There was a little story. I knew there had to be.
Charlotte Armstrong’s most distinctive quality as an author is her clear-eyed but unshakable faith in humanity—certainly a rare perspective in crime fiction. Though she was capable of terrible darkness, the quintessential Armstrong plot involves the prevention of wrongdoing rather than its investigation and ends with the characters learning that they can be better people with just a little effort.
Here, she mostly sidesteps evil altogether. The only crime stories in this collection are “The Enemy” and “Miss Murphy.” The latter is also the only truly bleak story on display.
The other stories very much live up to the title of the collection. They show flawed but relatable characters making the conscious choice to recognize the humanity of others, choosing to truly see another person and to reveal themselves in return. Someone holds out a hand and someone else takes it. This sounds like Sunday-school stuff, but Armstrong makes it seem not only reasonable, but achievable.
“At the Circus”
Very short story about a baby’s first visit to the circus, with a twist at the end.
“The World Turned Upside Down”
In a too-low-key coming of age story, 12-year-old Deedee develops her first crush on an adult family friend, only to learn that his affections lie elsewhere (thank goodness!)
When young Freddy’s dog is poisoned, he knows exactly who to blame: his arch-nemesis Mr. Matlin. He rallies a mob of neighborhood children to exact justice on the killer. Disturbed by his violent behavior, the adults in Freddy’s life encourage him to seek out the truth and follow the course of the law rather than striking out in blind hatred. Everyone bears a responsibility to the next generation; if the children’s parents aren’t providing moral guidance, their teachers and neighbors must step in for the sake of society. If not, as the next story shows, it will soon be too late!
The plot and writing are not complex enough to justify its length; despite the grown-up philosophizing about kids these days, “The Enemy” feels like it could be intended for younger readers. This story was filmed in 1952 as Talk About a Stranger. As I recall, the movie has the same awkward tone of being just a little too mature for children but too juvenile for adults.
High-school administrator Miss Murphy should be working to discipline a gang of teenage bullies. Instead, she is fascinated by them.
“They show,” said Miss Murphy, “a certain courage. Courage in itself should be worth something.”
“Many criminals have courage,” said Mr. Madden, “and often they have power and power is often glamorous.”
It was a fair hit and Miss Murphy knew she was flushing. “And these four have achieved a certain amount of power and glamour, pretty young and pretty cheap,” he went on. “Tell me how to jolt them out of that. And make them substitute the kind of power and glamour that you can work for for fifty years…”
Miss Murphy found herself thinking, Yes, you can work for it and hard for fifty years or for a hundred years, and never get it. And she thought, Just the same, just the same, there is something strong and bold and magnificent—about taking it. Now.
When the teens are suspected of a crime, Miss Murphy holds their fate in her hands, but the situation doesn’t play out as anyone anticipated.
Four friends decide that, for one day, they will live by an inspirational motto selected at random. When the mottoes are mistakenly switched with random phrases from a typing test, will they still be able to carry out the experiment?
The idea here is that you can change your life simply by deciding to do so and following through on the decision. The mottoes themselves don’t matter, it’s the action that counts. “Three nonsensical words. How strange that, when applied, they had turned out not to be nonsense.”
“The Weight of the Word”
The whole town is shocked when Mark Huston slaps his estranged wife in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Divorce seems inevitable—what normal man could be so enraged by a single word? But Teresa wants the judge to understand what this word has meant to them through the years, and how its significance has changed over the course of their marriage.
Luckily, she manages to convince the men that domestic violence is really the wife’s fault. A happy ending!
On the surface, they look like the perfect 1950s family. The husband commutes from
the suburbs to his job in the city each day. The son hasn’t a care in the world, as long as his school wins the big game. And the wife has been putting off her appointment at the beauty parlor for far too long.
Each member of the family has hidden depths, however, which are revealed over the course of the day. For just a moment one evening they come together to share their secret selves, reminding the reader that every suburban tract house contains individual people, each with their own hopes, dreams, and fears.
“How They Met”
All of their friends agree, the Hartes are the most attractive couple they know. No longer young, never very good-looking, they nonetheless bring out the best in each other.. The only question is, how did two such different people meet in the first place? Sweet without being sickly, but not much to it.
“I See You”
An intense but not entirely depressing meditation on the helplessness of old age. Janet Brown is bored and frustrated in her new nursing home. However, she is about to tell her daughter-in-law that she wants to stay there, because she has no other options. As she waits outside with a minder, watching children play, the rest of her life unfolds in miniature: a long stretch of peaceful tedium interspersed with unexpected pleasures.
“All the Janets she used to be” are present as other characters in the story—the child, the young bride, the middle-aged matron—alongside the elderly woman she has now become. “She seemed to be seeing the whole pageant of her woman’s life and she thought. It was beautiful and it was cruel. It is still a little beautiful and very cruel. But that is the law. The best she could do, from now on out, was to peer at the world’s magnificence through whatever chinks she could find in a day. And be as little trouble as possible. A challenging life, if you like, she thought.”
“I See You” and “Miss Murphy” are the standouts of the collection. The only two stories that I found to be lacking were “The Enemy” and “The Weight of the Word.” The rest are well-written light fiction, but those in the mood for crime should look elsewhere.
I See You is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press