Saturday, 29 August 2015
A Little Less Than Kind by Charlotte Armstrong
Ladd Cunningham drove his Corvette home, too fast for town streets. Displaying his virtuosity, he whipped into the long driveway without slackening speed, and zoomed between the high grey stucco house on his right and the pool enclosure on his left…
The young people on the pool deck were shouting “Hi” – he didn’t want to answer…. He sidled towards the fence. The Lorimers were in there and Gary Fenwick. He didn’t want to talk to the Lorimers.
He said, “Hey, Gare?”
“Come on up.”…
Felicia Lorimer sat on the pool coping and lifted her brown legs, let them down, watched the blue and crystal movement of water and light swirling in beauty around her ankles.
Her brother, supine on the diving board, said “His not to reason why”.
observations: Charlotte Armstrong was a very successful thriller writer in her day – she wrote a lot, won awards, and some of her work was made into films. Her books tend to be short, atmospheric and very tense – not big on jokes. I thought I’d remind myself about her, and picked this book at random.
The setting is among wealthy families in the LA area: the young man Ladd, above, is unhappy about the death of his father and his mother’s subsequent remarriage. Is there something suspicious about the death? There are awkward encounters at the swimming party, and at a dinner party later – these prosperous middle-class people see each other all the time, adults and grown-up children socializing and networking together, indulging in a lot of drinking and brittle dialogue. They are doctors, business men and artists.
So I’m going along with this – it’s all very Mad Men in fact – when I suddenly realize that this is actually a re-working of the plot of Hamlet. You could have knocked me down with a feather, I haven’t been so surprised since I first saw the equally-Shakespearean The Lion King.
Luckily this isn’t a spoiler – the book follows the plot of the play at times, when it suits, but you can’t predict anything from that. The other great theme of the book is Freudianism – various characters are trying to work out what is wrong with Ladd, and what can be done about him, in those terms. The discussions on this were surprisingly absorbing.
It’s a quick and very entertaining read – you never know where the plot is going next, or whose side you are meant to be on, who’s good and who’s bad. (Impressive, given the Hamlet structure.) The only thing I didn’t like was that the women characters are very flimsy compared with the men: Felicia, above, is Ophelia, while Ladd’s mother is standing in for Gertrude, but a 16th century man did a better job at creating women characters than the 20th century Armstrong. If I’d read the book blind I would have been convinced it was by a man, because male feelings and ideas are given so much more importance than female ones.
But the book certainly left me with an appetite to read more of Armstrong.
The photo is of a swimming pool in Florida in the 1950s.