To catch a murderous theater impresario, a young woman takes a deadly new role
The note discovered beside Rosaleen Wright’s hanged body is full of reasons justifying her suicidebut it lacks her trademark vitality and wit, and, most importantly, her signature. So the note alone is far from enough to convince her best friend Jane that Rosaleen was her own murderer, even if the police quickly accept the possibility as fact. Instead, Jane suspects Rosaleen’s boss, New York theater impresario Luther Grandison. To the world at large, he’s powerful and charismatic, but Rosaleen’s letters to Jane described a duplicitous, greedy man who would no doubt kill to protect his secrets. If Rosaleen stumbled upon one such secret, it could have led to an untimely demiseand Jane risks a similar end when she takes a job with Grandison’s company, tangling with one of Broadway’s deadliest actors in a desperate play for the truth.
A playwright before she turned to crime fiction, Charlotte Armstrong drew from her experience in the theater for her fourth novel, The Unsuspected. The book inspired the 1947 film of the same name.
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About the Author
Charlotte Armstrong (1905-1969) was an American poet, dramatist, and author of mystery short stories and novels. She was born and raised in the mining region of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After two years at the University of Wisconsin, she moved to New York and received a B.A. degree from Barnard in 1925. She had two plays produced on Broadway but neither was successful, so she turned to writing mystery fiction, beginning with Lay On, MacDuff (1942), the first of three detective novels featuring Professor MacDougal Duff. It was with The Unsuspected that she achieved outstanding success and moved to Hollywood while it was being filmed. The 1947 Warner Brothers feature starred Claude Rains, Joan Caulfield, Audrey Totter, and Hurd Hatfield; it was directed by Michael Curtiz.
Otto Penzler, the creator of American Mystery Classics, is also the founder of the Mysterious Press (1975), a literary crime imprint now associated with Grove/Atlantic; Mysterious Press.com (2011), an electronic-book publishing company; and New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop (1979). He has won a Raven, the Ellery Queen Award, two Edgars (for the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, 1977, and The Lineup, 2010), and lifetime achievement awards from Noircon and The Strand Magazine. He has edited more than 70 anthologies and written extensively about mystery fiction.
Read an Excerpt
By Charlotte Armstrong
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1974 Jack Lewi
All rights reserved.
On a February Monday, in the afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for tea, the restaurant was nearly empty. A party of stout "girls" were quarreling over the check with high-pitched, playful cries. Two men at another table were eating very fast and swapping manly gossip.
A blond girl in a powder-blue suit was waiting in the lobby. She was a butter-and-eggs, sugar-and-cream kind of girl, with yellow hair, pink-and-white skin, round blue eyes. Her small nose, snubbed up at the end, might have been drawn by an illustrator of children's books. She was cute.
The man who came in very fast through the revolving door might have been roughly classified as tall, dark and handsome. He was muscular and a trifle too thin for his expensive suit. His face had a bleak and guarded expression. The girl in blue got up. They were not alike. You wouldn't have guessed from their meeting that they were blood relatives. But if you had watched them wisely you would have known them to be close in understanding, and that she was anxious about him.
She put her hand on his sleeve. "Let's get us a corner."
The man's face loosened a little. "How are you, Jane?"
There were plenty of empty corners. They found a table against the partition that bounded the bar. "No uniform any more," she commented.
The man didn't answer. He looked across the big room with all the clean white tablecloths. It was very warm and dim and quiet, with soft music coming over the radio in the bar behind them. He looked down at five different kinds of spoons. His left hand massaged the familiar ache in his right forearm.
Jane said, "I had to see you. I was afraid you'd go up there."
"Up to Dedham, Connecticut? Why would I go up there?" He drew a breath. He didn't want to talk about it. He had hoped she wouldn't talk about it. He said, "She isn't even buried there."
"No," said Jane.
"And that's that." She began to murmur something, but he said, "How've you been?"—warning her off.
"All right," said Jane again. She had picked up her purse and was holding it tightly with both hands. "Did Rosaleen write you often, Fran?"
"Of course she wrote." He moved his shoulders impatiently.
"What are you thinking?"
"I thought maybe," he said, "we could meet and have a bite without—"
Jane said, "You're the only one I can talk to."
