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Mischief by Charlotte Armstrong

Mischief.jpegCharlotte Armstrong's 1950 novel, Mischief, is the fifth in the Library of America's Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s omnibus. Although crimes do happen in the story, it's not a story about murder like the first four books, so it comes across as more of a thriller than a crime story. Others refer to it as domestic suspense. I guess all the novels in this omnibus are called domestic suspense or domestic thriller in order to distinguish them from the hard-boiled detective crime stories or international espionage thrillers that were also being written at the time. They are often about the invasion of a household or family, and they often have a romantic element as well, usually seen from an atypical angle for a romance.

One thing all five of the novels I've read so far have in common is an interest in abnormal psychology. It may have been David Bordwell who said they were all psychological thrillers. Mischief is about an emotionally troubled girl named Nell who is called in to babysit for a couple who are in town for a ceremony honoring the husband. They don't know Nell, but her uncle is the hotel elevator operator, and he offers her services when the husband's sister cancels her offer to babysit at the last moment. Meanwhile, Jed and Jen are a couple on the verge of making a deeper commitment, who get into a spat over Jed's careless selfishness and break up. Jed is staying in the same hotel as the couple, and he returns to brood. He spots Nell acting flirtatious across the way, and spontaneously calls her up. Then things start getting weird.

There are at least four female viewpoint characters in the novel, and maybe only one male viewpoint character. The women are Ruth, the mother of the child who needs looking after; Nell, the dangerous babysitter; another woman staying in the hotel who sees something odd going on in the couple's room and dithers about intervening; and Jen, who dumps Jed and then realizes immediately that she's made a mistake and spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out how to make it right. All of these women are neurotic to some extent or another, although I suppose Ruth's self-doubt could be chalked up to normal parental anxieties and uncertainties. She's a lot like the mother in The Blank Wall: Constantly worried about her child and constantly worried that she worries too much. All of these characters question their own motivations, argue themselves out of doing the right thing and then argue themselves back into it. Part of the suspense is what, if any, action they'll eventually take.

Jed is a work of narcissistic art. He's stung to the quick by Jen's accusation that he's cold and cynical and uncaring, but to his credit he actually does achieve some self-awareness over the course of the novel. One of the ways that Armstrong evokes his self-centeredness is in the way his internal dialogue addresses himself by his last name: Towers. At times he reminded me of Dix Steele from In a Lonely Place in the way that he endlessly works to justify himself to himself, and in the swiftly shifting tides of his self-confidence and self-doubt.

Nell is emotionally disturbed, but it wasn't clear to me what kind of mental problem she had, or if Armstrong was even thinking in those categorical terms. She's impulsive, unable to foresee consequences, and a glib liar who is able to concoct explanatory/deflecting stories on the fly. The evidence is that she has murdered somebody in the past, although during a moment of dissociation. She has spent time in a mental institution of some kind because of that, and has only recently been released. Armstrong does a great job of capturing her spasms of serpentine charisma, mixed with dissociative fugues where she loses all emotional affect, not to mention the plot.

There's another interesting character who passes through the story without leaving a trace. This a black woman staying in the hotel, who immediately recognizes that Nell is deranged and tries to bull her way into the room to see whether the child is okay. What's interesting about this character is that Armstrong clearly shows that the main thing blocking her from intervening is racism. Her son keeps pulling on her arm and telling her she can't treat a white woman (Nell) like that. Eventually he pulls her away, and that's the last we hear of her. From a structural point of view, she leaves no impact on the story. So why did Armstrong include her? Was it just an acknowledgement of the Civil Rights movement gearing up even as the novel was published? Armstrong also lavishes quite a bit of physical description on the woman, and none of it seemed demeaning to me. It's a very rich, detailed portrait for such a brief and uneventful appearance.

Mischief is about people wrestling with their inner demons while they try to figure out how they want to react to events. Jed isn't the only one who seems to find himself in the crisis. The mother, Ruth, also finds that her inner demons have their uses when it comes to fighting to protect her family. It's a nervy novel that comes to a complex climax of clashing psychological agendas.

It was made into a film noir called Don't Bother to Knock in 1952. The movie streamlines the book by concentrating all the action in the one hotel and playing the events practically in real time. Jen is a singer in the hotel bar, and Nell's past trauma doesn't involve her parents but a fiance. Nell (played by Marilyn Monroe) is cast more as a sympathetic self-injurer than as the psychotic threat of the novel, although when push comes to shove she does all the threatening things she does in the novel. There's no sign of the extraneous but fascinating black woman,

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