A post from the Chief Guest Blogger, Colm Redmond
The Case Of The Weird Sisters by Charlotte Armstrong
“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 Gummidge – 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 And 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.