I encountered US novelist Charlotte Armstrong (1905-69) within the pages of Christopher Fowler’s “The Book Of Forgotten Authors”. With some 29 novels under her own name and as Jo Valentine her speciality was “to portray women locked in psychological warfare with the members of their extended families and male-dominated workforces” which sounds as if her work should still be commercial and relevant today.
The title I chose to read feels more like she is following a male style of writing and so not typical of what might be expected from her. I associate the clipped dry tones with the hardboiled crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the type of film that might have starred Humphrey Bogart but she does do it with a lighter touch and many of her turns of phrase are appealing; “But it would be better if he took the car. It couldn’t answer questions three days later.” “It was like watching a petal spin on the skin of a wave, a pretty petal that could never sink.”
There’s a lot of dialogue and it is a fast-paced novel that can be polished off in a couple of sittings. I can’t help but think it could be faster-paced if characters said what they actually meant rather than talking in riddles to one another. Kay Salisbury meets this black-eyed stranger at a party. He is crime reporter Sam Lynch, who mixes with certain undesirables including the vengeful Ambielli and his muscle-mountain henchman Baby Hohenbaum. When Lynch hears of a plan to hold Kay to ransom he takes matter into his own hands.
All the characters here become confused as to each other’s motives. It really isn’t that deep in terms of characterisation, plot or themes but Armstrong weaves an involving enough tale. From what Christopher Fowler says of her I would imagine that the more typical work would have more resonant characters and relationships but this is an example of a technically proficient, tightly-written short novel.
The Black-Eyed Stranger was first published in the UK in 1955. I read the Head Of Zeus ebook edition from 2012.