Monday, December 25, 2006

Mischief - Charlotte Armstrong

First published 1951; cover shown is the 1957 Penguin Books (UK) paperback edition.

"Everything rests on trust between strangers. Everything else is a house of cards."

At the last minute, Ruth and Peter O. Jones have to find a replacement babysitter for their nine-year-old daughter, Bunny. Staying in a hotel in a strange city, their options are limited. The elevator man, Eddie Munro, suggests his 19-year-old niece and Ruth and Peter reluctantly leave their daughter in her care. What follows is a night of terror for Bunny as the niece, Nell, wreaks her own brand of "mischief".

Dressing herself in Ruth's negligee, jewels and perfume, she makes a few long distance nuisance phone calls before luring hotel guest Jed Towers into the Jones' room. Jed soon realises Nell is not "normal"... she tries to push Bunny out the window, knocks her uncle Eddie unconscious when he comes to check on her, binds and gags the terrified Bunny, and seems to be unable to see the consequences for her actions. It's when he also realises that Nell is able to understand the consequences - and she doesn't care - that Jed hightails it out of there.

The tension escalates sharply as this well written suspense novel reaches its climax. The characterisation is very well done; the opening chapter, describing Ruth, Peter and Bunny's loving, playful family relationship, endeared them to me from the start and I was genuinely terrified about what may happen to Bunny in Nell's insane hands. And I enjoyed the scene when Ruth, uncomfortable with leaving her daughter with Nell, takes a taxi back to the hotel earlier than anticipated: the mother protecting her cub... doing whatever it takes.

Charlotte Armstrong (1905 - 1969) was a prolific American mystery writer (psychological suspense and detective). Unlike many of her female peers, Armstrong avoided the extremes of romantic suspense and created strong, assertive female characters who did not always need a man to get them out of trouble. As in Mischief, Armstrong also cast more than a few females as the villains. Other titles included The Chocolate Cobweb, Lay On, Macduff! and A Dram of Poison.

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