|Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969)|
After writing three detective novels between 1942 and 1945, Armstrong broke this mold with The Unsuspected (1946), a suspense tale much celebrated in its day, as was Mischief (1951), which followed five years later (both of these novels were quickly adapted into films).
Sometimes Armstrong seemed to strain so hard against genre boundaries that she burst them, producing what more properly can be seen, in my view, as so-called mainstream fiction.
To me, Armstrong's keen insight into the follies of humankind--justly recognized in A Dram of Poison--is her most remarkable quality as a writer. This quality also is found in Armstrong's last novel, The Protege, which was posthumously published in 1970.
Armstrong's late 60s/early 70s paperback publisher, Fawcett, tried rather desperately to shoehorn The Protege into the traditional suspense novel formulation, writing breathlessly on the back cover:
Then both women watched with dawning horror as a bizarre scheme unfolded--a scheme to revive the past terror they thought they could forget....
Such purple prose notwithstanding, nothing in The Protege is lurid or even really that terrifying. But the novel is still quite worthwhile.
There is suspense in The Protege, though readers will be clear about most of the back plot rather early on (there is one very nice twist, however--not original, but I'm pleased to admit I missed it coming).
Admittedly, I found Mrs. Moffatt's granddaughter-in-law, Zan, who provides a still requisite love interest, less interesting--was Armstrong finding highly opinionated young people tiresome at this point, near the end of her life?
I finished Armstrong's (short) novel in one evening, not because of the horror and terror provoked by any bizarre scheme, but simply because I wanted to see how things would work out for these two compellingly presented people. The Protege is a worthy addition to Charlotte Armstrong long line of superbly humanistic novels, call them whatever genre you will!
Note: Thirteen Charlotte Armstrong novels, including A Dram of Poison, are now available in eBook form from Mysterious Press. See also Ed Gorman on Armstrong in 2007.