Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Albatross

 

This story was first serialized as a short story in McCall’s magazine in August 1957. It was the title of a book published that same year. The book was a collection of short stories with The Albatross the lead story, as it occupies about 100 pages while the other ten stories run from about 15 to 20 pages.

It was produced for a CBS series, Climax, as a live TV broadcast at  the same time. In 2006, it was also produced as a DVD in Japan (as The Visitor in Black) which followed a release as a TV movie in that country in 2001. The print version was very popular in Japan which led us to wonder why. We think the answer lies in the title.

Albatross came to mean a “seemingly inescapable moral or emotional burden, as of guilt or responsibility”[1]. That meaning is derived from the famous Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which a boat crew member shoots an albatross, ignoring the legend that an albatross circling a boat is a sign of good luck. Over time the bad connotation of the work has outlived the good.

The storyline is that in a roadside Santa Clara motel, Esther Gardner wakes up to an intruder lurching toward her. No one blames her husband, Tom, for taking him down with a single blow to the head—least of all the stranger himself, an embarrassed real estate broker from Arcadia, who had drunkenly stumbled into the wrong room.
 
Three days later, the poor man dies of a neglected head injury, leaving his wife, Audrey, and her invalid sister penniless, desperate, and in need of a new home. Overcome with guilt, Tom and Esther invite the women to stay with them. But as the temporary stay stretches into months, Esther can’t shake the disquieting suspicion that their grieving, freeloading guests are up to something.
 
The sisters’ whispers are starting to sound conspiratorial. Their stories aren’t adding up and their smiles are beginning to curl with menace. If it’s all in Esther’s over-burdened imagination, that would be understandable. If it isn’t, that could be terrifying
.[2]

Therefore, we conclude that the meaning is that serious guilt can arise from surprising events. Honor is very important to Japanese culture.

Personal note: I watched the whole TV production on tape. It had no English subtitles, so I ran it in fast-forward, and from the video, I could conclude that the film followed the story quite well as the bad guy got his comeuppance but in a totally different fashion than in the book.

The story was reprinted as a paperback under the title, Mask of Evil. We believe the original title has a lot more meaning than any of the other choices.


[1] Dictionary.com

[2] Mysterious Press


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Seven Seats to the Moon

This book is unusual for two reasons: It is somewhat of a departure from Armstrong’s usual style of suspense and mystery as it borders on science fiction. The second reason is the weird coincidence it evokes as follows:

Charlotte Armstrong passed away after a six-month battle with lung cancer on July 19, 1969. Most anyone over about 70 years old will easily recall that was the exact date of Man’s first landing on the moon, and that man was Neil Armstrong, who soon became known to the family as “Cousin Neil.” We have no idea if there is any truth to that, but the idea was reinforced when we learned that N. Armstrong’s middle name is Alden and our family knows well that we are descendants of John Alden of Mayflower fame.

So putting these two facts together it was Neil Armstrong who had one of the first seats to the moon, so how clairvoyant was Charlotte Armstrong? The book was her next to last and was published on January 1 of that year, so she certainly knew of Cousin Neil’s role in that epic journey.

Another bizarre coincidence was that it was the same night of the tragic accident at Chappaquiddick. The link between that and the moon landing became better known with the 2017 movie about that accident.

But back to the story, based on the description from Mysterious Press:

California businessman J. Middleton Little is on company assignment in Chicago when he’s caught eavesdropping on a top-secret confab between high-level government officials. J. knows he isn’t just hearing things; they actually referred to the coming Armageddon. To ensure his silence, J.’s been offered the chance of a lifetime: seven seats on an “ark” scheduled to carry the last vestiges of the human race from Earth before the apocalypse. In a matter of minutes, J. has gone from a self-described “middle-class, middle-income, middlebrow man-of-the-street” to one of the most privileged men in the universe. The only stipulation: He can’t tell a single soul until the proper time.

For now, it’s back to life in Burbank with his dutiful, intuitive wife; an underhanded and scheming son; his impossibly spoiled daughter; his unhinged father; and a mother-in-law whose religious fanaticism is making J. think twice about his role as savior—especially when he finds himself shadowed by an insidious pack of secret agents, counterspies, and a lone madman on a terrifying mission.

All in all a great read for any fan of Charlotte Armstrong.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Innocent Flower

This is the third and last of the MacDougal Duff mysteries, published in 1945. This series was Armstrong’s first venture into mystery novels after a less than stellar career in penning stage plays, her first love. The titles of this series all came from Shakespeare ( "look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it." Macbeth, act 1, scene 5). The other titles in the series were Lay on, MacDuff, and The Weird Sisters. Armstrong was a big fan of the bard and studied his work extensively, trying to solve the mystery of who really wrote the complete works.

