Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Little Less Than Kind by Charlotte Armstrong



published 1963


Little Less than Kind


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?”

“Hey, Ladd?”

“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.












15 comments:

  1. Sounds great Moira and it's been ages since I read anything by Armstrong (now that I think of it). I do rather like the sound of the Hamletian dimension too!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm definitely up for reading more by her, I have a few on my shelves. She kept them pretty short too, very much in her favour....

      Delete
  2. Thanks for the analysis and reminder of Charlotte Armstrong-her books are hard to find

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks - yes, someone should reprint her books. I believe some of them are available on Kindle.

      Delete
  3. Oh, this does sound interesting, Moira. I always think it's fascinating when authors tell some of the Shakespearean stories in contemporary ways. Or maybe it's just that there are certain kinds of stories that are universal. Either way, it sounds like an entertaining read.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly Margot - there's always that theory about there only being a small number of actual plot lines. (I think you could do a blogpost on that, with examples from crime fiction....)

      Delete
  4. I hadn't heard of the author previously, so go to know, but you haven't tempted me

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Probably not one for you to seek out, but if anything by her turns up in a tub, do give her a try. She's very good on tension and atmosphere.

      Delete
  5. She definitely won't be in a tub, fairly certain on that score!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Given the wide array of books of every kind that turn up, I'm surprised you can be so sure!

      Delete
  6. Moira, I didn't know about Armstrong and I'd certainly like to try out her thrillers, which is one of my favourite genres.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She's an interesting writer, Prashant, if you come across any of her books you should give her a go...

      Delete
  7. How I wish I had written down all the books I read. Such a history would be so nice. I know I have read some by Armstrong, and I think now it must have been some of her later ones, because I remember some of those titles. This one sounds interesting, even the setting, though I am tired of LA, but the time period would be interesting in that respect.

    I just purchased the Library of America Women Crime Writers set and one of them is a Charlotte Armstrong, so I will get a taste of her work then.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am so glad I have kept records of my books for years - and am also glad that a few years ago I said to someone 'I just wish I had made notes on them too' and she said 'well start doing that right now, today' which is incredibly obvious but I thought 'oh no it's too late' - but it wasn't, and I'm so glad I now do so....

      Delete