"Then don't ask foolish questions," he said unhappily. "You know what I'm thinking. Naturally, I'm wondering why. Why?" He spread both hands flat on the table, as if he were going to push it aside and get up and leave. If you know why, then you can tell me and get it over. Why did Rosaleen want to die so much that she had to hang herself?" He got it out brutally. It was what he was thinking.
Jane's pretty face began to look pinched, as if she were cold. Francis leaned back against the seat. "I want to understand it," he said more quietly. "And I'm prepared to understand it. Go ahead. And if you've got to go gently," he sighed, "I guess I can stand it."
"I've got to go slow," she said, a bit stubbornly. "Rosaleen wrote me a letter." She opened her bag and took out the letter. He could see Rosaleen's pretty handwriting, sloping back and running a little uphill.
"I don't want to read it, Jane."
"All right." She put the letter down on the tablecloth. "I don't want you to do anything but listen to me a few minutes. Fran, could you try ... not to wince away so much?"
He didn't answer, but he relaxed a little. He knew she wouldn't talk about it just to hurt him. She began with care.
"Rosaleen must have written you about her job—about Luther Grandison, didn't she?"
"That's her boss."
"You know who he is?"
"Sure. I know. He was a director for the stage and the movies, wasn't he? The one who did all those wonderful melodramas years ago? Wrote a book of memoirs—famous guy."
"Yes," said Jane. "Well—" She picked up her fork and put it into the creamed chicken.
"So Rosaleen fell in love with her boss," said Francis.
Jane's fingers opened and the fork fell. "No, no, no! Lord, he's more than sixty! He's an ugly old man! He's not like that. That isn't it at all."
She didn't answer. She was looking at him as if she'd had a glimpse of the fantastic regions of his mind.
"Look, Janey, I said I was prepared to understand, but you don't seem to get it. I simply mean that it's been a long time and I realize what time can do. Rosaleen's been in the back of my life, the back of my mind—the back of my heart, if you want to put it that way—ever since I can remember. We were kids. We were cousins. Everybody paired us off in the old days. But time's gone by and we've been apart, and maybe she grew up and changed. What I'm trying to tell you is that if she did change and got mixed up emotionally—"
"But she hadn't changed," Jane said. "She hadn't changed at all."
Well then, he thought, the girl who had died still was Rosaleen, unchanged. Little and dark and tense and vivid. Her heels tapped quickly across a remembered room. The way she walked, the way she turned her head, the straight set of her shoulders, her pale skin, her black hair, her red dresses and her thin red mouth were alive again.
He forced his eyes to focus. "Then why?" he burst "Then why did she do it?"
Jane put her hand on his fist "No reason."
"There simply wasn't anything," she said. "Now sit still, Fran. This is what I've got to tell you: First, there was something in this letter. I'll show you in a minute. Cousin Hilda had to go up there to Dedham and get—bring her—bring the body back. There wasn't anyone else to do it Geoffrey was down in bed, sick. You were overseas. Buddy's gone. So of course I went too. All the time on the train Hilda kept saying she couldn't understand, she couldn't understand. That's what I thought you'd say. You know as well as we do how Rosaleen believed in everything. She was even—well, religious in a way, wouldn't you say? And not a bit afraid. She always stood right up to everything. She just couldn't have done it! That's what Cousin Hilda said. And I felt that too. There are some things you can't believe, even when they happen."
"Go on," he said tonelessly.
"When the train pulled in, I saw him out the window. This Luther Grandison. He was out there on the platform. I took one look, and he was kind of ... stagy! Standing there, looking tragic, and people all around, watching him! Fran, it made me mad! I had the feeling somebody'd written the script I—" Jane stopped.
He said gently, "What did you do?"
"I had a brainstorm. I told Cousin Hilda to pretend I hadn't come. And I went up to him after the services and asked for Rosaleen's job. I got it, Fran. I'm Grandison's secretary. He doesn't know I ever knew her. I'm Miss Moynihan."
He said, "Why?"
Jane said violently, "Because I hate him! I want you to listen. He talks on the air at four o'clock. He's a guest."
He had turned on the bench to look down on her. He seemed calm and detached. "So you hate Luther Grandison. What's it got to do with Rosaleen?"
Jane hesitated. "You know how she ... did it, don't you? And you know she left a note? You know what it said?"
"Hilda put the clipping in her letter." His voice was flat.
