In Mischief, Mr. and Mrs. Peter O. Jones are on their way to an important social function, where Mr. Jones is due to deliver a speech. They have to leave their daughter Bunny behind, and they planned to leave her at the hotel with Mr. Jones’ sister. But at the last moment, she cancels on them, and they’re forced to scramble around to find a replacement. Fortunately, an elevator operator named Eddie Munro hears of their plight and volunteers the services of his niece, Nell Munro. The Joneses are only too happy to accept Eddie’s offer, but something feels odd the instant Nell steps into room 807…
Mischief was originally published in 1950, but happily, it’s been brought back into digital print by The Mysterious Press, along with several of Armstrong’s novels. I can’t begin telling you how glad I am about this. Charlotte Armstrong was a supremely talented writer, capable of conjuring suspense out of thin air, creating memorable characters and perilous situations. I was aware that I was reading a work of fiction, but I felt a deep emotional investment in the entire story, and was on the edge of my seat throughout the book. It’s a short read, and that’s in its favour: the story unravels quickly and neatly.
But at the same time, Armstrong creates some truly memorable characters. I particularly liked the character of Jed Towers. He’s about to fly out of town to take up a new, important job, and so was spending potentially his last evening with Lyn Lesley. The date had an air of decisiveness around it: this would either make or break their relationship. Unfortunately, things get off to a bad start: when they are accosted by a beggar in the street, Jed walks away and drags Lyn along with him. This upsets Lyn, and they argue about just how much you can really trust other people. Jed argues that the beggar was probably quite comfortably off and didn’t need the money, while Lyn says that even if that were the case, she’d at least have felt better had Jed given the man some money. With a huff, the two separate, and Jed goes back to his hotel room… where, from his window, he looks into Room 807 and spies Nell Munro. He decides that, what the hell, he might as well flirt with her, and so he inadvertently gets sucked into a deadly game played between the insane Nell and the rest of the world.
It’s through Jed that Charlotte Armstrong weaves not only an intricate plot, but also fascinating themes through which she explores the human condition. Jed begins the evening as the cynical man-of-the-world, scoffing at Lyn’s naiveté, but he himself is lured into a trap. He soon realizes that Nell is insane and must figure out a way of escaping her clutches without exposing little Bunny to the dangers of being left alone with this madwoman. But nothing quite works out, and everything slowly leads to a tense climax, where miscommunications, misunderstandings, and delays all add up to create a memorable conclusion to the novel. As much as I’d like to say more (both on the plot and the thematic levels), that would necessitate spoiling the ending… so instead, I recommend reading the book for yourself.
Note: This book was made into a film, Don’t Bother to Knock, starring none other than Marilyn Monroe as Nell! I have not seen the movie but am interested in the idea. Monroe never entered my mind as a possible actress to portray Nell, but the idea of her playing an insane babysitter is too delightful for words. I might review the film here in the future.