Originally published in 1945
When Rosaleen Wright was found hanging, a note beside her body, the police are sure it is suicide. But her best friend Jane cannot believe it. Rosaleen was full of vitality and wit – and the note had no signature. Instead, Jane suspects Rosaleen’s boss, New York theatre impresario Luther Grandison.
Grandison is rich, powerful and charismatic, but Rosaleen’s letters to Jane show a completely different man. One who is duplicitous, greedy – and dangerous. A man who would kill to protect his secrets.
Jane is determined to find out the truth – and takes the ultimate risk when she gets a job with Grandison’s company, and finds herself up against one of Broadway’s deadliest actors in a desperate play for the truth.
I have only read a handful of Charlotte Armstrong novels so far but I already count myself a fan. I was blown away by the tension generated in The Chocolate Cobweb, a superb thriller, while I felt The Dream Walker was a fascinating and largely successful blend of the inverted and impossible crime forms. Little wonder then that I quickly set about tracking down copies of her other works and this title, reprinted a couple of years ago as part of the American Mystery Classics range, was a natural next step.
The Unsuspected begins in the aftermath of a death. Rosaleen Wright, secretary to Luther “Grandy” Grandison, was found hanging in his home having apparently committed suicide – a belief reinforced by a note left by the body written in her own hand. Her friend Jane expresses her disbelief in the idea while dining with Francis, another friend of the deceased, and expresses her belief that it was not suicide but murder and that the man responsible is her charming and charismatic boss.
The pair conceive a plan to worm their way into his household to enable them to search for evidence that may confirm their suspicions. Jane convinces Grandy to hire her as a replacement for Rosaleen, giving her close access to him and his papers while Francis poses as the husband of his ward who had been tragically lost at sea only to find his position made much more difficult when she dramatically resurfaces.
The Unsuspected, like The Chocolate Cobweb, is an example of an inverted thriller in which our heroes place themselves in danger to try and catch a murderer who appears to have already got away with it. In addition to puzzling over whether the heroes will catch the killer and how they might manage it, the reader will also be looking at the reasons behind that murder. To put it another way, this is a blend of the howcatchem and whydunnit forms.
Understanding why anyone would place themselves in the orbit of a presumed murderer can be challenging but I feel Armstrong does a pretty good job here of giving Jane and Francis a clear and powerful motivation to get involved. While their situation becomes less comfortable as the action progresses, much of that could not be predicted at the outset and so the steady increase of danger feels quite natural to the situation: by the time the danger increases, they are already too invested and too close to the truth to back out.
Of the pair I found Jane to be the more likable. She is the organizer and while she is less active in driving the action than Francis, she retains an important role throughout. Given her need to stay deep undercover, she is often in the background of the action and I delighted in observing the sometimes quite subtle ways she exerts influence on the action.
Francis carries more of the action, in part because his role requires a greater degree of active deception. While I described Jane and Francis as heroes earlier, not everything they do in the course of this story is portrayed as heroic. Throughout the novel we see Francis do his best to convince Mathilda that they really were married prior to her taking that sea voyage, engaging in some pretty heavy gaslighting. Armstrong is quite clear about the mental distress this causes her, thoughtfully exploring her responses to these suggestions, and while it is clear that Grandy is also exerting a similar control over her the reader will have to decide for themselves if Francis’ actions are at all justifiable.
Armstrong does an excellent job of constructing her story to slowly build pressure on these two protagonists as they inch nearer to learning the truth. It is quite fascinating to see how she builds tension less through moments of action (and the threat that it might happen) as through the subtle changes within a relationship or even the language used within a conversation.
The character of Luther Grandison is, for me, the standout figure of the novel. I was struck by how strong his presence feels throughout the novel, even though his direct appearances are often quite brief. This serves to make the character seem more mysterious and to leave us in the dark as to exactly what he believes at any point, at least in the first half of the book. Early in the book there is a striking passage in which Jane and Francis discuss how some people have to wear masks until they die to hide their secrets and it is clear that Grandy is such a person. The question the reader has to resolve is just what lies behind that mask.
I have mentioned before on this blog that I am not a particularly imaginative reader – at least in terms of visualizing places and characters. Sometimes though I find myself thinking of film actors and in this case the person who sprang to mind was Claude Rains in his ability to be charming but also have a sharp edge. I was rather delighted to learn shortly after finishing the book that there was a film version and that he played that role (although the description sounds as though there were some changes made – I look forward to watching for myself at some point soon to see how it was adapted).
While I think the concept and the characters are exceptional, I found the novel’s resolution to be a little unsatisfying. It is not that I think the ending is untidy but rather the reverse. The book up until that point seemed to have played with the moral complexities of what was being done and I expected that to have a dramatic payoff. It should have been emotionally difficult and uncomfortable but that moment never came and instead Armstrong chose to whiff on confronting those challenging themes.
Still, while I think the ending is a little underwhelming dramatically, I admire much about this book up until that point. The premise struck me as clever and quite original while the characters seemed quite vividly drawn. Particularly Grandy himself. Though I think her next book, The Chocolate Cobweb, a more satisfying read overall, I found plenty to enjoy here and I really look forward to my next Armstrong read.
The Verdict: This book boasts a clever and morally complex setup and an exceptional villain. My only complaint is with the overly tidy ending.