Sunday, August 13, 2017

WALK OUT ON DEATH by Charlotte Armstrong

I've been wanting to read some Charlotte Armstrong for a while, after reading some good things about her work. This was the first I picked up....and I wasn't too thrilled by it.

Walk Out on Death (originally titled Catch-As-Catch-Can) isn't much of a mystery, but a thriller in which a series of circumstances lead to a perilous situation. It opens with a fairly silly situation: world traveler Jonas Breen has brought home Laila, his beautiful daughter (or so he claims) from a quickie marriage in the South Seas (or so he claims). Seriously, everyone seems to take this at face value. But anyway, he dies, and innocent and very naive 18-year-old Laila inherits a half million dollars. (For 1952, that was a fortune.) She is surrounded by various cousins: Clive Breen, Dee Allison, and Andrew Talbot. Laila has a crush on Andy, who's been having a turbulent relationship with Dee, and Clive, who always needs money. There's also Pearl Dean, a friend of Jonas, a spiritualist who may or may not have designs on the Breen cash.

After realizing she's made a fool of herself over Andy, Laila leaves the house for a long walk, and while she's gone the people in the house are in a panic as the housekeeper collapsed and died. It turned out she had eaten some improperly-canned beans and got botulism as a result...and Laila had just eaten some of the same beans. Soon Dee and Andy are searching for her to get her to a hospital for treatment. (This was a reality in the day; people could and did die from botulism, and their only hope was to be rushed to a hospital for an injection of an antivenin before 24 hours were through.)

Clive finds out...and decides to keep Laila on ice until she dies from the poison, so he can inherit. But then she takes off on her own, hooking up with her friend Pearl and hiding in Pearl's trailer while she drives off to the beach.

Dee and Andy have a series of misadventures while looking for Laila, and there's a prolonged chase, a dramatic traffic accident, a creepy laundry truck driver, and a conclusion in a house about to be flooded with a powerful insecticide fog before it all ends happily.

It's a bit of a mess, but at least it's an energetic mess. It moves quickly although sometimes the plot contrivances are just too damn contrived and convenient, including Laila nursing a broken heart in the morning and finding true love in the afternoon. I did like how a witness to the aforementioned accident, an elderly mute woman, is regularly dismissed and ignored by everyone around her until finally someone stops and thinks to ask if she happened to see anything. Maybe a bit overly obvious that she's standing in for how so many women and their contributions are overlooked and ignored, and also for society's dismissive attitude toward the elderly, but it was still nicely done.

But all in all, the story is too muddled and too contrived to hit bullseye, but it is energetic and fast-moving enough to make an acceptable time-killer for a lazy afternoon. It's a fairly brief read, about 184 pages, and out of print, but you may come across an old copy in your local friendly used book emporium.

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