Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Monday, March 16, 2020


Openers:   The train that pulled into Ogaunee, Michigan, at 9:15 Friday morning was in no hurry.  It settled to a stop and let go with deep metallic sighs, as if it would undo its iron stays and rest a while.

A tall man in a gray overcoat swung aboard, went down the plushy day coach to a seat along about the middle, laid his coat in the rack, and sat down, settling back with such ease that he seemed to have been there for some time, with the lazy dust rising and falling around him in parallel bands if spring sunshine.

A sticky face rose over the seat top ahead.  Unblinking eyes looked at him with the insulting stare of a child.  The tall man met the infant's eyes rudely.  In a moment the child's hand fell to his mother's ear and the tongue came out coyly to wrap itself around the edge of a lollypop in an ecstasy of embarrassment.  MacDougal Duff relented and gave the baby the regulation adult smile.  Only the youngest and most unspoiled could keep that look for long when met in kind.  This one's clouds of glory were shredding thin already.  And mine, thought Duff ruefully, are strictly synthetic.

Charlotte Armstrong, The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943)

Thus begins the second novel about retired history professor MacDougal Duff turned amateur detective.  From the first few paragraphs we learn that it's a warm spring day in Michigan, the type of day that moves slowly in the sun, the type of day where nothing should go wrong in the world.  Our protagonist, MacDougall Duff, is a self-assured man, confident and kind, yet something is off within him.

In this book Duff finds himself a guest at the Whitlock house, overseen by three weird sisters -- one could speak no evil, one could see no evil, and one could act no evil.  There is a murder and neith Duff nor any of the other guests know who will be the next to die...

The three books about MacDougall Duff -- Lay On, Mac Duff (1942), The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), and The Innocent Flower (1945, also published as Death Filled the Glass) -- were also the first three books that Charlotte Armstrong published.  While quite readable and enjoyable, the Duff books paled in comparison to Armstrong's fourth book, The Unsuspected (1946), the first of many brilliant novels of domestic suspense.  It was followed by 23 highly regarded novels, including Mischief  (filmed as Don't Bother to Knock, featuring Marilyn monroe and Richard Widmark), The Chocolate Cobweb, Catch -as-Catch-Can, Edgar Award winner A Dram of Poison, The Turret Room, The Gift Shop, Seven Seats to the Moon, The Balloon Man, Lemon in the Basket, and The Protege.  Many of her novels were on the New York Times bestsellers list.

Before Mary Higgins clark, there was Charlotte Armstrong, 'The American queen of suspense novelists," proclaimed the New York Telegraph.  Anthony Boucher long praised her skill, calling her "one of the few authentic spell-casting witches of modern times."

Armstrong has also published four short story collections.  Three of her short stories have been nominated for Edgar Awards.  One story that was not nominated for an award was "The Enemy," a powerful reflection on the McCarthy Era placed in a domestic setting.  The story has stayed with me for years and is one of the best I have ever read.

Before turning to mystery novels, Charlotte Armstrong was a poet and playwright.  Two plays made it to Broadway and both flopped.  I've read the script of the second, Ring Around Elizabeth, as by "Char Armstrong,"and found it amazing.  I suspect the play was ahead of its time and hope it will be revived in some form.

Many of Charlotte Armstrong's books are still available, at least in electronic form, and a recent collection of her stories, Night Call and Other Stories of Suspense, was released in 2015 by Crippen & Landrau.

If you have not read Charlotte Armstrong, what's keeping you?

BTW:  The Case of the Weird Sisters was filmed in 1948 as The Three Weird Sisters, starring Nancy Price, Mary Clare, and Mary Merral as the sisters.  The British film transformed the setting from Michigan to Wales and eliminated MacDougall Duff.  Oh, well.  The film was directed by Daniel Birt from a screenplay by Louise Birt (probably a relation), David Evans, Nancy Price (one of the weird sisters), and...Dylan Thomas!

For your edification, the film is linked below.


  • Barbara Cleverly, The Spider in the Cup.  Mystery novel.  "London, 1933.  An amateur dowsing team searching the Thames for precious metals unearths the body of a young woman with a priceless coin in her mouth.  The case falls on Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Joe Sandilands, but he has another, very high-profile assignment.  London is hosting a massive economic conference to address global Depression, and political tensions run high as world leaders stand either with or against a rapidly militarizing germany.  Sandilands is to protect visiting American senator Cornelius Kingstone throughout the conference,  But when a series of bizarre coincidences links the riverbank body to the senator, Joe realizes that Kingstone is caught up in a dangerous game that might cost not just one but thousands of lives."
  • Richard Wilson, 30 Day Wonder.  SF novel from an underappreciated writer.  "The Monolithians...they were such gentle, friendly, affable creatures -- they even looked okay -- handsome, human males, all of them.  They were law-abiding too.  If a local speed limit was 25 m.p.h., that's how fast they'd go, no matter if traffic was snarled up for miles in back of them.  If a Blue Law town said nobody should work on Sunday, they's do their duty as citizens and let the town burn before they'd permit a fireman to put out the blaze.  No one could do anything about it because the Monolithians were impregnable.  So when they got into the Unietd Nations and the politicians found themselves having tom live by what they said, the world was in real trouble.  Or was it?"  Wilson, a member of the legendary Futurians, published far less than some of the other Futurians, but what he published -- three novels and a bunch of short stories -- was very, very good.

