The Unsuspected (1945) by Charlotte Armstrong

Book cover of The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong

7 Stars(7/10 stars)

“He’s the devil. How can we fight the devil? That tongue of his, the power of it! He molds the thoughts in people’s heads with his tongue, Jane. Their brains melt. He makes them think what he wants them to think. They’re all his puppets. And he’s the great director. Look at him now. He’s killed twice, committed two murders, and everybody is down there weeping for him.”

They say money can’t buy happiness, and Mathilda Frazier is the living proof. First her fiancé Oliver jilts her days before the wedding, to marry her poor but beautiful cousin, Althea. She goes on a cruise to try and forget, only to be reported dead after a shipwreck. When she finally returns home months later, a handsome stranger is waiting on the dock. He says he’s her husband. Mathilda is sure she’s never seen him before.

At least she has Grandy. Her guardian Luther Grandison loves her even if she is, as he keeps reminding her, an ugly duckling. Mathilda has never really thought about whose money is paying for Grandy’s luxurious lifestyle. It’s never occurred to her that he might have been happier with her dead.

From the very start, we know what Luther Grandison has done. His secretary Rosaleen is supposed to have committed suicide by hanging. Her aunt Jane and fiancé Francis are certain she was killed by her employer—they just don’t know how or why. To get close to Grandison, they infiltrate his house undercover, with Jane as his new secretary and Francis posing as Mathilda’s widower. When his “wife” returns from the dead, Francis and Jane have their work cut out to keep her alive.

Lest you think I’m giving away too much plot, this is all revealed in the first two chapters. The Unsuspected is a slow starter that grows more powerful as it goes. For a while, Armstrong is more interested in the characters’ emotional reactions than in generating suspense. This pays dividends later, as the reader becomes invested in Mathilda’s quest for independence and Francis’ recovery from the dual shocks of war service and his fiancée’s death.

Book cover of The Unsuspected by Charlotte ArmstrongThis is not so much a murder mystery as a portrait of a monster and of those who would fight monsters. Grandy is a theatre director, one of those public-intellectual murder aficionados that are so prevalent in crime fiction. His theatrical background aids him in manipulating others and shields him from discovery. Paradoxically, the more shamelessly hammy and artificial his maneuvers are, the more they evoke the affection of his friends and family. Oh, that’s our Grandy, with his dramatic personality! They mistakenly believe his performances are an exaggerated version of his true feelings, failing to realize how calculated his little scenes are.

Grandison’s relations with his two nieces are satisfyingly creepy. The lovely and amoral Althea is the one he loves (as much as he can love anyone)—and why not, as he’s created her in his image? To adorn Althea and maintain his jewel box of a house, he needs Mathilda’s money. That means keeping her close to him, as he will lose his guardianship if she marries. He must convince her that only he could love her. Mathilda tolerates Althea’s selfishness as the price of living with Grandy, failing to recognize his own, barely more subtle, emotional abuse.

“There’s a pressure in my house. You can’t see it, of course. You can’t hear it. Five senses don’t betray it to you, but you feel it all the same. I was afraid of it before. It’s death, I think. Not our familiar death that comes on schedule for the old or the sick. This is Death, the fascinator. The Death that’s like a dark lover. Don’t you see, duck? If it got [her] it was because it got her unaware. She didn’t know. She hadn’t been warned. There’s an attraction, a dreadful pull. Have you never stood on the edge of a steep drop, Tyl, and felt the urge to go over?”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, Grandy.”

“It’s similar, similar. Pressure. Pull. What difference? Something wants you to go over and be done with everything. Francis was so right, duckling, to be afraid.”

The central conflict of the narrative is Francis and Jane’s battle against such disingenuous evil. No dirt ever sticks to Grandison. It’s not so much that his lies are plausible, as that they are so very blatant that they almost circle back around again. It is easier for Mathilda, and even the police, to believe that an unlikely story might be true than to believe that a respected man would lie that audaciously. He manages to turn every accusation back onto the accuser. Somehow Francis ends up looking worse for having the bad manners to suspect his host of murder than Grandy does for having potentially committed the crime in the first place.

Francis thought what a fool he had been. We are so vulnerable to plain, unadorned violence. We tend to think our enemies will play by the rules. We can’t conceive of the rules being wiped out. We don’t really, except on the battlefield, believe in the existence of ruthless, violent people. We believe them when we see them. He ought to have known better.

At this time in particular, it’s cathartic to see good people stand up to liars and manipulators. Even outside of this context, however, The Unsuspected boasts a memorable villain and convincing relationships between the characters. If nothing else, this is surely the only romantic suspense novel that stages its climax at the city dump. That has to be worth something.

Availability

The Unsuspected is available as an ebook from Open Road Media/The Mysterious Press.

The 1947 film version is also available on DVD. It takes a slightly different, and even more effective, approach to the same plot elements. No scene at the dump, though.


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