A woman attempts to flee her abusive husband in a thriller The New York Times Book Review calls “an unforgettable reading experience.”
Overworked cocktail waitress Sherry Reynard doesn’t expect much anymore from her husband, Ward, whom she’s supported for years. A struggling writer and sometimes-junkie coddled by his wealthy parents, Ward spends his days lost in a fog of self-pity and hallucinations. Then, one morning, he attacks his wife in a sudden, unprovoked, violent fit of rage. When he turns on their three-year-old son, Johnny, Sherry bashes Ward into submission, grabs her boy, and runs.
As Johnny recuperates in the hospital, Sherry rents a room in a boarding house—among a group of outcasts—anxious to escape her marriage and her memories. But when her vindictive in-laws file a suit for custody of Johnny, Sherry’s oppressive world starts closing in. She needs someone on her side.
When new boarder Clifford Stone arrives, he’s just what Sherry’s looking for. Charming and sympathetic, he’s promised to be there should Sherry ever need him—he’s also been hired by Ward’s calculating father to insinuate himself into her life. Clifford has been paid well to love Sherry, manipulate her, destroy her reputation, and, if need be, even worse.
The Balloon Man was made into Claude Chabrol’s classic 1970 film, La Rupture (The Breach). A gripping suspense novel, it will have you “flipping your wig all the way to the last page” (Kirkus Reviews).
“Old fashioned suspense has given way to contemporary trauma and you’ll be flipping your wig all the way to the last page. . . . You won’t want to finish it.” —Kirkus Reviews
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About the Author
Success came quickly. Her first novel, Lay On, MacDuff! (1942) was well received, spawning a three-book series. Over the next two decades, she wrote more than two dozen novels, winning critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base. The Unsuspected (1945) and Mischief (1950) were both made into films, and A Dram of Poison (1956) won the Edgar Award for best novel. She died in California in 1969.
Edgar Award–winning Charlotte Armstrong (1905–1969) was one of the finest American authors of classic mystery and suspense. The daughter of an inventor, Armstrong was born in Vulcan, Michigan, and attended Barnard College, in New York City. After college she worked at the New York Times and the magazine Breath of the Avenue, before marrying and turning to literature in 1928. For a decade she wrote plays and poetry, with work produced on Broadway and published in the New Yorker. In the early 1940s, she began writing suspense. Success came quickly. Her first novel, Lay On, MacDuff! (1942) was well received, spawning a three-book series. Over the next two decades, she wrote more than two dozen novels, winning critical acclaim and a dedicated fan base. The Unsuspected (1945) and Mischief (1950) were both made into films, and A Dram of Poison (1956) won the Edgar Award for best novel. She died in California in 1969.
Read an Excerpt
The Balloon Man
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1968 Jack and Charlotte Lewi Family Trust
All rights reserved.
Sherry was scouring the skillet in which she had scrambled her breakfast eggs. Under her apron she was dressed for the day. She intended to dash over to the market as soon as Ward got up, or maybe she'd take Johnny along and go sooner, taking advantage of the energy in the morning coffee. Maybe, later, she would go hunting that salesgirl's job and talk to the day care place, because (let's face it ... She had faced it) what good was Johnny's mother to him when she was practically walking in her sleep all the time?
She couldn't get home to bed from her present job any earlier than midnight, whereas Johnny bounced out of his healthy three-and-a-half-year-old sleep at 6 A.M. The trouble was she had to put him down so early, but the rush hour for cocktail drinkers was before their dinners. The tips were good, though. Still the day care camp wouldn't cost much more than the babysitter's evenings came to. Her mind was going lazily around a familiar track when she heard a stirring elsewhere in the house.
Ward was getting up now? This early? Johnny was still sitting on his high stool at the dinette table, contentedly munching away on some toast. Sherry had time to decide that she would take the child with her to market as soon as it opened, in case Ward was feeling low and not up to minding his little son so early in the day.
Then her husband, wearing only his pajama bottoms, came through the door. His mouth was open in a strange way. The jaws were tense, but the lips were somehow sloppy and moist. Out of his throat came a soft roaring sound, just sound, wordless.
"What's the matter?" Sherry cried at once.
His eyes were not right. He saw her, but he didn't see her. He didn't seem to know her. There was red around the rims of those strange eyes. There was a lot of black hair on his forearms. He came toward her on his bare feet, and his right arm was raised. "Hey! Hey!" said Sherry. "Just a darned minute!" Did he think he was going to hit her?
She sprang toward him and put both her hands on the raised wrist. "What's the matter?" she cried again, straining and holding.