"Didn't you think it was funny she didn't mention a name of any of us, even you?"
"I thought it sounded sick," said Francis. "And religious, maybe."
"You know she didn't sign it?" He moved his shoulders. "Fran, I found that note!"
"You found it?"
"I mean I found the text of it, in a book."
He kept looking at her, and his scalp seemed to lift and settle, his face changed. "Go on."
"It was copied out in her handwriting, but, Francis, it was copied. Out of an old book of trials in Scotland. One of those old cases. You know, he's kind of an authority on murder."
"Murder?" said Francis.
His voice was light and rather gentle. They were the only customers in the whole room now. The soft music from the bar was punctuated by the click of silver, off in a corner, where a busboy was sorting it away.
Francis was thinking. Murder. One person dead, that meant. He'd seen them die in quantities, seen the flames come up like an answer from the earth beneath. Yet when it was just one, alone, that was murder. There was something a little bit quaint and out of joint in the mixed values.
Jane said, "What shall I do?"
Francis picked up a spoon and balanced it on his finger. "You think Rosaleen was murdered?" He might have been asking, Do you think it's going to rain? "By whom?" he said.
"By Luther Grandison."
All he said, again, was, "Why?"
"Read the letter."
He took up the letter; his eyes raced through. Stuff about the weather, kidding stuff about Jane and Buddy. "Who is Tyl?" His voice was different; suddenly it had become crisp and demanding.
"Tyl's Mathilda. One of Grandison's wards. He has two—two girls. They lived there with him most of the time."
"That's the other one—the beautiful one. She's married to Oliver Keane now. Look."
Jane's finger pointed out the paragraph Rosaleen had written in her breezy style:
The old spider makes out like money's too, too vulgar, but he had his reasons why he'd rather marry off Althea. Some day I'll tell you what makes me say that. It makes me mad. He's so smooth and philosophical, you tend to get fooled. The last thing on earth you'd imagine would be what I'm ... imagining! Sorry, hon. Let it go until I see you.
But her pen had refused to leave the subject. The scrawl went angrily on:
Nobody can tell me money's not like the blood in his veins! And if he's so wise, why doesn't he know that Tyl's heart is broken? Because it's broken, Jane, a real smash! And that's an awful thing to be in the same house with. She's going away, thank God. And Oliver's moving in.
I think he does know it's broken! I don't think he cares! I think he is perfectly selfish! I think—Sorry, I'm in a bad mood. I feel like throwing things. Excuse it, please, and love.
"Well?" said Francis coolly.
Jane said eagerly, tumbling the story out, "Matilda was the rich one—very, very rich. Her parents both got killed in the same accident when she was a little girl. Her father lived just long enough to turn her and all the money over to Grandison. And it was Mathilda that Oliver Keane was engaged to. And only two days before their wedding, he went and married the other one."
"Yes, Althea Conover, and she's not rich at all. Of course, she's gorgeous, and I guess poor Mathilda wasn't so hot. Althea's the daughter of another friend. Grandy took her in."
"That's what the girls call him. Now, here's the thing, Fran. This is the way Mathilda's money was fixed. She was to make her own will at twenty-one, and she did. But she didn't get the money then. She was to get control whenever she married! Don't you see?"
"No," said Francis.
"Grandy didn't want her to get married. So there must have been something funny about the money."
He shook his head.
"I don't care," she insisted. "What if he'd done something he shouldn't? What if Rosaleen did find out? She'd bring it right out in the open. You know she would. She wouldn't have stopped to think to be afraid. So, you see?"
"He killed her because she knew too much," said Francis, and began to laugh. It was pretty rusty laughter.
Jane said, "I'll give up the job and go home, if you say so." Jane's tea was cold. "Just the same," she said, "if Rosaleen felt like throwing things, that's not a suicidal mood."
Francis' face darkened. He looked at the date on the letter. "So a man of over sixty took hold of a lively little dame like Rosaleen Wright and hung her up by the neck? And she just quietly let him? Come, Jane."
"It's a soundproof room."
"It is?" he said.
"He could have talked the noose around her neck," said Jane bitterly. "The man can talk!" She looked at her watch.
