The Better to Eat You (1954) by Charlotte Armstrong

The Better to Eat You by Charlotte Armstrong

3 Stars (3/10 stars)

Have you ever heard of a Jonah? Someone who brings trouble, bad luck, wherever she goes?”

Sarah Shepherd isn’t the type to draw attention to herself. Older than most of her college classmates, she sits quietly in the back row, hiding shyly behind her glasses. Sarah can’t hide her intelligence, though, and the thoughtfulness of her writing inspires history professor David Wakeley to seek her out. It’s a bigger challenge than he expects.

David learns why she is so desperate to avoid human contact: Sarah is convinced she is a jinx. Ever since the war, catastrophe has befallen everyone around her. The only way to keep others safe is by keeping away from them. David feels he must help Sarah, before her life is destroyed by what must certainly be a delusion. The dangers that threaten Sarah are all too real, however, and for once the professor doesn’t have all the answers.

The Better to Eat You is a misfire from one of my favorite authors, squandering an excellent premise by revealing too much far too soon. This is a trick Charlotte Armstrong uses often, springing a huge surprise on the reader very early in the book. When it works, it is a tour de force, but the right conditions need to be present. In The Dream Walker, for instance, this gambit is successful because there is still a lot of mystery left to reveal, and Armstrong plays with parallel timelines to keep the reader engaged. Books like A Dram of Poison and Mischief use the initial reveal as a jumping-off point for suspense. Knowing what is really going on only makes the danger more acute. The Better to Eat You leaves nothing for the reader to discover, however. It doesn’t work as an inverted mystery and it’s difficult to take Sarah and David’s predicament seriously when they are adults who could just leave the situation at any time. There is no suspense over their fate, only frustration.

Murder's Nest by Charlotte ArmstrongSarah’s misfortunes begin with the death of her husband during World War II and will end, she hopes, after reuniting with her grandfather Bertrand Fox. Sarah has not seen her grandfather since she was a child. A retired music-hall clown, Fox has invested wisely and left his native England to enjoy his last years in a gated beachfront estate in California. Because of the gates and fences, it is the only place where Sarah feels safe. She knows her beloved grandfather would not let anything happen to her.

David is less sanguine about the isolated mansion and its strange inhabitants. In addition to Bertrand Fox, the household includes several servants, Dr. Edgar Perrot, and Malvina Lupino, granddaughter of Fox’s former stage partner. Edgar lives with Fox so he can tend to the old man’s heart disease full time. Malvina has been a surrogate granddaughter to Fox for years, ever since he “fished her out of the blitz to be his handmaiden.” She fiercely resents the move to California, viewing Sarah as an interloper. Despite Malvina’s formidable exterior, “David began to suspect she was wearing a mask over nothing, that the secret of Malvina was a certain numbness and stupidity.”

There is an odd incident in the family history that may partially explain the animosity between Sarah and her “cousin” Malvina. When both girls were children, Sarah’s family returned to England for a visit. At a garden party, young Sarah accidentally injured Malvina’s grandfather Lupino with an arrow. Lupino was not badly hurt, but Sarah has always been haunted by what happened next.

I never meant to hurt him with the arrow. He was grown up. He should have known that. But one day…Why, we were ready to sail for home. We went to say goodbye. He took me alone. He opened his shirt, Grandfather, and he made me look at that horrible scar and touch it. And he said to me, “See your pretty work, young Sarah? Don’t ever forget your work that you did.” Grandfather, it frightened me so. I dreamed of it. Even now, when I am unhappy, sometimes in a nightmare I can see the shape of that awful scar. To me it is the shape of a sin. But it wasn’t my sin.

Sarah’s whole situation is like a child’s nightmare; indeed, all of her behavior and reactions are rather immature. Whenever she’s unhappy, she goes running for Grandfather. She cries, faints, and acts so helpless that even David grows frustrated at times. “You suffer, therefore people spare you,” he tells her. “You are asking for lies when you act as if you are not tough enough for the truth.” He should know, since he himself does not trust Sarah enough to take her into his confidence. Instead he playacts and concocts little subterfuges to trick her into doing his will, some of which backfire spectacularly.

In fact, many of the characters have an arch, simplistic way of speaking that comes across as childlike and unsophisticated. Conversations between these characters have the feel of a demented fairy tale rather than a story intended for adults. Everything is stated as overtly and as often as possible. There is no nuance. Nothing is left for the reader to interpret or discover. “If you are brash enough,” David theorizes, “you can intimidate respectable people into telling you a heck of a lot more than they should.” That seems to be everyone’s plan here—both the good and the evil are totally brazen all the time, counting on the social contract to help them get away with it. At times, this approach is tremendously effective, especially when the denizens of the estate must interact with outsiders, but these moments are all too rare.

Perhaps the lack of subtlety and constant breaching of personal boundaries is best explained by the involvement of clowns. Armstrong quite properly points out that there is nothing amusing about the old photographs of Fox and Lupino in their clown costumes, gazing inhumanly at some long-ago cameraman. Upon recalling Bertrand Fox’s former career, David is overcome by repulsion.

Distaste and fright made David queasy. He thought, now there is a legend. The grotesque, wide-lipped, white-painted clown’s face is no child’s delight. Not naturally. A child would scream. If it hadn’t been taught a legend, a child would be afraid.

What is frustrating about The Better to Eat You is that it could be exponentially better if just a little more were held back. That big revelation is splashy, but it spoils everything that comes after. Armstrong obviously expects all the tension to come from the reader’s emotional investment in Sarah and David. Since Sarah is a drip and David is overbearing, it’s difficult to care about either of them as individuals or as a couple. Actually, the most compelling character is David’s lively aunt Consuelo, who seems poised to play a large role in the investigation. Instead, she vanishes for much of the book, only to turn up again near the end in a perilous situation. That is when I sat up and started paying attention, hoping things would turn out all right for poor Consuelo. If I could have summoned up half of that interest in Sarah or David, this would have been a very different reading experience.

Second Opinion

The Criminal Record, April 3, 1954

Personnel eludes credibility; plot highly contrived. Slightly goofy.

Availability

The Better to Eat You is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press

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