Every month, my Book Club selects a different classic mystery to read. Even with all the terrific books out there, it isn’t as easy a task as you might think. For one thing, most of us are bloggers, and we read a lot of this stuff. Then again, our tastes vary, and it’s well nigh impossible to find a book that everyone will love. Still, we persevere – and we try to give everyone a say in which books we will read.
December was Kate’s turn, and she delighted me by suggesting we read something by Charlotte Armstrong. From the mid-1940’s through the ‘60’s, Armstrong was one of THE masters of domestic suspense. I even think I read a few of her novels years ago. Can’t remember a thing about them. But I do remember a little story she wrote called “The Enemy,” a political warning against mob violence expertly disguised as a heartfelt domestic tragedy. (To my mind, it outshines its contemporary, the classic Shirley Jackson tale “The Lottery,” in every way.)
Personally, I was excited to read anything by Armstrong: I hoped it might be The Unsuspected because I love the 1947 movie starring Claude Rains. Or maybe Mischief, which was adapted to film as Don’t Bother to Knock and featured Marilyn Monroe as a bats**t crazy babysitter. Or maybe The Chocolate Cobweb because . . . well, I already own a copy. But, of course, Kate and a few others had already read these books. We ended up choosing 1954’s The Better to Eat You, Armstrong’s tenth mystery novel because nobody had read it. Most of us hadn’t even heard of it!
Today, Kate dropped her own review of the book. I think you can get a lot out of reading it because Kate can examine this title in perspective of the other Armstrongs she has read. Reading her post, I was reminded of how nervous we all get in Book Club when we are the ones who selected a title. We want our friends to like what we chose. In her review, Kate expressed her own anxiety over what we would think of this book. The fact is, right this minute, I am extremely nervous about sharing with Kate – and you, dear reader – my thoughts on The Better to Eat You.
The title calls to mind the tumultuous relationship between an innocent girl (Little Red Riding Hood) and a predatory male (Little Red’s faux Grandma/The Big Bad Wolf). Armstrong’s book starts at a Southern California university where a popular history professor named David Wakely seems to be making the moves on one of his students, the shyly beautiful Sarah Shepherd. Frankly, a plot about a salacious academic who preys on his students might have made for a gripping suspense novel in the expert hands of this author. But that’s not what Armstrong is going for here. In fact, David – who really does seem pretty creepy some of the time – is the hero of this novel, and Sarah – who is far too insipid most of the time to earn our sympathies or respect – is the heroine.
I’m here to tell you that such a relationship exists in Armstrong’s book. The heroine of the story, Sarah Shepherd, is a beautiful (if hardly brave) young woman, and the villain is a man named Arthur Lupino (lupine = wolflike . . . get it?) who was the theatrical partner of Sarah’s grandfather, Bertrand Fox (as in “sly like a . . . “)
The novel opens with Professor Wakely offering a job as his secretary for the new book he’s writing. Except he’s not actually writing a book, but he’s not trying to pick her up either, although most of the time it sure looks like he is. No, he seems to be trying to rescue Sarah from something. He doesn’t know what that is, but Sarah acts enough like a frightened victim to make it appear that she does need to be rescued from something.
It turns out Sarah is convinced that she is a kind of Jonah, a person whose presence causes those with whom she interacts to suffer. She offers a litany of tragedies as evidence – including the death of her husband on their wedding day! – but David doesn’t believe a person could be so cursed. He thinks somebody else, for a motive presently unknown, is working hard to make Sarah believe she’s a living jinx. And he’s determined to set things straight so that Sarah can end up . . . well, frankly, it’s not clear what he wants of her after that.
As an opening set-up for a mystery, I’ve read better and I’ve read worse. Still, I was willing to give this concept a go and see how much of a mystery Charlotte Armstrong could make of this idea. Maybe Sarah would invite David to her home and we would meet a bunch of well-developed characters, all of them somewhat odd or suspicious, and David would risk his life to find out which of them is a monster in disguise. Unfortunately, this is not the path Armstrong trods. Instead, she gives us a good whiff in the second chapter of who is conspiring against Sarah, and then she unleashes all her twists and makes everything clear by the end of Chapter Four.
This leaves eighteen chapters and two hundred pages of novel to get through. Perhaps, we think, this is going to be an inverted mystery. But if it is, it’s the most frustrating inverted mystery I’ve ever read. The machinations of the villains are so obvious, but insipid little Sarah refuses to recognize any of what’s going on around her, and David, for all his bounding about, refuses to do anything constructive about it. Charlotte Armstrong, along with contemporaries like Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith, were changing the face of the modern mystery novel, but The Better to Eat You reads like an old-fashioned melodrama/thriller.
As I watched events unfold at the home of Bertrand FOX, Sarah’s grandfather (who, in reality, is Arthur LUPINE, Fox’s old comedy partner . . . can you guess yet who the BIG BAD WOLF is??), I was reminded of another 50’s contemporary of Armstrong – Rocky and Bullwinkle. Throughout the book the villains cavort around one part of the house like Boris Badenov and his moll, Natasha Fatale, springing one unsuccessful death trap after another, while on the other side of the mansion, David, the Flying tries to get Sarah Moose to stop behaving like such an idiot and recognize the danger around her. This fantasy helped me get through the succeeding chapters, but just barely.
What we’re left with is a domestic suspense novel lacking in any suspense and an unconvincing love story between a pompous academic and a dimwitted Gothic lady. Even on the final page, after all the bad guys are exposed, arrested or dead, David is still trying to convince Sarah that she isn’t a jinx. He even suggests that until she is emotionally mature enough to return his love (for yes, he loves her now), she might as well put her great shorthand to use and actually be his secretary. Honestly, I wish she would just smack the guy!
Charlotte Armstrong has done much better than this, and I mean to strike out and find the gold in her canon on my own.
Another sane opinion from the Dead Yesterday blog.
6 thoughts on “FRACTURED FAIRY TALE: The Better to Eat You”
You had ne at Rocky and Bullwinkle Brad 😆
“me” that is (sigh). Chabrol did a decent job with the other Armstrong you have as I recall …
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I’ve never seen EITHER Chabrol film based on an Armstrong novel. Nor, for that matter, have I watched DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK or TALK ABOUT A STRANGER, the film adaptation of “The Enemy.”
Oh, dear, I sense a new project brewing . . . (if I can find all these films!)
Yes I can’t pretend this is Armstrong’ best. The Chocolate Cobweb is definitely better – Jim and Aidan enjoyed that one a lot. You already know the plot of The Unsuspected, so you might not want to try the book, but you might find Catch as Catch Can interesting in the way it makes a non-crime starter, turn criminal due to one character’s idea.
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I own both The Unsuspected and The Chocolate Cobweb, so I will go with these first. I know it’s hard to compare a book to a beloved film, but that’s the sort of thing we intrepid bloggers do!!
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