When I recovered from the relentless terror of Shirley Jackson's House on Haunted Hill, I searched for another novel that flies out of the gate like a rocket-powered robin, whispering horrors in my ear with the loveliest of voices.
A re-release of Charlotte Armstrong's Case of the Weird Sisters fell into my lap, and more than made the grade. Armstrong maintains a a fierce commitment to suspense and character, even as certain aspects of the narrative fall flat.
Alice Brennan trips lightly through a poorly thought-out engagement into the house of the titular weird sisters, each nursing a debilitating handicap and a desperation for cash.
As I read it, 3 other series came to mind: Hercule Poirot, contemporary Doctor Who and a whole body of self-referential film noir.
These may sound unrelated. They're not.
Each case relies upon an interloper who not only happens upon the mystery, but also ingratiates him (let's face it, usually him) self with the primary players in the case.
I love The Case of the Weird Sisters unabashedly, even though it lays bare some of the most problematic aspects of the type of storytelling I describe. Doctor Who, despite being a science-fiction yarn, may represent this storytelling best: it relies upon the viewer relating to the earthbound narrator, who controls the story until the Doc appears. At which point, the Doctor takes over all agency, and our earthbound audience stand-in becomes nothing more than an observer.
::experiences sudden worry that the Charlotte Armstrong reading audience MAY NOT crossover to the Doctor Who audience, but c'est la vie::
Armstrong belies this; Alice is the lead, through and through. In fact, you can practically sense editorial medding; the tale's too feminine somehow, starting and ending with her love life, so we have to introduce MacDougal Duff as the lead, even though he leaves five pages in, only to reappear at the 27% mark.
That's a sizable chunk of the novel, ample time to forget that Duff even exists. And when he commandeers the narrative, our emotional hook becomes less strong. He enters the scene without any real connection to the characters (his knowing Alice is a silly coincidence at best) and absolutely no stake in how events turn out - he can always just leave.
This sort of thing can be written off as a necessary evil in a weekly tv show, but in a self-contained novel, it's a curious choice, and one that robs the narrative of urgency. We want this to be about Alice. The eerieness of the House of the Weird Sisters perfectly reflects the cobwebs in her own mind. As she works to sweep them away, we want to be with her, not with the interloper.
All this notwithstanding, the novel was a great read, and I'd recommend it to anyone. Despite the weirdness of Duff's interruption, he's as entertaining as any of the other characters, and that's what saves the novel. Armstrong's greatest strength is crafting the atmosphere, and I have to say, I was sorry to leave.