Sunday, August 9, 2015

A Little Mischief

This week I'm looking at Mischief, which will appear in the Library of America's new volumes of American Women Authors of the 1940s and 1950s.

Armstrong’s  bestseller Mischief became the basis for the movie Don't Bother to Knock, which starred a young Marilyn Monroe as a mentally unbalanced baby-sitter. As in Bus Stop, Monroe gives some of her best work, proof that she was more than just a dumb blonde. Mischief would do for babysitters what Psycho would later do for showers. Armstrong’s book started out as a play entitled Little Nell, a wry twist on the idea of the poor young Dickensian heroine. She later changed the story to the now familiar plot of the babysitter who seems reliable, but quickly displays her disturbed nature. The elevator man’s niece is a last minute replacement for the husband’s sister who had a previous engagement. Nell, the babysitter, seems almost mentally challenged at first, but her total lack of morals and concern for the future are slowly revealed to the reader. The book is tightly and expertly written and touches upon the fears of every parent.
Two themes begin to resonate through the works of Armstrong at this point. The first is the idea of the strong woman. Women who might appear slight in appearance, but are made of steel inside have replaced the dependent girls of her first few efforts. In Mischief, Ruth Jones, the child’s mother, is one such heroine. For three quarters of the book, she is merely the companion to her husband who has just wowed an audience with his speech. She is only given a few polite words to murmur in appreciation of her spouse. However, when she feels concern about her daughter being in danger, she immediately rushes to action. She travels through New York City alone and confronts Nell without thought to her own safety. 

These women are typically married, happy, and most strong in defending a family member.

The other idea that starts to come through in her work is the idea of a collective unconscious. Armstrong would use the notion in many of her later novels. The subtle idea that a number of characters could share an emotion without discussing it appears in a number of her works. In Mischief, she manages to imbue several of her characters with the realization that they share the guilt for this situation. The child’s brush with danger from the deranged babysitter could have been prevented with intervention from any number of people. All the characters “could” have done something to stop the crescendo of fear and abuse. While none of the characters express this concern verbally, it passes through the thoughts of several of the major characters. The couple staying downstairs might have investigated the crying earlier or the elevator operator might have suggested another babysitter. Thematically tied to the idea of helping each other, Jed, Nell’s date for the evening, even recalls a fight he had with another woman about her desire to give money to the bums on the streets. The notion of contributing to help others runs deep in the novel. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Some Domestic Suspense for you

To celebrate the Library of America's decision to publish several of the American women mystery authors who were profiled in Atomic Renaissance, I thought I'd give you my thoughts on some of the books in the collections. All of these books are fascinating and everyone should be running to get a copy of them!

After Highsmith's The Price of Salt, The Blunderer, was again in the suspense field and published under her own name. In The Blunderer, she twists the formula she used so well in Strangers on a Train.
“[T]he germinal idea of another book, The Blunderer, was not so promising, was more stubborn about developing, but showed a hardihood by sticking in my head for more than a year, and nagging at me until I found a way to write it. This was: ‘Two crimes are strikingly similar, though the people who commit them do not know each other.’”1

As with Strangers on a Train, the two main characters are men, bound together by murder. In this case, one man has intentionally killed his wife, the other merely fantasized about it before his wife commits suicide. While Walter Stackhouse has not committed a crime, he has daydreamed about his wife’s murder. Society punishes him for that crime by making him the outcast that his wife wanted him to be. Stackhouse is trapped in an existential nightmare, one where he is punished for the wickedness of his thoughts rather than for any deed he committed. The situation is evocative of Kafka, where no one can halt events once they have begun. The logical end is like a brick wall looming ahead. The policeman, Corby, plays the two men off each other until the situation explodes into further violence.
Again the women in the novel are not sympathetic. Clara Stackhouse, a successful businesswoman, clings to her husband with threats of suicide and promises that she will change. She is petty and neurotic, accusing her husband of starting an affair with an acquaintance before he even notices the young woman in question.

In nearly all of Highsmith’s works, the plot has a point of no-return where the character could choose another direction. Once that choice is made, the inevitable path of self-destruction begins. Some critics have decried her works, saying that the suspension of disbelief is stretched too far by the extreme reactions of the characters. To Highsmith’s credit, she makes the situation so plausible and real that the reader forgets that the protagonist might have avoided the entire situation. In Strangers on a Train, Guy could have easily not played along with Bruno’s conversation. He could have moved or read a book. In The Blunderer, Walter follows the bus carrying his wife to the first rest stop. His reasoning for his actions is thin, but Highsmith has so masterfully drawn the characters and situation that the reader understands the actions, even if the decisions are not what the reader would do.
(1.Patricia Highsmith. Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, page 4.)