MacDuff was a retired college professor who dabbled in solving real-life murders, often as a volunteer consultant to local police. Armstrong’s children loved this book because three of the child characters were loosely modeled on them. They often challenged friends to read the book and decide which character was each of them. It wasn’t hard. The plot was around a divorcee with six children where suddenly a friend dropped dead from poison. The children were all suspects at one time or another.

They also loved this story because the location was basically their house in New Rochelle, NY.

Armstrong surely loved writing this story because of these factors, but the real intention was to continue the series where each succeeding book would feature one of the six kids. However, due to less than robust sales, her agent advised switching to the suspense genre, and, starting with The Unsuspected (see post of December 5, 2021), the advice turned out to be excellent as that story launched her career.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Trouble in Thor / I Know a Fellow Who was Six Feet High


 We discuss two very different books but with a common theme.

The Trouble in Thor (1953) was written by Charlotte Armstrong, but upon the advice of Brandt & Brandt, her agents, under a pseudonym, Jo Valentine. The reason for this deception is that Armstrong was at the peak of her reputation as a mystery/suspense writer and this book did not fall into that category, so the agents were afraid it would hurt her reputation.

The story is based on Armstrong’s childhood life, growing up in the mining community of Vulcan, on the Upper Peninsula (the “UP,” as the natives call it) of Michigan. Her father, Frank Armstrong was the chief engineer of the coal mine there. This leads us to the second book, I Know a Fellow Who was Six-feet High. This is Armstrong’s loving biography of her father, written in 1956 shortly after his death as a memorial. This story languished as an unpublished manuscript until residents of Vulcan and nearby Norway, MI and, through the local Jake Menghini Museum in cooperation with her estate, published the book in 2011.

We pair these stories because it’s hard to tell one from the other as they both have intimate details about the coal mining business as practiced in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But the joke is really on her agents, as The Trouble in Thor does turn out to be a story of significant suspense as several miners are trapped in a mining disaster and while it is thought that several may have died, it isn’t known who until the end. As reprinted after Armstrong’s death, the book was renamed And Sometimes Death with a tag line, “a story of violence and love,” This paper-back reprint outed the author as Charlotte Armstrong.

In 2008, in conjunction of a weekend called the Charlotte Armstrong Festival, local residents put on a dramatic reading of this local tale that was a big hit because of the local interest.

The Armstrong biography is not only about Frank Armstrong, it serves as a biography of Charlotte with her usual attention to detail.

Both books are  now available as e-books on both Amazon - Kindle and Barnes & Noble - Nook.

Monday, March 7, 2022

The Gift Shop

This story is one of our favorites as it is action packed, has some interesting characters and a lot of human interest. The property was purchased several years after it was published in 1966, by Raystar Productions (formed by successful producer, Ray Stark). Regrettably, they never moved past writing a script, for reasons totally unknown to us or our agents. We believe that  the rights to the property may have reverted to us.

The plot: Bernie staggers off the airplane from Honolulu, a lei around his neck and blood seeping from the wound in his chest. He stumbles to the terminal gift shop, and demands the cashier point him to a payphone. . He surreptitiously inserts a small piece of paper into the slot of a ceramic piggy bank on display. As his life seeps away, Bernie calls Harry Fairchild, his old fraternity brother. Dying or not, he has a job to do.

Harry is a playboy, the scion of an oil-rich family known throughout California. Bernie was in Honolulu working for Harry’s father, and he has a message to give the old man before he expires. Baffled, Harry races to the airport, arriving just as Bernie is being taken to the hospital, where he dies on the operating table. Somehow Harry’s father is mixed up in the murder, and Harry is going to find out how, even if it means risking a knife to his own gut.

"At the core of the suspense is the fate of a little girl of seven, who has never known her biological father, widowed and ailing, who has also sired the hero and his two very successful brothers (a physician and the Governor of his state). While the plot has its complications, it essentially revolves about the quest by different groups to find the youngster before the other group does. Murder, mayhem and intrigue are the tools of the nasty side, with both members of the Romantic Pair, being at different times, searchers and victims of the hostility of the other group."*

Harry befriends the gift shop worker and gets her to go along on several trips to track down the mystery. Not surprising, a little romance seems inevitable.

We always envisioned a movie that, with many wild trips to multiple locations in Europe and the US involving a series of characters, would make a wonderful saga involving well-known actors in cameo performances, ala Around the World in 80 Days.