He growled. It was the only word for the sound he made, as he jerked sideways and shook her off. Now his left arm came swinging up. For all the reckless power of his movements, they seemed slow. Sherry ducked the blow and yelled at him: "Ward, will you please tell me what's wrong with you? Don't do that! Listen ... Listen ..."
But he caught her by both shoulders and began to shake her. She thought: He's out of his mind this time. Hey, this isn't so funny! Ward was no pygmy. She was only a female. So she screamed as loud as she could. Somebody had better come.
At the noise she made, Ward let her go and stepped back and put his hands to his ears. His jaw was moving as if he were trying to make it go in a circle. She thought he might be tensing to come at her again. But she said, in as calm and authoritative a voice as she could produce, "Sit down, Ward. You just sit down and relax, and you tell me."
But now the startled child had come out of a momentary paralysis. The little boy slid off the stool, plop upon his two square little feet. "Mommy!" he shrieked.
"No, honey," cried Sherry. It was too late. The child was running toward the only comfort that he knew. But he didn't quite make the distance to her skirt. His father lurched and swung with a scooping motion, and the child went flying, his small light body like a volleyball. He crashed softly into the corner of the cupboard and floor and was still.
Sherry felt her whole inside burst with light. Brain and heart, she blazed. She whirled and picked up the heavy skillet with both hands. The animal was growling; it was groping for her now. She swung the weapon with all her might and hit the top of his right shoulder a fearful crack. He reeled, stumbled, fell — and lay still.
Sherry didn't stop to think about the wreck of all her life so far. She ran, crouching, to the child and sensed his breathing. She knew she ought not to touch him or shift his limbs, but she also knew that she must. Gently, very gently, she slipped her arms underneath to hold him and lift him. Her back was young and strong. She picked up her child and slid her feet on the vinyl almost in a dance step as she went gliding to the back door. Midway there she found a way to bend and grasp in her left hand the handle of her purse, which had been lying ready on the counter.
She got the door open. She crept outside into the light of morning, into the outer peace of the shabby, respectable neighborhood, where people were going to work, where the world was sane. She stepped slowly, carefully down the three steps to the narrow walk, trying not to shift or twist the little body in her arms. She saw the neighbor woman's head in her window. But there was no gap in the hedge, so Sherry walked down her own driveway. As she did so, the neighbor's car, pacing her, came backing out of the parallel driveway.
"Mr. Ivy, please! Mr. Ivy, please?"
"What's the trouble, Mrs. Reynard?" He stopped the car.
"Will you call a hospital? No, will you take me? Johnny's hurt. And will you call the police, too? Something's wrong with Ward."
The woman was on the front stoop now. "What's the trouble?" she called shrilly.
"I don't know," said Sherry. "He's knocked out, now. He might get up —"
"Henry!" the woman cried in rising terror.
Henry Ivy, aged forty-two, got ponderously out of his car. He said decisively, "You drive her, Mildred. I'll call. I don't want you staying here alone. Never mind your bag. Try St. Anthony's. And you stay there. That way you'll be safe."
Sherry wiggled herself into the front seat, juggling the little body as if it were a plate of soup that must not tip, no matter what the supporting pedestal that was Sherry's body had to do. Mrs. Ivy came jittering into the driver's seat.
"Oh, what happened? I heard you screaming —"
"I'll tell you when we get there," Sherry said quietly. "I want you to drive. Please?"
"All right." The woman took hold of her forty-year-old nerves and reminded herself that she'd be safe in the hospital.
Mr. Ivy went into his house and called the police. Then he sneaked softly down the side of the neighboring house to the back door. He crept up to look in, saw the naked torso, the long limp legs in the striped cotton, cautiously opened the door, and approached to see the blood on the shoulder, where the rim of the iron skillet had cut the flesh.
But dead the man was not, and Mr. Ivy sighed in relief. Who wants to get mixed up in a murder?
Johnny had a fractured left leg and a crack in his skull. The young men in the hospital emergency room were calm and quick and showed no emotion. Neither did Sherry. When the examination was over, they told her they'd take Johnny up to a bed soon. He'd be fine. Would she sign him in? She'd have to go to the office.
In the midst of answering some questions there, as she fumbled blindly in her purse to find her collection of identifications where she kept her hospital insurance card and number, Sherry began to shake violently.
They were very understanding. Somebody brought her something to take. They insisted that it would help her. They had asked the doctor, they said. So Sherry swallowed it. When all the questions had been answered, they told her that two police officers were waiting for her in the lobby.
The men were in plain clothes. One of them said to her, rather severely, that he understood why she had left the scene, but now would Mrs. Reynard kindly tell them exactly what had happened?
"I don't know." Her voice trembled. Although she was a fair-sized girl, she felt very small, very fragile and tiny. She felt like crying out, "Let me alone, a little minute, please. Let me alone to be me a minute. I have to get my own feet under me. Don't you know that?"
