Originally published in 1955
Olivia Hudson, a drama teacher at a Manhattan girl’s school, refuses to let her uncle John Paul Marcus play the role of dupe in a real-life revenge story. Uncle John is a beloved war veteran, a New York institution, and a hard-working philanthropist with an unimpeachable reputation. His mistake—an honorable one, at that—was disclosing the financial chicanery of industrial heir Raymond Pankerman, and it could cost John his life.
Raymond has staged the perfect crime, and the perfect frame-up, to destroy the old man. He has everything he needs: a failed and penniless playwright who’d sell his soul if the price was right, a budding television starlet looking for a breakout role, and a susceptible public suckered into believing a supernatural swindle that’s making headlines.
As a good man is taken down by the outlandish claims of an “otherworldly” publicity-seeking beauty nicknamed the Dream Walker, Olivia refuses to stand idly by—especially since she has the talent to outwit and outplay an actress at her own duplicitous game.
A few years ago I read a novel called The Medbury Fort Murder. It was a novel that excited me a lot as the style and plot summary seemed to suggest that it was a blend of two of my favorite types of mystery fiction – the impossible crime and the inverted mystery. Unfortunately I was left disappointed that it didn’t meet those expectations and I was left to wonder whether it would even be possible to write an inverted impossible crime story. Having now read Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker I am happy to confirm that it is and that it works incredibly well. It blends the two forms without compromising on either, delivering a tight and compelling scenario.
The book begins by the narrator, a former school teacher, revealing that she will tell us the real story of a plot aimed to bring down John Paul Marcus, a wealthy and highly influential public servant with an impeccable reputation. In the first few pages we learn who is behind that plot, what their goal is and even some details of how they planned to go about it. Yet in spite of knowing all that general information, Armstrong manages to create a sense of mystery about exactly how it will be achieved and we are left to wonder how the villains might get caught.
So, how does an inverted impossible crime story actually work? Armstrong structures her story so that we understand a few basic points about what they were planning but avoids giving us firm details. We know, for instance, that it will involve two women, that the plan involves a ‘supernatural element’ and that their goal is to implicate John Marcus in improper dealings with foreign nationals. As one of the villains remarks, ‘No sensible person is going to believe it. But he won’t be able to explain it…’. That doubt will be enough to taint him.
After introducing us to the personalities and describing the general gist of the plan, we are then taken through the sequence of apparently strange and supernatural events by the narrator. Knowing that they are a sham and who is responsible does not make them any the less interesting, even if it is quite clear early in the novel how the trick is being worked. Instead the focus becomes on whether and how the method being used will be detected.
The plan is a rather imaginative one and Armstrong has it build steadily, gradually bringing in new elements. In addition to the interest in discovering exactly what Kent Shaw has planned, there is added interest in seeing how he will be forced to respond to some unexpected elements and developments along the way. This not only illustrates the character’s resourcefulness and quick wits, it also helps establish him clearly as an antagonist as he shows himself to be quite ruthless in pursuit of his goal.
One question that I think needs to be addressed when a book deviates from an established structure is why the author chose to approach it in that way. After all, the impossibility Kent Shaw creates is quite clever. While the supernatural explanation clearly will not be the correct one, if we read an account of the events in a purely chronological order without any insight into the villain’s motives I think it would be quite puzzling.
There are a couple of things that I think this unusual structural approach adds to the story and one problem that it avoids. Let’s start with the latter because it’s the simplest: by quickly laying out the cause of the villain’s grievance, Armstrong avoids having to establish John Paul Marcus as a character. This is just as well because he is really there to be a type – a loyal, patriotic American statesman who will be targetted on baseless accusations made against him, evoking a sense of the McCarthy anti-communist hearings of this period.
In terms of what it adds, I think having the narrator be able to highlight aspects of the story as significant based on what they know of events to come helps to build anticipation of those developments. It also adds a sense of mystery about how something might prove important.
The other major advantage is that Olivia Hudson is a fine and rather heroic protagonist with strong and credible emotions. By contrast while I have little difficulty believing in the source of the grudge or that it might be the cause of some type of vengence, the pair of schemers are not particularly compelling or dimensional characters in their own rights. The things they do are interesting but their personalities are not a focus of the story.
In contrast, Olivia comes off as quite dimensional. While she has no direct knowledge of what has been planned, Olivia quickly grows suspicious. We are left to wonder at what point she will gain the awareness of the plot that we already know she has deduced based on references in the earliest chapters. When will be the moment that she is able to give voice to her suspicions and explain how it was done?
The book builds to a very solid conclusion that I think tackles those questions and answers them very neatly, wrapping up each of the key plot strands pretty well. I would suggest that readers should not expect to be surprised – they will have a strong sense of the destination from early in the novel – but the path to that point is interesting and entertaining.
It made for a solid cap to a very enjoyable novel. Yes, it can get a little melodramatic at points and the prose is occassionally a little heavy-handed but the book is often very clever and creative, offering plenty to interest fans of inverted and impossible crime stories alike.
The Verdict: A fascinating and creative play at blending the inverted and impossible crime sub-genres. Amazingly it works pretty well!