LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
The Dream Walker by Charlotte Armstrongpublished 1955
Cora was propped high on the bed, having climbed back in to play invalid for this occasion. She wore a rose-pink woolly bed jacket and careful make-up. Set among her froth, that could not entirely conceal the hospital white and hospital austerity, she was rosily and frivolously pretty, except for the pawn-of-fate mask on the face and the nervous slide of the hands along the edge of the sheet, back and forth…
[A later incident]
Cora was wearing a gold-coloured robe of silk, embroidered with black dragons. She was sitting in an easy chair, talking to a strange young man…
I went over to the high bed and lay myself upon it. ‘I’m exhausted,’ I said. ‘Go on with whatever it is.’
Cora got up and swished about, the long folds of golden silk boiling about her quick feet.
commentary: These young bloggers, vloggers, Instagrammers, Snapchatters - one gathers that they make a fortune by linking up with fashion houses who pay them to push goods, or they are given their own line of clothes or accessories. When Clothes in Books gets a hugely lucrative deal (any day now I'm sure) then the CiB line of nightwear ('nightwear to entertain in') must be the way to go: a few negligees and kimonos, some elegant lounging pyjamas and - above all, our signature line - bedjackets. We have a built-in audience, my readers seem to love bedjackets as much as I do, and they are very hard to find in real life...
We, blogger and readers, have always liked them – there are examples all over the blog. And the splendid comments and memories from readers are what make those entries so delightful.
This bedjacket turns up in a truly excellent forgotten book. Charlotte Armstrong isn’t much remembered now, and perhaps is seen as one of a number of American writers of the era, producing smart tense crime novels, usually with a female protagonist.
The heroine will have a career, and some jeopardy, and some romance coming through the plot, but it would be a mistake to underestimate these books because of that. Ursula Curtis, Mary McMullen, Helen McCloy – all wrote excellent books. I have clear memories of a couple of Armstrong books – Mischief is a tour de force, and was made into a film that gave Marilyn Monroe an early role – the 1952 Don’t Bother to Knock. A Little Less Than Kind, on the blog a while back, is a Hamlet re-write nearly as good as The Lion King, and was one of the inspirations for a Guardian article.
This one I read in the 1980s, but had no memory of it at all. I’m surprised, because it is an absolute corker, and very unusual and clever. It has the routine cast of characters – rich, influential, arty, all in New York or Washington, all knowing each other and attending the same social events. We see everything through the eyes of Olivia, a schoolteacher with a private income and an important family. And from the beginning we know half of what is going on. Armstrong has calculated precisely what she wants us to know, and when, and how she is going to trickle out further information: it’s a stunning performance.
We know that a very elaborate plot has been set up to bring down a man who has ‘served his country better and longer than most people alive… he has been like a wise and beloved Uncle John to the entire USA.’ We know who has arranged the plot, and why, and where the money has come from. But we don’t know how it is going to work…
Cora, above, is a small-time actress on the edge of the charmed circle. In a series of very strange incidents, she seems to pass out in front of a crowd of impeccable witnesses. After a while, she wakes up and says she ‘dreamed’ that she was in a certain place, that she walked along a beach in Florida, as it might be, and spoke to someone. It emerges that at that exact time (all this is checkable) she apparently was on the beach, hundreds of miles away, and did speak. Well. There are several of these incidents, and they become the focus of considerable attention.
As readers we KNOW that these are fakes, and we know how they are done – there is a careful plan, and a double has been found for Cora. All that is laid out for us. But still this book is incredibly tense because you cannot work out what the full plan is, and how it is going to be thwarted. It is full of surprises and twists, and moments where I had to think hard about where people were. The only thing that lets it down is a very-much-of-its-time political attitude towards leftwingers. ‘Is she pinkish?’ – McCarthyism was surely starting to decline by 1955, but not in Armstrong’s world.
And on the plus side, it is a short book, 190 pages – in those days, apparently, you could bring in a tight, tense and complex story in that kind of length. How some modern authors could learn from this…
There’s a nice article about Armstrong’s books here.
The bedjacket is a knitting pattern (you too could make one if my online business is slow in coming!) and the woman in the black kimono is Ava Willing Astor. (Colours the wrong way round, but any excuse to use this lovely picture.) Thanks to Marion S, who found the bedjacket for me.