But she did not cry out. "My husband just came roaring out of the bedroom and started in to beat me," she said flatly and sat down, hard.
"What was his reason?" one of the men asked mildly, as he seated himself beside her. The severe one remained standing.
"I don't know. There wasn't any reason." Even as her teeth chattered on the words, Sherry wondered if the words were true. It seemed as near the truth as she could get in the moment. (Oh, please, let me alone!)
"What did he say, Mrs. Reynard?" the mild one persisted.
"He didn't say a word. He made ... noises." Sherry made a gesture that seemed too flip. She sensed that. She was a natural blonde, and her eyes were large and beautiful. She couldn't help it if there was a going image, an assumption that any big-eyed well-shaped blond female was in the world for fun, alone. But she shouldn't make flip gestures. She knew that, although she didn't know why not, really.
"You say he started in to beat you?" Severe was severe.
"He sure tried." Now the scratching on her nerves that had made her arm move so abruptly as to seem flip, that sense of being very close to screams and howls, was beginning to recede, under the influence of whatever drug she had just been given. Sherry said calmly, "Look and see." She pulled her dress away from one shoulder and showed them the mark of Ward's cruel fingers.
"And what did you do, Mrs. Reynard?" the severe one asked coldly.
All right, her flesh was fair, but he needn't think she was trying allure. Sherry conquered a sense of injustice.
"First, I tried to make him sit down to talk to me." But she could hardly remember. She didn't want to remember. That kitchen was going into mists, far away. Her eyelids were feeling heavy.
"And then you struck him with the heavy iron frying pan?"
"No, no. Johnny was there, you see," she said. "The whole thing scared him. He's only three and a half. He started to run to me, and that's when Ward threw him ... just threw him across the room." Her voice was strange in her own ears. How could such things be?
"Is the little boy hurt badly, ma'am?" The mild one was sympathetic.
She repeated what the doctors had said in much the same way the doctors had said it. Their dry detachment wasn't natural in her mouth.
"Then it was after the child had been hurt that you hit the man?" said Severe.
"Of course," she said wonderingly. But she seemed to know that her story needed some element that wasn't there. She couldn't think what. Stronger passions?
Severe asked whether she and her husband had had marital difficulties. Quarreled often, did they?
"No, I wouldn't say so," she answered in a dreamy manner.
"What kind of work does your husband do, Mrs. Reynard?"
"He's a writer. That is, he hopes to be. It takes time to get started."
"Then he doesn't have a job?"
"That is a job," she said patiently. "He's self-employed, I guess you'd say."
"You go to work, do you, ma'am?"
"Yes. Until he begins to sell his stuff, somebody —" She couldn't explain any further. Her tongue wouldn't lift in her mouth. Didn't they understand?
"You resented being the breadwinner, did you?" Severe said with a sudden smile.
"No. Lots of wives send their husbands through graduate school," Sherry said, repeating mechanically what she had so often said. "No, I didn't mind too much. Except sometimes ... I suppose —" She could have slept where she sat. Who cared?
"You work as a cocktail waitress? At —" Mild named the Club.
"Yes." But Sherry was sensing a shift of the wind, and she lifted her head. Surely, they were not going to assume, as her mother-in-law had always assumed, that to be a cocktail waitress was to be the servant of the Fiend. "I don't have any office skills," she said dully. "I never went to business school. So I do what I can do."
"Night work?" the mild one said gently.
"Well, that's because I wanted to raise my baby myself." Sherry roused. "I thought it was important. But I have clerked. I can clerk in a store. Now, I guess —" She stopped because she didn't know what now.
"I get the impression," said Severe, a touch of human curiosity creeping into his voice, "that your husband's people are, er, well-to-do?" "Yes."
"But his father doesn't contribute?"
"No. Oh, no."
They spoke no question, but the question was there. "See, Ward took out on his own a long time ago," she said, to answer the question. "Ward's folks didn't like that. And then, of course, they never did like it that he married me."
"Why was that, Mrs. Reynard?"
"I don't know," said Sherry. "I didn't care. We were in love." But her voice was dreary, and there was something wrong with this whole interview — something, for instance, that she had forgotten. She grasped for it. "How is Ward?" she asked, much too late — much too late.
"His condition is satisfactory," droned Severe.
To whom? Sherry wondered. It struck her funny. She realized that she might even be smiling. She had an impish smile. It was the way her face folded.
"Where is he?" she asked, but without enough interest. Or else too cheerily. Because it didn't really matter anymore where Ward was, except that he must never again be too near.
"I believe his father had him taken to his home. The parents' home, that is."
