Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Turret Room (1965), Charlotte Armstrong

When The Turret Room opens, Myra Whitman has been viciously attacked in the Whitman family mansion.  Later she is smothered to death in the hospital where she lies comatose.  Suspicion centers on Myra's stepdaughter Wendy's former husband, Harold Page, who conveniently has just been released from a mental hospital (the Whitman family charmingly refers to him just as "the madman").

Wendy Whitman, planning her marriage to another man, penurious playboy Ronnie Mungo, says she saw her ex Harold running away from the house the night her stepmother Myra was attacked.  Wendy, it soon becomes clear, is a pathological liar.  Visiting poor relation Edith Thompson, Wendy's cousin, realizes Harold is being set up to take the fall for another's crime and offers him sanctuary is the Whitman mansion's turret room.  What to do next is a difficult question....

Will Harold take the rap
for another person's crime?
It's easy to see how The Turret Room could have been written as a traditional detective novel (The Turret Room Murder, say, or Terror in the Turret), but by 1965 Charlotte Armstrong had abandoned that form for two decades.  It's also easy to understand from the title how some people might be expecting a traditional Gothic novel, with ghastly shudders in a ghostly pile, but, again, Armstrong confounds expectations. 

Nor would I categorized this novel as "suburban noir," a label that has been applied to Armstrong's work (everything is taken more seriously if it's labeled noir).  Otto Penzler has written of noir that it

is about losers.  The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed.  They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they'd be better off just curling up and getting it over with.  And, let's face it, they deserve it....

Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealously or alienation....It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.

See Noir Fiction Is About Losers  (The Huffington Post, August 10, 2010).

This dark place is not the world of Charlotte Armstrong, from what I have read of her work.  Ultimately Armstrong's world is a just one, where decency, generosity and kindness win out over dysfunction, selfishness and malevolence.  Armstrong's good people overcome those nasty noir types. When it comes to the question of the improvement of the human condition, I find Armstrong a reassuring writer.  There is evil in the world, to be sure, but it can be stymied by determined and decent souls.

avocado green and burnt orange--
yup, it's the 1960s all right!
I have no idea why Armstrong named her heroine Edith (Edie) Thompson.  Surely Armstrong was aware that Edith Thompson (1893-1923) was an English woman notoriously hanged for murder, yet she quickly makes it clear that her Edith Thompson is no such creature (though Edith Thompson may not in fact have been guilty of the crime for which she was hanged, she does not appear to have been a particularly admirable person):

The point was, how could Edie protect a country boy [Harold Page]...from these terrible people?  In particular, from Wendy Whitman, who had lied, would lie, being possessed, as far as Edie could tell, of no scruples at all [now Wendy is noir!].  Which of the household could she approach, to ask for mercy and understanding, or even a mind open to the reestablishment of justice?

The Whitman menagerie is a splendid rogue's gallery of selfish rich people and their hangers-on, the most memorable of which is the family matriarch, Lila Whitman.  A stunning portrait of the arrogance of wealth, Mrs. Whitman is a character you won't soon forget.  She starts off amusingly eccentric and becomes simply horrifying.  It's a masterful writing job by Armstrong.

Heartily recommended.


  1. I didn't care for this one myself. It was the first of her novels that I've read and it sort of put me off Charlotte Armstrong until I recently persuaded myself to read The Weird Sisters, which I quite liked. I can't remember much about The Turret Room now, except that it left me with the impression that the author was a rather stern moralist, which I found off-putting.

    Regarding Edith Thompson, the supposed murderess, I recently read a book about her crime (actually it was more of a biography of her) and she comes across quite sympathetically, as does her lover, the actual murderer. The victim, however, comes across as a complete jackass. Of course, that's only one author's interpretation.

  2. These last two I've read by her are very moralistic, I would say. Kevin Killian says this became more prominent in her work in the 1960s, kind of a didactic quality. I can see why it would put off some people. It certainly distinguishes her from other women suspense writers, like Margaret Millar, say, who doesn't seem to me so overt and positive. I can see why she appealed to Anthony Boucher.

    My personal favorite by her is still A Dram of Poison, but I enjoyed these other two as well.

    Edith Thompson from what I've read it seems to me was the victim of a grave miscarriage of justice and her ghastly execution would be enough top put about anyone off the death penalty. But she seemed rather silly to me (hardly a capitol crime). But then I'm not read mup in the literature. What was the book you read? A Pin to See the Peep Show is a celebrated novelization.

  3. The book is Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson by Rene Weis. It's a rather lengthy triple biography of her and her lover and husband.

    She apparently was led astray by an overactive and intensely romantic imagination. I found the efforts of her lover to save her life quite moving. It rather reminded me of Crippen and Ethel Le Neve.

  4. I have a number of Armstrong books yet to read. I have that Fawcett edition of THE TURRET ROOM. Romantic imagination isn't such a bad thing.

  5. George, I agree, although Thompson's fantasizing had disastrous consequences for her! What really comes out badly in that affair, however, is the British legal system. However, I still don't see much in common between the Edie of the book and the Edith Thompson of real life, who seems to have been rather clueless at best.

    I'm just not sure what Armstrong was getting at there. We are never in any real doubt that her Edith is a determined and resolute do-gooder, because Armstrong takes you into her head. It's easy to see how someone like Ruth Rendell, say, might have taken this novel in a much darker direction!