Perhaps one of the weirdest stories of riches to rags in the crime fiction genre is that of Charlotte Armstrong. A towering force both critically and commercially in her lifetime and a perennial Anthony Boucher’s favourite, she progressively faded into obscurity after her untimely death and is now known only to the diehard vintage mystery fans. The sad trajectory of many a crime fiction giant as readers of this blog know but what makes the case of Armstrong stranger than that of her former rival, the equally talented and equally forgotten Margaret Millar, is that Armstrong’s influence can be seen and felt in much of today’s mystery field, especially on television. The so-called « domestic suspense » genre so popular with contemporary readers and viewers is basically an Armstrong creation and routinely and sadly often unwittingly recycles her plots and her themes. People who have never heard of her are nevertheless familiar with her work « thanks » to the zillions Lifetime « Original » movies that borrow from it, and a strong argument could be made that Mary Higgins Clark or Patricia MacDonald took up where she left off. So why is Charlotte Armstrong so forgotten despite her brand of crime fiction being so successful?
This question has driven us Armstrong fans mad for years, with no satisfying answer ever coming forward. Charlotte Armstrong is very much to American crime fiction as Anatole France is to French literature, a major writer with a lot of prestigious fans who is yet for some reason unable to recapture her former prominence. Not helping at all in Armstrong’s case was how their books were marketed after her death. « I wonder whether cover artwork from editions gone by have done her a disservice, contributing to people writing her off as a HIBK mystery type writer » writes the ever insightful Kate Jackson in her recent review of The Unsuspected and as often happens she is right. Here is for instance the cover art for a reissue of Armstrong’s semi-autobiographical novel The Trouble in Thor, originally published as by Jo Valentine:
Pretty Gothic, isn’t it? Except that the book itself is anything but, dealing as it does with… life in a mining town and the consequences of an accident at the mine. American paperback publishing at the time often teetered on the verge of fake advertising but even by those low standards this one is a record-breaker. But wait, there’s more! Now here is what the same publisher made of her Edgar-winning novel A Dram of Poison:
It takes a lot of imagination to turn this delightful but thoroughly offbeat book into a Phyllis A. Whitney romp, but for some reason publishers decided at some point that Armstrong was a romantic suspense writer and her books were to be sold as such – and the same phenomenon arose on the other side of the Atlantic too. Armstrong’s French career had begun rather well in the Fifties, with her early novels being published by prestigious crime fiction imprints such as Détective-Club or Un Mystère and getting quite favourable reviews (The Chocolate Cobweb was a finalist for the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière) By the end of the following decade however, her books were to be found only in romantic outlets with names such as Intimité, Nous Deux ou Delphine. Below is their take on A Dram of Poison:
Same causes produce same effects and in the eyes of many Charlotte Armstrong became another Mignon G. Eberhart, alienating both casual readers angered at being fooled and « serious » critics for whom anything HIBK and overall « feminine » was inherently suspect. As we know by now, her standing never recovered.
It’s easy in retrospect to see how and why Armstrong could be so mislabeled, for there is a markedly more romantic and optimistic side to her work than that of her contemporaries. The typical Armstrong story always involves a young couple in the making whose future hangs in the balance and most of the time marital bliss is at the end of the road. The same could be said of John Dickson Carr however, and no one ever described him as a romance writer (maybe because he was a man?) Also love is not Armstrong’s sole or even main concern, being only a part of her general approach to crime writing, an approach that is best described as moralistic. As French filmmaker and lifelong fan Claude Chabrol once put it, Armstrong’s stories are basically morality plays in which every character represents an idea or a human trait and the ultimate victory of good over evil is not a merely figurative one. Her prime targets are intolerance hypocrisy, conceit and above all selfishness, features that her villains of either sex invariably possess. Armstrong may not have been as overly serious as Millar, Highsmith and Potts and her worldview was less bleak (though she « did bleak » quite well on occasion) but she didn’t write merely as pastime either. Her actual subject is the human condition and her work is meant to teach as well as to entertain. She is a preacher – without preachiness – and her books are her sermons – without the boring moments.
Armstrong’s midcentury settings may seem dated at first sight but as with every genuinely great writer the things she discusses and at time denounce are timeless. This is one of the reasons why she needs a revival, but the main one of course is that her books are so freaking good.