LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
the book: The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrongpublished 1945 as a serial, 1946 as a book
Althea, gargling her throat, heard his tapping on the locked and bolted door. “Grandy?”
“Slip the latch, chickabiddy. Are you decent?”
Althea slipped the latch. “I’m decent,” she said sulkily.
He stood in the half-open door, looking at her with a worried frown. “Oliver?”
“Oh.” Althea slashed at the rack with her towel. She had a white satin negligee pulled tight around her hips. The wide sleeves were embroidered in silver. “We had a fight. A regular knock-down, drag-out.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Grandy. “So sorry, dear.”
“He’ll get over it,” she said. She looked angry to the point of tears. “Was it because of Francis?”
commentary: Tracy over at Bitter Tea and Mystery mentioned this book, and the fact that there was a Claude Rains film made of it in 1947, so obviously I was keen to read it – and also managed to watch the film.
Charlotte Armstrong writes clever domestic noir books, short and sharp – there are a few of them on the blog. This one has a complex setup with quite a few characters, and honestly watching the film I wouldn’t have had a clue what was going on if I hadn’t read the book – there are many similar-looking women, all connected with a slightly sinister writer and broadcaster called Luther Grandison (Victor G in the film). At the start of the film two of these women are apparently dead – one committed suicide, one was lost in a ship that went down.
There are some nice clothes:
Her yellow skirt rippled off to the floor. The ruching at her neck made a deep square. She knew she was lovely.
And then there is this rather bitchy description:
Althea wore a blue denim coverall and her silver-blond hair was tied up in a blue scarf. She wore gloves—dainty ones, too—and now Jane saw her fold her hands around the handle of the dust mop and lean picturesquely on it. Althea dusting the living-room floor was something to watch, a picture. Althea made the most of her opportunities in Grandy’s servantless house. She never missed an opportunity to be a picture.
And of course it is always handy in this kind of book if the grand house is servantless (or are locked away in their own part of the house) as it simplifies who might have committed any crimes. Mind you in this one there isn’t much doubt as to what is going on: the question is whether a young man and a young woman can find out what really happened, and pin the crime on the right person.
There are some nice things about the book – one of the young women, Jane, is very independent and plays an active role in the events. However I had a really big problem with a key plotline: in order to inveigle his way into the house, Francis claims to have married Mathilda (who is absent at the time). When she turns up, and points out that this is a blatant lie, he tries to convince her and everyone else that she is a) amnesiac and b) mad. It is an appalling piece of gaslighting – for example he tells her she is ‘hurting his feelings’ by saying she doesn’t know him – but this is treated as being fine, because it is in ultimately a good cause. It’s tough on Mathilda he says, ‘But what could I do? I felt like a heel.’ How awful for him. It reads very badly to modern eyes, but I can’t see it was much better in the mid-40s…
The sleuthing is great: a lot of key timings depending on clocks and radio broadcasts, and there is an exciting ending with a person in a trunk being carried off to an incinerator. It is splendidly done.
I was surprised the film didn’t seem to be well known, as it was directed by a man with a spectacular track record: Michael Curtiz – Casablanca is just one of his many famous films. The Unsuspected is a real noir thriller – sharp dialogue, VERY black and white, a lot of shadows, a great cast. But I think it just doesn’t come off, there’s something a bit lost about it – not helped by the opening ten minutes being extremely confusing and choppy, and too many actors and actresses who all look the same.
But both book and film are definitely worth a look if they sound like your kind of thing.
Top picture is a starlet called Carol Landis. The yellow dress from the 40s is by Jean Patou, from Kristine’s photostream. The lady doing the housework is from the Imperial War Museum collection.