How to Unmurder a Millionaire


A post from the Chief Guest Blogger, Colm Redmond


the book:

The Case Of The Weird Sisters by Charlotte Armstrong


published  1943


Weird Sisters 1

“Alice and I are engaged to be married,” he said. And then, without sound, he mouthed the words again for the deaf woman.

It seemed to Alice that sound disappeared from the world. The shattering stillness and Innes’s mouth working silently seemed to prove that her own ears had failed her. Gertrude, sitting with her head cocked, did not move. Isabel put her left hand out and drew it back. Alice thought she must have cried out, yet because of her own sudden deafness, she had not heard the cry. Not until the fire muttered was she sure it was a real silence that enclosed them.

Maud broke it. “Married?” she croaked. “You and her, eh? Is that so!”

“No, no.” Isabel reached with frantic haste for the paper pad. “Not yet. Engaged.” She said it furiously and she wrote it furiously, with her left hand, pressing hard. The smile on her face was a frozen thing.

“How very interesting.” The blind woman’s voice tinkled coolly. “Well, Innes, you have my best wishes, of course.”

“It’s pretty good for an old bachelor like me, isn’t it?” Innes said, rocking on his heels. Alice bit her lip.

commentary: This is a neat, short book, less than 200 pages. Yet I was nearly half way through, enjoying the smart chitchat and background colour and wondering when the story would start, before I realised the plot had been going on since a few pages after the haunting Prologue ended. Seamless crypto-exposition, you might say.

The story revolves around the stepsisters of a millionaire (Innes, in the extract), who is planning to marry his secretary, Alice, and may disinherit them. Each of the three is in some way dysfunctional: one blind, one deaf, one missing an arm. In the British film version – transposed from small town USA to Wales, and partly written by Dylan Thomas – they become The Three Weird Sisters, and certainly in the book they are all unusual as personality and character go. The main pic, a still from the film, is not a bad depiction of how I saw them in my mind. There are even unusual staff in the big dark old house, including a taciturn handyman and an inscrutable housekeeper. All the standard melodrama ingredients.

The Case Of The Weird Sisters was published in 1943 and is set about then, but one would scarcely imagine that WWII was raging. Joining up, or not, is mentioned once, but otherwise the only reference to the war is a remark about the financial uncertainty that could follow it.

As mentioned in Clothes in Books before (we linked to this article), Charlotte Armstrong sometimes had a middle-aged gentleman detective interestingly named MacDougal Duff. He appears here in due course but we guessed all along that he was coming, because of the Prologue; and of course he keeps roping other people into his improvised schemes. The central mystery is simple but fascinating and Duff’s approach almost scientific. He is stylish and charismatic, all the usual stuff, but “detective” is his job, now; he is not just an enthusiastic amateur. (Actually, not *all* the usual stuff: he’s not grumpy. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t keep making Armstrong’s cast list.)

Charlotte Armstrong writes in a matter of fact, direct way that’s often very vivid, as the extract demonstrates; but very occasionally easy to misunderstand. More like conversational speech than crafted writing. This sentence-

He spoke some of the sifting history did.

-took me a few goes to understand. There are some fine passing moments, like this from a description of the blind sister, by the housekeeper: “Always sitting so stiff and straight, just waiting like, for somebody to happen to come in and find her sitting nice and straight.” There is very little discussion of clothes but a splendid description of a character [it would spoil a small surprise to say who she is] who sounds as though she must look rather like Aunt Sally from Worzel Weird Sisters 2Gummidge – looking unexpectedly pretty in the pic, as she is portrayed here by Connie Booth, rather than Una Stubbs.

My hardback copy of The Case Of The Weird Sisters appears to be a 1943 original, and hence was made to the War Economy Standard. But it’s nicer, and feels of better quality, than plenty of modern books. It mentions being Made Weird Sisters 3And Printed In Great Britain, on the copyright page, but published specifically in England. I received it in a Coffee And Crime parcel (a gift from CiB, as a matter of fact) along with several other excellent treats.

[Note from the CIB proprietor]  Blogfriend Kate Jackson over at Cross-Examining Crime produces the Coffee and Crime gift parcels,and they make great presents, as is evident.

With thanks to the Guest Blogger – you can read more of his posts by clicking on the label below.





















Comments

  1. "He spoke some of the sifting history did." ??? This reader has now turned it around in her mind in every possible way (and checked the dictionary to see if there is a meaning of "sifting" that I'm not familiar with) but I am getting nowhere. Please put me out of my misery!

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    1. I think it means: "He made a few remarks about the way in which things may appear different viewed in hindsight [and/or with additional information to hand]." But I wouldn't put money on it!

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    2. Aaah… I can see it now. What a relief! It's both the way "some" is used in a way I wouldn't have, and the choice of "of" where I would probably have said "about". I think I might possibly have managed one of them but definitely not both of these in the same sentence. (Though if I just insert "about" into the sentence it becomes "He spoke about some of the sifting history did" which admittedly is not exactly the same thing but a much more comprehensible sentence. Maybe it's just a misprint?)

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    3. I think it's just the way she writes / thinks. I was thinking exactly the same as you - it could easily be a lot less confusing if you replaced each word with another.

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  2. Hmm...it does sound like a very unusual set of characters, Colm. and that itself can add interest. And I have to admit, there's something about a dark, mysterious house...Thanks for the excellent review.

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    1. I’d say it’s an “old dark house” story when it suits, and not in any kind of lazy or hackneyed way. It’s very enjoyable and it’s full of snappy dialogue.

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    2. Actually I’d really like to watch the film, but I couldn’t have got hold of it in time to compare it with the book in this time-specific traditional Oct 1 post.

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  3. Well, now I know what my next read is. I just pulled the book out (and verified that it is a readable copy) and it is waiting until I finish the Charlie Chan book I am reading. So I have only read the beginning and ending of your post, plus bits in between, and I will be back to comment again in a few days. Your"old dark house" story comment convinced me...

    And what is the significance of Oct. 1?

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    1. Traditionally I do a post on that date or else very nearby. I'll leave CiB to answer any further if she sees fit. I do hope you enjoy the book.

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    2. It's my birthday! and kind Colm (who is my brother) has arranged to give me the day off since the blog started....Best Present Ever!

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    3. Oh my goodness, I did see the frequency of the posts around Oct. 1st. October 1st is Glen's birthday too, and we just had a wonderful birthday weekend for him (movies at home and cooking and the book sale actually). Happy, Happy Birthday a few days late.

      I did read Weird Sisters and was very glad I did. Just finished it tonight. A great re-introduction to Charlotte Armstrong. I had forgotten about the MacDougal Duff series, and I enjoyed meeting him in this book.

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    4. Oh what a coincidence! All the best people... Wish him a happy birthday from me. And now I'm the only one who hasn't read the Weird Sisters...I'm asking Colm to lend it to me.

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  4. So pleased you enjoyed the book and thanks for the kind shout out.

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    1. It was win-win-win Kate! I can thank you for getting a guest post out of it...

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    2. I also particularly liked the "Travelman" story in the box, as it was The Signalman by Charles Dickens - one of my favourite short stories of all time. I vividly remember discovering what I thought was an obscure neglected Dickens piece 40 years ago and being a TEENY bit disappointed to discover that actually it's extremely famous and much celebrated.

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    3. Sorry for the late reply. Just seen your comment Colm. Glad you liked the Travelman story. My sister got me a different one a few years back and I loved the folding out a map experience. Certainly a different way to read a story!

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