"But hanging!" he burst out. "Why not poison? Why not—"
Jane broke open a hard roll. "If the note he got her to copy happens to talk about hanging, as it did, then maybe he thought it had better be hanging." She put butter on the roll and then put the roll down on her plate and pushed the plate away. She put her fingertips to her temples. "I'm not trying to believe this. If you really think I'm crazy, Fran, I wish you'd tell me so."
He said, "Honey, I don't know."
The waiter was getting nervous. Those two. They didn't eat. Now they weren't even talking. The man had looked kinda sad and tired when they came in, but now—Cripes, the guy was boiling. Whatever she told him, it sure made him mad. The waiter went over and got himself a drink of water, watching over the brim of the glass.
Jane whimpered, "I wish I hadn't said anything. Now I've got you upset, and what's the use?"
Francis turned his head and brought himself back. He'd been thinking, when they killed yours you killed them. That's the way it was in the war. But this was going to be different. He knew he had to get the anger swallowed under, and think about proof and stuff like that, think legal. Move slowly. Be sure. Put it in the department of the brain.
"Find out," he said aloud.
"The trouble is, I don't see how," said Jane. "Fran, I know there's something wrong. I know it as I know I've got a hole in the heel of my stocking, where it doesn't show. First I guessed and then I wondered, but the longer I'm up there in that house, the better I know it! I feel it! I smell it! And still I can't see what to do."
Francis beckoned and the waiter came sidling over. "Take this junk away and bring us sandwiches and coffee. Any kind."
"First you think, 'Go to the police,'" Jane was saying. "All right. With what will we go to the police? I've thought and thought—"
"Walk in," he murmured, "and say, 'I'm Miss Wright's fiancé I don't think she committed suicide. I think she was murdered.'"
Jane nodded. "They'd say, 'Why?'"
"Naturally. So I say, 'Well, she didn't compose her own suicide note.'" He frowned.
"But they say," Jane took it up, "'Who did it?' And you say, 'Why, that nationally known figure, Mr. Luther Grandison, the famous director, the man who staged Dead Men Do Talk with Lillian Jellico in 1920.'" She looked at her wrist. "Oh, quick, we're missing it. Tell him to ask the bartender. The radio. I want you to hear Grandison."
"You know what he's going to say?"
"Of course I do. But I want you to hear."
Francis hailed a busboy, and Jane gave the message. Francis said, "Where were we? The police were laughing."
"Oh, they'd be laughing, all right," said Jane. "We say, "We think he might have stolen some money from a ward of his, and his secretary found out and might have been threatening to expose him." Then they laugh fit to die. They'd say, 'But Mr. Grandison made a lot of money in the theater before he retired. And in the movies. And his book.' They'd say, 'Prove it.'"
"Yeah," said Francis. His eyes had a kind of light behind them or deep within. "How are we going to prove it?"
"Well, there's a lawyer," said Jane wearily, "who comes up once in a while. He takes care of everything. Grandy doesn't. I write all the checks to pay the house bills. Grandy signs them without even looking. He won't talk about money. He won't look at figures. He pretends it's all so vulgar and distressing; says it affects his digestion. Says life should simply flow."
"Does he talk like that?"
"Oh, lordy, lordy, you have no idea how he talks."
"I've read his—"
Jane put up her hand. "Listen." The bartender had changed stations on the radio. Music was cut off. Instead, there was a voice. Jane's hand came down and her fingers fastened on his wrist. The place was quiet enough so that they could hear clearly. It was easy to hear and to understand that persuasive voice. If you began to listen, it caught you. It wove a musical snare for your attention, and then it spun a web of words to hold you, smooth words that came pouring without effort, pouring forth, delicately inflected, persuasive, fascinating.
"How many masks do we meet in a day?" the voice was saying. The cadences were full of regret and wonder, and a little relish. "How many ordinary human faces, two eyes, a nose and a mouth? The man on the bus, the clerk behind the counter, each has a secret. And there are some whose secret is not innocent, but who must wear their masks until they die. I call them The Unsuspected."
Jane's nails went into the flesh on Francis' wrist.
Excerpted from The Unsuspected by Charlotte Armstrong. Copyright © 1974 Jack Lewi. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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.
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One of the best novels from one of the greatest mystery writers of all time. I'm so grateful to have one of my favorite tales of greed, murder, and justice available in ebook format. Try it for yourself; reading it once will never be enough!