"I see," she said numbly. Oh, she saw! These men had been talking to Edward Reynard. Well, she ought to have guessed that. "How did he get into the —" She didn't finish her question.
"I believe your neighbor phoned the father," said Mild, having finished her question on his own.
Sherry said nothing.
"Now, you say that your husband came into the kitchen and attacked you without any warning and without any cause." Severe's voice made no judgment.
"I suppose there must have been a cause," she said wearily. "I don't know what it was."
"If what you say is true, you may have legal grounds —"
"For divorce?" she said. "I know."
They both reacted with a blinking that told her she hadn't quite taken the meaning.
"Are you bringing charges, Mrs. Reynard?" Severe asked patiently. They might be wanting to know what they were to do with the testimony they were collecting.
But Sherry said, staring beyond them, "I can't let Ward anywhere near Johnny again. How can I?" Couldn't they understand?
"Might you put it this way, Mrs. Reynard?" the mild one asked smoothly. "The child came between you and your husband, as you two were physically fighting. So that his injuries were, in effect, a kind of accident?"
"You could put it that way," she said slowly, knowing who had, "but it wouldn't be right."
"How is that, ma'am?"
"Because how could he throw Johnny? How could he do that? Johnny wasn't doing anything he shouldn't. All Johnny wanted was for somebody to comfort him. How could Ward not know that?" There should have been passion in what she had just said. Sherry was glad to feel tears start, and she thought, with a peculiar detachment: And about time, too.
"The child was frightened by the violence?"
"By the noise, I think. You see, I screamed. I was scared, if you want to know." She wiped her hand across her face. "The only thing I can think of is that Ward was out of his mind. He didn't seem to know me. Or Johnny either. Or even know that Johnny was just a baby. Well, then Ward wasn't in his own mind, that's all." She couldn't go on. It wasn't any use to go on.
"Temporary insanity," Severe said with a faint distaste.
"What does Ward say?" she droned.
"We haven't been able to talk to him as yet," Mild said in an apologetic manner.
"It doesn't matter," she murmured.
After a bit of silent gazing at her, some signal went between them, and they left her.
Now Mrs. Ivy, aflutter, drew closer. She must have listened to a good portion of the interview. She had also already found out how Johnny was. So she sat down and told Sherry chattily that she had just phoned Mr. Ivy at home. The neighborhood was quiet again. The police had come. (But, of course, Sherry knew that.) And there had been an ambulance, but Ward Reynard had not been too badly hurt, or so it was thought. Mr. Reynard's father had come and kind of taken over. Well, see, Mr. Ivy said that when Ward Reynard had come to a little bit, he'd been asking for his mama. But everything was under control now. Mr. Ivy was coming here, and the Ivys would be very glad to drive poor Mrs. Reynard back to her home.
Excerpted from The Balloon Man by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1968 Jack and Charlotte Lewi Family Trust. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sherry Reynard is trying to escape from her abusive husband and his parents. She has a young boy who was greatly injured by his father ... that's when Sherry decides enough is enough. With her son in the hospital and having very little money, things only get worse when her father-in-law shows up and tells her he is going to fight for custody of his grandson. While her son recuperates, Sherry moves temporarily into a boarding house a walking distance from the hospital. Feeling lost and abandoned and hurt, a new boarder catches her eye. Clifford Stone is charming and good looking and seems to be sympathetic to her plight. But he has a secret ... he's being paid handsomely to meet Sherry, love Sherry, destroy her very life, if that is what it takes. Not a very suspenseful book, nevertheless, it does hold a reader's attention. It seems to be a bit outdated ... for example, a boarding house. The author did a good job in defining the main characters, down to the other female roomers, what my mother would call old biddies with their noses in everyone's business. I would recommend if the reader is looking for something that moves slowly but it still interesting. Nothing jumps out to spike an adrenaline rush. Many thanks to Open Road Integrated Media / Netgalley for the digital copy of this book. Opinions expressed here are unbiased and entirely my own.
This was an interesting mystery about Sherry and her husband, Ward who are involved in a custody dispute when their son, Johnny is hospitalized in a violent rage-fueled attack by Ward. What follows is the story of how Sherry copes and how her in-laws attempt to win custody of their grandson. It's a good look at domestic violence and its repercussions, the extent to which wealthy people will go to win, and the nature of good-hearted people. I loved the three old card-playing women in the boarding house that gave the novel some humor. It was an odd choice of title as the Balloon Man isn't introduced until the end in a relatively minor role. Overall, I enjoyed it a great deal!
This novel written by Charlotte Armstrong was very enjoyable. A sure delight. Suspense, murder, bribery, The Balloon Man has it all!! I would recommend it to anyone.