of upper crust living, internalized throughout the years growing up as a child in the ’50s, is upended through her years away from suburban seclusion after living in the city as a social worker. In this way, Armstrong also points a caustic (and cautious) finger at Middle American suburbia as the culprit responsible for Edie’s oppression. Acutely aware of the mechanisms of mystery-fiction, Armstrong also entwines Edie’s struggle for equilibrium with the deducing of a conventional mystery-plot; the tension of isolating and uncovering the murderer is paralleled with Edie’s self-actualization as a grown, independent woman.

Ideas of equalizing gender-relation imbalances surface again In The Gift Shop (1967), an Edgar-nominated novel that involves kidnapping, extortion and espionage. More of a caper than an actual mystery, Armstrong utilizes the adventure-story plot in order to play up male and female stereotypes typical of the genre. Using this ploy, Armstrong imbues her leading character, Jean, an intrepid young girl, with a thirst for excitement. Jean works at the airport gift shop where she meets Harry, an obnoxious young heir who convinces her to accompany him on a search for a toy piggy bank containing a pertinent clue to a kidnapping that involves his family. Jean agrees and their search takes them across the globe.

A tedious unfolding of the plot gradually reveals Harry’s ineptitude in procuring information, leaving the duties to Jean. Armstrong plays the two off one another, each character matching one gender-ideology for another, with Jean having to occasionally unravel or redirect the mess made by Harry on the account of his chauvinistic sense of entitlement. Their budding romance almost seems like an ironic observation of Jean’s emergent individuation. Gradually, Jean’s realization that challenge and threat are the necessary implements for her transformation into an empowered young woman, that her nearly symbiotic relationship with her male companion is the springboard for her feminist awakening, expatiates on Armstrong’s two-fold conception of female individuation. That the novel falls flat as a mystery-thriller (expository information supersedes much of the action) is, perhaps, to the detriment of its thematic properties. With action sequences lagging, Jean’s ascent to empowerment is rather stilted. Nevertheless, Armstrong achieves in her leading lady a sort of dignified elevation of strength; the need for routine constituents of hero-worship in popular fiction is dismissed (or subdued) in favour of a thoughtful reproach on the mostly male-dominated genre of espionage fiction.

Far more successful, perhaps, is Armstrong’s final novel, The Protégé, published posthumously in 1970. Dealing with a septuagenarian living alone in her country house, the author now discusses the issues affecting older women in the twilight of their years. Mrs. Moffat, a widow living alone in a quiet, idyllic town, takes in a shy and mysterious young drifter she meets in church one morning. Over the course of a few weeks, the drifter soon insinuates himself into the elderly woman’s life, much to the consternation of her visiting granddaughter, Zan, who regards the stranger with suspicion. Mrs. Moffat, choosing to accept the possibility that the young drifter might indeed be dangerous, ignores the pleas of her granddaughter to rid the household of him. Instead, Mrs. Moffat invites the threat of danger into her home, allowing the young man to supplant the role of her own son, who mysteriously disappeared years before.

Armstrong explores feminist views from the point of middle age and beyond, pointing a critical finger at the disparities existing with the dynamics of feminism. Zan, a strong-willed businesswoman who regards infirmity as laziness, views her grandmother’s coddling of the drifter as the beginnings of senility. Believing her grandmother to be an unworldly pushover with little understanding of men, Zan forcefully pressures her grandmother into letting the drifter go. Mrs. Moffat, in fact, has already figured out that the drifter is not who he claims to be. Zan’s belief that her grandmother’s generation has very little to say about the changing times for women has Mrs. Moffat testing the beliefs of both herself and Zan.

It would seem that Mrs. Moffat has a lot to prove by keeping the drifter around, if only to re-establish a sense of self and redress Zan’s disobliging attitudes toward the generational gap that has set the two women both psychologically and emotionally apart. Armstrong makes a subtle though clearly felt statement on how feminist ideals and ideas can only work and be understood within the generation of which they were created, how certain ideals outgrow themselves when surrounding attitudes change. Once again, the contraptions of the mystery-narrative are strictly consigned to character; Armstrong allows the plot to meander and places the entire focus on Mrs. Moffat and her relationships with the drifter and Zan, espousing the deeper psychology working beneath the story. The Protégé is successful in its attempt to obliterate unreliable feminist archetypes by delivering a fully textured and nuanced reading of the very human conditions that have informed the best of female-centric fiction. Here, Armstrong outlines carefully the hypocrisy of certain feminist ideals that have elevated some women to positions of power and have neglected others entirely.

By today’s standards, Armstrong’s finely-tuned and mannered style of writing is considered antiquated; the writer deals with a mainly impressionistic technique that precipitates much of the allegorical concepts buried in the foundations of her work. There’s a form to her prose that is highly articulated through a knowing humour. As much as the author references the conditions and issues surrounding women of her time, her writing is, as well, self-referential, commenting on the very comments to be made on the ideas of women and their world, the narratives in which they inhabit. As a mystery writer, Armstrong used the genre to explore mysteries beyond the physical world; human behaviour and desires were among the two most explored inner enigmas that the author expanded upon.

Her best-known and possibly greatest work,A Dram of Poison, for which she received the Edgar award in 1957, examined the motives and actions based on social judgement. There are no outright vicious murders here, but rather the consequences of a sad (though dangerous) mistake. In A Dram of Poison, a poisoned bottle of olive oil, concocted in a moment of suicidal despair, is accidentally left behind on a bus. The deadly bottle soon has a charming group of people coming together in a race to retrieve it before any harm can be done. One of Armstrong’s few works that does not place sole focus on the female psyche, A Dram of Poison offers an intelligent and stirring analysis of a young man’s mind, incisively documented from a female writer’s point of view. In place of the dethroned misogyny that would feature in her later works, there is a sincere understanding of male attitudes towards love and desire. Armstrong levels out all emotional playing fields here, offering a moving conjecture on the reasons why men and woman cannot always seem to get along. A Dram of Poison doesn’t sting with the nasty vitriol of murder; it probes the mind with the riddles of gender.

Why Armstrong’s novels have never left the indelible impression that the works of her fellow female mystery-writers have may be the biggest mystery surrounding her. Like many authors of her ilk, Armstrong’s women were fearless investigators of their environments, digging for clues, crossing boundaries and generally engaging in what was considered a “man’s work”. But her characters were more than just women combating the realms of male-dominated environs; they also re-envisioned the roles that were designed by women writers like Armstrong herself. Her women opened the same forbidden doors to the same cellars that the women in the stories of Agatha Christie and Patricia Wentworth did, scavenging the deep, dark depths of a mystery for some decisive clue. But Armstrong’s characters also opened doors for other reasons; widening the shafts on the predicaments of their intrinsic mysteries, their inner worlds were just as much up for cross-examination as were the murdering fiends of the author’s tales.

Promotional photo of Charlotte Armstrong
from G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Armstrong knew, in essence, that her stories were only as good as the women leading them. Refusing to succumb to patriarchal misogyny, a woman’s personal discoveries amidst the murder and mayhem in Armstrong’s stories were perils that befit the nature of the crimes she was embroiled in. These discoveries, in some minor way, collapsed, reformed and then reinvented an entire thought-process on the social culture of women living and working throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. And while the author’s works continue to recede into the farthest reaches of popular fiction’s margins, they still hold the power to challenge and entertain the dangerous ideas in the texts, at once laid to rest and still restless. If opening a forbidden door in Armstrong’s gentrified world of inquisitive women was, indeed, a perilous discovery, it was also revealing – and revolutionary – nonetheless.