Sing Along While Sheltering in Place:  Randy Rainbow is back with the latest on the coronavirus:

More on the Coronavirus:  As lives get further disrupted by the pandemic it is important to separate fact from bovine feces.  Last night's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver does that, albeit in a very austere setting:

MacDonalds:   Not the hamburger chain.  The Scottish clan.

One of the things that is keeping us going while we hunker down is YouTube, the home of so many strange and wonderful clips both useful and meaningless.  Yesterday my wife came across a clip (one of many) featuring Scottish bagpipers from many clans on parade.   I asked my wife if the Campbells had pulled knives on the MacDonalds yet; she said no.

My wife is from Irish and Scottish ancestry.  The Scot side is from clan MacDonald and some of the older members of her family took it very seriously.  You may remember -- or definitely remember if you are a MacDonald -- hearing about the massacre at Glencoe on February 13, 1692, when some thirty or so members of the MacDonald clan were slaughtered by members of clan Campbell...while under a flag of truce, no less.  (The fact that the MacDonalds had earlier slaughtered members of the Campbell does not mitigate the grudge held by my wife's family.)  Anyway, some members of the MacDonald clan, such as my wife's great-aunt, has never forgiven the Campbell's.  Kitty's great-aunt went so far as to refuse to have a can of Campbell's soup in her house.

(Kitty's great-aunt also had a bug up her posterior about the Irish, leading to such comments as "Eileen, would you ask your husband to pass the salt" and "Eileen, would your husband like some more potatoes?")

Kitty grew up with a few knowledge of the various Scottish tartans and, even as an adult, could recognize most of them.  Early in our marriage she made me a kilt from the MacDonald tartan.  I wore it when we attended a Robbie Burns night in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on the coldest day of the year.  (If you have ever wondered what is worn under a kilt, don't.  Just don't.)  It was there that I met my first haggis.  (A harrowing tale that became the lead piece in an issue of Charles L. Grant's amateur magazine Haggis oh so many years ago.  I doubt many copies exist so you will probably have to go through the rest of your life without reading it.)

Today, when I go to MacDonald's (the restaurant) and have a bland, over-salted, fattening hamburger that is helping to decimate the Amazonian rain forest, I cannot help but think, How have the mighty fallen.  And when the chain has had soup on the menu, it was probably Campbell's.

Florida Man:  There may be 155 Florida-related case of coronavirus and Disney World my be closed, but Florida Man just keeps rolling along.

  • Florida Man Jose Herrera, 27, tried to add some fiber to his diet, when caught using a stolen credit card to buy jewelry and gift cards, tried to eat the bogus card.  Herrera had 13 other stolen and fraudulent credit and debit cards on him.  The one he tried to eat had been stolen from a deceased man from Ohio.  Herrera was also found with a baggie containing a white powdery substance.  "I'm not going to lie," Herrera said, "It's cocaine."  Of course it is.
  • In Brevard County, Florida Man Duy Khanh, 34, decided to pass his day by standing in his driveway naked and throwing rocks at passing cars.  In Florida, sometimes you have to make your own fun.
  • As I mentioned last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz has self-quarantined himself after potentially exposing Donald Trump with the coronavirus during a trip on Air Force One.  What I did not report was where Gaetz spent the first night.  "I couldn't stay in a motel.  I slept in a Walmart parking lot somewhere off (Interstate) 85."  (Insert your own People at Walmart meme here.)
  • It's four o'clock on a Saturday morning in Florida and what do you do?  If you're Florida/Moonshine Man Rick Lee Miller you turn the country music up high, very high.  Then you get belligerent when the cops come to investigate.  And if you're Rick Lee Miller you also get tasered.  Moonshine was involved.
  • Romance, Florida-style, was in the air when Florida Man Javarice Raydale Ware, 28, was arrested in Valdosa, Georgia, for human trafficking.  Let me correct that first sentence:  This is not typical (I hope) Florida romance.  Ware held Florida women against their will in a motel room and forced to to have sex and to sell drugs.  "He held every one of them at knifepoint and said 'I'll cut your head off is you don't do this'...And we recovered the knife off him," said the Lowndes County sheriff.  Two victims were provided counseling and treatment from a local agency and are now home with their families.
  • Florida Man Allan Ibanez was arrested for stealing donuts from a gas station.  Ibanez said he stole the donuts to give them to local law enforcement because "all cops love donuts."  Just hours before the great donut theft, Ibanez was released on bond after showing customers at a local Ihop condoms and offering to display his genitals.  And a few hours earlier, he had been involved with deputies on two separate occasions and had been arrested for disorderly conduct.  A busy, busy day for Florida Man.

It's Not All Doom and Gloom, Folks:

Today's Poem:
Wash your hands
Do not sneeze
Keep you distance 
If you please
Do not talk
Through your hat
Get the facts --
And that is that.

1 comment:

  1. I have had a book of Armstrong stories sitting here forever. Maybe today...