The Protégé by Charlotte Armstrong

Originally published in 1970

Seventy-four-year-old widow Mrs. Moffat lives in a quiet and idyllic California town, accustomed to routine and solitude in her country home. But everything changes when she runs into a charismatic young transient in church one Sunday morning. He claims to be Simon Warren, the son of a former neighbor and the best friend of Mrs. Moffat’s own grandson, who mysteriously vanished years ago.

Longing to repair the emotional wounds of the past, the enchanted Mrs. Moffat welcomes Simon into her home. But he’s not received nearly as well by her friends or her granddaughter, Zen, whose suspicions about Simon, and the potential threat he poses, are willfully ignored by her grandmother. Now, as the young man calmly insinuates himself into a comfortable new life, a test of wills between the stubborn old woman and her increasingly apprehensive granddaughter begins.

What no one understands is that Mrs. Moffat isn’t a silly woman: She knows precisely what she wants from her unlikely “friendship” with the untrustworthy Simon. But as a dawning fear arises, Mrs. Moffat, Zen, and perhaps even Simon will find themselves in an inescapable trap of their own making.

Charlotte Armstrong is one of those writers I have quickly come to regard as a blog favorite since first encountering her work a few years ago. Prior to reading this book, I had previously read and written about three other novels each of which I have loved for different reasons. One constant in all three however was that she crafts fascinating scenarios in which there are clearly defined points of tension and we wait to see when those tensions will be triggered and how things will change when they do.

The Protégé similarly offers a scenario that would appear to be laden with possibilities and obvious points of tension and revelation. The book concerns Mrs. Moffat, a seventy-four year old woman who lives alone, who is surprised when a young man sits next to her at church and introduces himself as the boy who used to live next door. Against her instincts she finds herself having tea with him, then allowing him to clear out a cottage on her property, and finally allowing him to move into it.

Among the questions we are invited to consider is whether this young man is really Simon at all. On the one hand, he is able to talk about things that no stranger could have known, yet he is evasive at times when talking about his past. Might he have been affected by a wartime experience or be resolving some other trauma? And then, if not, why does he seem to have such a hold on Mrs. Moffat?

This scenario seems to invite a discussion about elder abuse and exploitation – a serious topic that is not often addressed quite so directly in crime fiction – but the book never really presents that relationship with much ambiguity. This is partly because much of the story is told from the perspective of Mrs. Moffat herself so we are aware of what she is thinking and feeling at most of the key points in the story. While others may wonder if she is being exploited or if Simon has some designs on her, we know enough of her state of mind that I didn’t share their sense of ambiguity. This is compounded when we begin to get passages written by Simon or that follow him, providing early answers to those key questions. From that point onwards the dramatic focus of the book falls on the less interesting and suspenseful question of how the people around Mrs. Moffat will respond to what they are perceiving to be taking place.

In spite of feeling a little disappointed by these structural choices, Armstrong is as readable as ever. While I think the choice to follow Mrs. Moffat so closely doesn’t help the creation of suspense, she does a superb job of capturing her protagonist’s thoughts and feelings more generally. Some of the book’s most interesting moments can be found in the quiet and thoughtful development of that relationship between those two characters and in tracking the way it changes both characters.

Perhaps the least effective parts of the book are those that most directly address the concerns of the period in which it was written. This is not so much an instance of attitudes or the language being of its time (though there is a little of the latter in the speech of the characters) but rather the awkward attempts to discuss how society was changing. There were a few points in the text where I was put in mind of some later Christie works such as Passenger to Frankfurt in that I understood what Armstrong was trying to talk about but I felt the framework of those discussions was sometimes muddled and that her attempts to get into the minds of her younger characters were not as successful as they might have been.

It should probably be said that this was Armstrong’s final work, published posthumously, and I am a little curious if this was its intended final state or if there were further revisions planned but never completed.

While I can say it is the least successful of her works I have read to date, I should say it is still an intriguing, characterful read – particularly if approached as a work of literary fiction. Looking at this through a genre lens though, I think it feels like a missed opportunity to explore a concept that could have been really unsettling and suspenseful.

The Verdict: More compelling as a character and situation study than a work of genre fiction, this may not be among Armstrong’s finest novels but it is still very readable.

Second Opinions: Curtis Evans @ The Passing Tramp reflects on where this book sits in the context of Armstrong’s wider career.

Interested in finding a copy to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops or your public library to track down a copy. An eBook version of the book is available from MysteriousPress.

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