Personal note of coincidence: Many years later, Jerry and his wife found themselves managing a gift shop at their local performing arts center.

*Review on Amazon: 5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Best of Her Generation

  Reviewed in the United States on April 30, 2013

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Mischief


Mischief is probably best known because of Don’t Bother to Knock, a movie made from the book that featured Marilyn Monroe in her first role where she was one of the featured actors (along with Richard Widmark). From Rich Cypert’s Virtue of Suspense, we learn of the difficulty in selling this story to leading magazines or even to a movie studio because of their ultra-caution about publishing a story about a mentally deranged babysitter. Nevertheless, persistence by Armstrong’s agents resulted in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, made by 20thCentry Fox and serialized in Good Housekeeping.

Cypert writes: “In Mischief, parents staying at a hotel leave their young daughter in care of a baby-sitter who turns out to be mentally unstable. The protagonist, Jed Towers, who meets the baby-sitter by chance, soon realizes, “She was not a type he knew.’ Although a cynic about the world, Towers wants a ‘touchstone,’ to believe in people the  way his mother who  mother who “talked love—was love” did. When matters get out of hand, Jed extracts himself from the situation, but in the process of leaving the hotel, he has his epiphany, asking himself, "What kind of rat did such a thing?" This epiphany eliminates Towers’ earlier rationalization of his behavior and allows him to test his true mettle.”

The book was released in 1951 and, despite difficulties in selling the plot, the movie was released in 1952, before Marilyn’s affair and marriage to Joe DiMaggio. The move had quite a cast in addition to the featured stars, such well-known actors as Ann Bancroft, in her first movie; Jim Backus, of Gilligan’s Island and Mr. Magoo fame; Jeanne Cagney, Jimmy’s sister; Donna Cochran, Make Room for Daddy; Verna Felton; Lorene Tuttle and Elisha Cook, Jr.

Despite Marilyn  and a stellar cast, the movie did not fare well to many critics and the box office, but later on more than one critic thought it to be a movie that showed Monroe really could act. Rotten Tomatoes which is the leading aggregator of movie reviews gave the movie a rare 100% positive score.

During the filming, all of Armstrong’s children had chances to meet the famous actor while filming. All agree she was drop-dead gorgeous and a very sweet person who showed more interest in their mother than any of them.

We all watched the very recent CNN program, Reframed: Marilyn Monroe, a documentary about her life. Her role in Don’t Bother to Knock was described as Marilyn basically playing herself as a mentally ill person due to early upbringing. We seriously doubt our mother wrote the story with that casting in mind as Monroe’s mental problems weren’t revealed until much later.

One sour note about the story: Many years after the film (1991), Fox decided to remake it as a movie for TV, “The Sitter.” It was an absolute disaster as they made Nell, the sitter, a deranged murderess. We were happy our mother never got to see this abomination and we almost returned the money.

 

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

A Little Less Than Kind

“A Little More Than Kin and Less Than Kind” are the first words uttered by Hamlet in what is perhaps Shakespeare’s best-known play. In a masterful bit of literary understatement Hamlet is referring to Claudius who is “More Than Kin” (he is both his uncle and his stepfather) and “Less Than Kind” (he murdered his father). Charlotte Armstrong was a true Shakespeare scholar even to the point of researching whether William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon actually wrote all of the works attributed to him.

The wonderful thing about A Little Less Than Kind is that it can be read at two completely different levels. For those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s works it reads as one more of Charlotte’s excellent suspense stories set in 20th Century Southern California.

Devotees of Hamlet will recognize the following characters:

Ladd Cunningham                 Hamlet
Hob Cunningham                  Hamlet’s father
David Crown                         Claudius
Abby Cunningham-Crown    Gertrude
Aaron Silver                          Polonius
Gary Fenwick                        Horatio
Felicia Lorimer                      Ophelia
Justin Lorimer                       Laertes 

The book ends up deviating substantially from Hamlet with a very different ending however the reader will pick up on scenes reminiscent of, for example,  "The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" and the struggle of the relationship between Ladd (Hamlet) and Felicia (Ophelia). In lieu of the duel that takes place in the last act of Hamlet, there is a struggle on a staircase resulting in serious injuries 

On a personal note, this is the only book for which my mother asked me for some input. She described Ladd Cunningham and asked me what kind of car he would be driving. I quickly said I thought it would be a Corvette. Imagine my delight when the book came out and there it was, a 1961 blue Corvette convertible.