The Dream Walker by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1955

The Blurb

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.
 
Inspired by the mob mentality of the postwar McCarthy hearings, Charlotte Armstrong’s The Dream Walker (also published as Alibi for Murder) is both an ingeniously clever mystery of double-crosses and triple-twists, and a still-relevant cautionary tale about the irreversible consequences of tabloid journalism and the gullibility of the masses.

The Verdict

A fascinating and creative play at blending the inverted and impossible crime sub-genres. Amazingly it works pretty well!

When Kent Shaw left the apartment that evening, his head was full, I’ll warrant, of his masterpiece. He would pull off the biggest show he had ever staged and no one would ever know it.

My Thoughts

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 Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Book Details

Originally published in 1948

The Blurb

When Amanda Garth was born, a nearly-disastrous mix-up caused the hospital to briefly hand her over to the prestigious Garrison family instead of to her birth parents. The error was quickly fixed, Amanda was never told, and the secret was forgotten for twenty-three years . . . until her aunt thoughtlessly revealed it in casual conversation.

But what if the initial switch never actually occurred, and what if the real accident was Amanda’s being “returned” to the wrong parents? After all, her artistic proclivities are far more aligned with painter Tobias, patriarch of the wealthy Garrison clan, than with the uncreative duo that raised her. Determined to discover her true identity within her aunt’s bizarre anecdote, Amanda calls on her almost-family, only to discover that the fantasy life she imagines is not at all like their reality. Instead, she encounters a web of lies and suspicions that ensnares her almost immediately, and, over a murky cup of hot chocolate, realizes something deadly lurks just beneath the surface. . . .

The Verdict

A truly suspenseful and exciting story with an engaging premise and some striking characters. One of the best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range.


My Thoughts

Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb may have a somewhat quirky title but it is an absolute masterclass is generating and sustaining suspense. The reason it is so effective is that it boasts a simple but clear premise. Armstrong quickly sets up her situation and her characters, gives them each clear objectives and then we watch to see how the events will play out.

The protagonist is Amanda Garth, an aspiring painter, who at the start of the novel learns about a mix-up that happened at the hospital when she was born. For a few hours she was swapped with another child, Thone Garrison, the son of a prominent artist before her father persuaded the nurses that a mistake had been made. When she learns about the mixup she wonders if the nurses had been right after all and learning that Garrison is nearby she decides to drive to his gallery to meet him.

On visiting his home she comes to realize that she is fantasizing but before she leaves she notices something odd as Ione, Thone’s stepmother, deliberately knocks a flask of hot chocolate over that he was supposed to drink. After she leaves Amanda comes to suspect that there must have been something wrong and decides to return to the household in the hope of averting a murder.

This is a heavily condensed summary of the start of the novel but I want to leave as much of the details for you to discover for yourself as possible. What I can say is that within a couple of chapters we have learned that Ione was planning a murder and we learn more about the background to that plan. We are in no doubt about her role as the villain of the piece, nor that while she may have temporarily paused her plans that she will try again.

What we have then is a blend of suspense fiction and the howcatchem-type inverted crime story. These two story styles naturally complement each other and help to create a very compelling scenario. Knowing Ione’s character, motive and the rough outline of her scheme we recognize the danger that Amanda is placing herself in by returning to their home. What I think makes this situation so interesting though is Amanda is every bit as aware as we are of the danger she will be in. In fact some of her actions are intended to elevate that risk, hoping to expose Ione as a would-be killer.

Amanda’s willingness to put herself in danger for the sake of strangers makes her pretty instantly likeable as a protagonist. Though she clearly is prone to fantasy, Armstrong never makes her out to be foolish or incapable and she proves herself to be one of the strongest characters by the end of the novel. One of the reasons I found this book so difficult to put down is that I wanted to get to that end to see if she would outwit Ione and survive her ordeal which I think reflects how quickly I came to care about her.

I also think that Armstrong very neatly addresses why Amanda chooses to take this route rather than share her concerns with the local police. For one thing there is a lack of physical proof but she also smartly holds back some of the history of the Garrison family until after Amanda has committed to her course of action. Though she continues to take heavy personal risks, her actions are never thoughtless. There is no doubt for me that this is a character who seeks to control her story, not be a bystander or a victim, and that makes her pretty compelling.

Ione is similarly an interesting figure, though a little harder to understand in spite of Armstrong giving us a lot of background to her early on. I was intrigued by the psychological complexity of her motivations, even though Armstrong expresses it in quite clear and simple terms by framing it as an act of obsession. The one aspect of her motive that I think she is not so clear about is explaining precisely is the cause of that obsession though I think it is interesting to think about.

The character Amanda has to convince of the risk he faces is Ione’s stepson, Thone. This proves a challenge, in part because of the way she enters his life. He is suspicious of her motivations for approaching the family from the beginning and this leads to an enjoyable mix of antagonism and attraction, though the latter is always left to bubble under the surface to color those interactions rather than to define them. I enjoyed seeing how that awkward relationship developed and wondered whether she would be able to convince him of the danger he was in and, if so, how she would do that.

There is very little padding here – in fact very little material at all that doesn’t feel completely relevant to the main story. As a result this book feels really tight with developments happening at a greater pace than I would have ecpected.

These characters and their motives are defined well enough that the reader can often project how things are likely to play out but that does not mean that this book is predictable. There are several moments or developments that caught me by surprise and so while the end result was in keeping with my expectations, the path to that point was a little different than the one I anticipated.

It made for a truly engaging and suspenseful read that stands out to me as one of the very best titles I have read to date from the American Mystery Classics range. Thoroughly recommended to lovers of suspense fiction.

If you have read any other works by Charlotte Armstrong I would love to have your recommendations for which I should try next.

Further Reading

I have to thank Kate at CrossExaminingCrime for sharing her thoughts on this book a couple of months ago. Her review inspired me to give this a try for which I am clearly grateful!

This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Amateur Night category as a Golden Age read.