Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Protege (1970), by Charlotte Armstrong

Between 1942 and 1970 nearly thirty Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) novels were published.  Most of these are categorized as "tales of suspense."  I've taken a special interest in Armstrong's work ever since I found out that she lived in Glendale, California the same time as my grandmother, who was six years older than Armstrong and moved out there from Amarillo, Texas after my grandfather died.  I like to think that maybe they came across each other grocery shopping or something!

Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969)
Charlotte Armstrong is of historical importance in the crime and mystery genre as one of the women writers--along with, for example, Margaret Milllar, Ursula Curtiss, Shelley Smith and Celia Fremlin--who moved away from the traditional tale of detection to the modern thriller, or psychological suspense novel, where the interest is in the why rather than the who or how, in what will happen rather than whodunit (Jeffrey Marks writes about some of these women authors, including Armstrong, in his Atomic Renaissance, while Rick Cypert has written a critical study of Armstrong, The Virtue of Suspense.)

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.

Her Edgar award winning novel A Dram of Poison (1956), about a bottle of poison that inadvertently gets left on a bus, can't really be called a crime novel as I see it (there is really no intended crime to speak of)--though it certainly is suspenseful (and it was marketed as "a novel of suspense").  Rather, I find it simply a marvelously humanistic tale about the foibles of men and women.

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).

What really makes the novel stand out, in my view, is that the reader is quite drawn into the plights of the two main characters: the old California widow, Mrs. Moffatt; and the visiting young man, the son of her former next door neighbors he says, who comes to stay in Mrs. Moffatt's old gardener's cottage.

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.


  1. I don't think DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK (the movie version of Mischief) is middling at all. I have the book, but I've never read it. Is the movie more histrionic than the book? Monroe is impressive in a kind of role I wish she did more of. Only in NIAGARA does she reveal a more disturbed version of the femme fatale.

    I tore through a pile of Armstrong's books when I was much younger. They impressed me a lot. A DRAM OF POISON still stays with me to this day. It was utterly terrifying to me to imagine an olive jar filled with poison left on a bus just waiting for anyone to pick it up. And this was long before the days of tainted Tylenol and toothpaste scares. THE DREAM WALKER is another of my favorites.

    That none of Armstrong's books have been reprinted since IPL reissued some of her book s back in the '80s is a real crime. That her books were reprinted by Paperback Library and Lancer as "Gothic suspense" potboilers, complete with the standard cover art of a nightgown wearing woman running in terror from the forboding house with one light on in the upstairs window, is not only a disservice to the actual content of her books but an utter insult.

  2. John, I must confess I saw the film back in the 1990s, so am so for a revisit.

    At least on the Fawcett paperback above, the "girl" is not wandering around in her nightgown. I do love those nightgown at midnight covers, though, you're right, they do a disservice to a writer like Armstrong. I'm not dissing the Gothic genre (some Gothics are very good), but a novel like The Protege just doesn't fit that category at all. Armstrong was trying to do other things besides chill spines (not that there's anything wrong with having one's spine chilled).

    WHY are all those young women wandering around the lawns of Gothic mansions at midnight, under the light of the moon? Are they somnambulists? Fresh air fiends? Some really should do a book on the late 60s early 70s Gothic paperback madness. Was it simply inspired by Dark Shadows? I can barely remember that show, I do recall my older sister and her preteen friends were in love with it though.

    1. I'm at work on a multi-part post on the origins of the Gothic craze. I'm afraid I'm not up to a book length venture. Virginia Coffman seems to be the writer who started it all. There were others who came before her in the late 40s and early 50s, but she really tapped into the old 17th century formula created by Radcliffe, Walpole and others and made it modern *and* believable.

    2. I always liked the definition of Gothic I read in Bill Pronzini's Gun in Cheek:

      "A story about a woman who buys a house"

    3. Didn't he say it was about a girl who GETS the house? I thought it was a joke modeled on the cliche "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl" romance plot.

    4. We'll have to check! Goodness knows where my copy is right now though.

      I always thought it was funny, because it's so true, the woman gets a house and disaster ensues. If she'd just gone with a nice modern apartment nothing would have happened.

      In a Gothic she usually gets the boy too, though, right? In the classic Eberhart construction, she has two choices, one whom will be the nice boy, the other the murderer or just a right plain stinker.

  3. I agree with John regarding DON'T BOTHER TO KNOCK. THE UNSUSPECTED is fine too - Michael Curtiz at the top of his game, and Claude Rains delivering one of his creepiest performances.

    I don't get why Armstrong is so neglected nowadays. She was, after all, one of the earliest writers to "transcend the genre" in the good and best meaning of that dubious expression.

  4. Sounds like the consensus is I need to go back and watch both these films soon! Both are available on DVD now, so easily done....Xavier, wasn't there a French film made from one of her books?

    Yes, the critical neglect of Armstrong, Millar, Curtis, Smith and Fremlin is odd. Highsmith gets all the focus among female psychological crime writers. She grittier, but all these others are fascinating themselves in my view.

    1. Smith can be gritty, too. The Party at No. 5 is pretty nasty stuff. Would the book have been more lauded and known if the characters had been young men? If it had been, it would have been no different than one of the Ripley books, I think. There's an idea for a revamped movie in the making! For her take on male villains try Smith's The Crooked Man about a con man who gets his comeuppance. As for Ursula Curtiss -- The Forbiddan Garden has a lot in common with The Party at No. 5 telling a cat-and-mouse story of a murderous older woman who hires herself out as a companion to rich old biddies.

    2. John, yes, I love both Party and Garden. By gritty I suppose I meant the more explicit violence. I do think some of Smith has a nasty quality that is as striking as what you get in Highsmith, if subtle.

  5. Curt,

    Claude Chabrol indeed made a film out of THE BALLOON MAN.

    Maybe Armstrong and al. are neglected in part because their success doesn't fit the narrative of female crime writers being marginalized until the 80s? Or maybe it's just because they focused on domestic matters and settings, thus sounding too cozy for the "gritty" brigade.

    1. Chabrol also made MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT based on Armstrong's novel The Chocolate Cobweb. I liked the movie though it's not one of Chabrol's best. But with Isabelle Huppert in the lead how can you go wrong?

    2. Just wanted to chime in on MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT which I also thought was pretty good. I like THE UNSUSPECTED a lot and think is a great-looking Noir with an astonishing opening sequence and some marvelous visuals, but admittedly it doesn't serve the plot too well so I can understand you not being too impressed with it. Been decades since I read a word by Armstrong actually - really enjoyed the post Curt, as always!


  6. Count me in aa a big Charlotte Armstrong fan. I have only three more of her books left on my TBR pile. Her first three books (those featuring MacDougal Duff) were competent, but beginning with THE UNSUSPECTED, she became a true weaver of magic. Before she turned to novels, she was a playwright; the one play of hers that I have read (1940's RING AROUND ELIZABETH by "Char Armstrong") contains the same magic as her later novels.

    1. Jerry what are your, say, three or five favorite titles by her?

  7. John, I never thought you liked Isabelle Huppert.
    Have you seen the French-Italian movie "La Dame aux camelias" directed by Mauro Bolognini? There is a scene in which Isabelle Huppert, who plays La Dame aux camelias by Dumas, falls completely naked a staircase. It 'a magnificent scene. Hardly forgettable.
    Possess 6-7 novels of Charlotte Armstrong. Recently I read the beautiful The Innocent Flower, republished this year in Italy

  8. Though it's been quite a few years since this last post about Charlotte Amrstrong's books, I thought some of you fans might like to look at a new blog published by her sons. Go to

    Jerry Lewi, #! son