A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Karol Kay Hope
CHARLOTTE ARMSTRONG – The Balloon Man. Coward McCann, hardcover, 1958. Fawcett CRest, paperback, 1969; Berkley, paperback, 1976; IPL Crime Classics, paperback, 1990.
— The Gift Shop. Coward McCann, hardcover, 1967. Fawcett Crest, paperback, 1968. Zebra, paperback, 1990.
In her twenty-six-year career, Charlotte Armstrong published dozens of novels and short stories as well as plays and screenplays. Her series detective, MacDougal Duff, appears in only the first three novels; Armstrong is better known for her later works, which combine suspenseful plots with a sensitive depiction of ordinary American people whose moral character is severely tested by extraordinary circumstances.
Armstrong’s heroes and heroines are normal people with considerable inner resources upon which they can to extricate themselves from dangerous situations that they are in through no fault of their own. The author does not flinch from dealing with such thorny moral issues as the abuse of power by the wealthy, the failure of parents to take responsibility for their offspring, and man’s free will; and she has been known to stand firmly on the side of the underdog. These philosophical issues in no way detract from the suspense of her stories, which is always considerable.
As shown by The Balloon Man, Armstrong likes young women with guts. The heroine, wife of a rich-boy-tumed-drug-addict, sees her husband throw their young son against the kitchen wall, breaking his leg in a fit of drug-induced hallucination. The down-to-earth young mother leaves quickly, with her son, never to return, knowing her husband’s drug problem is beyond her help. She figures his rich family will take care of him; they’ve always hated her anyway, low-class street girl that she is.
The husband’s father, however, won’t let it go at that and displays an almost insane resentment of her. He’s determined to get custody of his grandson, and while the heroine waits in a boardinghouse near the hospital until her son is well enough to take back east, the father-in-law bribes an unsavory school pal of his son’s to take a room in the boardinghouse and do all that’s necessary to prove her an unfit mother.
What follows is a delightful picture of the lives of the boarders and the inner workings of greed and evil that will stop at nothing to separate a child from its mother. A wonderful celebration of good old American grit. And, we might add, wit.
The Gift Shop is a classic example of Armstrong’s talent and view of the world.Here we have an unassuming, lower-middle-class American girl who is putting herself through college by clerking in an airport gift shop. Her life is ruffled by little more than her boss’s occasional temper tantrum.
Enter the rich, good-looking bachelor — the youngest of three professionally successful sons who are sources of pride and solace to the patriarch who fathered them. The almost unbelievable hero (are there really such soulful rich young men in the world today?) is hot on the trail of an old school chum who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances (last seen in the gift shop) while researching the whereabouts of the young man’s sister, whose existence has just been revealed to the family.
And the circumstances of this revelation — a demand that the oldest son, governor of the state, stay the execution of an internationally known crime figure in exchange for the sister’s life — are sinister indeed.
The adventure that the gift-shop clerk becomes embroiled in is refreshingly humane; and in the course of it, the bachelor overcomes the girl’s resistance to arrogant rich young men. The romance does not proceed without difficulty, however; like many of Armstrong’s heroines, she is the self-sufficient kind and not prone to stroking the male ego.
This is high adventure, the stuff about which any righter-of-wrongs dreams. It is almost unbelievable, but the author has a way of making us feel it would happen to any one of us, any day now.
Other excellent Charlotte Armstrong titles are Catch-as-Catch-Can (1952), The Better to Eat You (1954), A Dram of Poison (winner of the Edgar for Best Novel of 1956), The Turret Room (1965), and Protégé (1970). The best of her fine short stories can be found in the collections The Albatross (1957) and I See You (1966).
Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007. Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.