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Monday, 3 April 2017

Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867-1944)

The  Golden Age
Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867-1944)
by Carol Westron

Margaret Armstrong is a late Golden Age, American author, who was praised by Howard Haycraft in his book Murder for Pleasure (1941.) Although Haycraft ranks Armstrong as a HIBK (‘Had I But Known’) author, only one of her three mystery books actually qualifies for this category.

Margaret Armstrong was born into a prominent and socially privileged family. Both her parents were members of wealthy, admired and influential families. She was born at Danskammer, the family home, an imposing mansion on a country estate, overlooking the Hudson River, north of New York. Armstrong’s family also maintained a luxurious New York City town-house. Armstrong’s father, David Maitland Armstrong, qualified as a lawyer and was a diplomat, serving as the United States Consul General to Italy for four years. At the same time, he studied painting in Italy. When he returned to the United States, Maitland Armstrong continued his artistic work and became an eminent stained glass artist. It is interesting that the family friends included not just well-known artists but also writers, such as William Dean Howells and Mark Twain.

Margaret Armstrong had six siblings. Her sister, Helen, followed in her father’s footsteps, working as his assistant for many years, and becoming a successful stained glass artist in her own right. Her youngest brother, Hamilton Fish Armstrong was the editor of the magazine Foreign Affairs for over forty years and became an influential voice in American foreign policy. Like her father and sister, Margaret Armstrong’s primary vocation was as an artist. She began her career in the 1880s as a designer of book covers. She favoured distinctive, asymmetrical, Art Nouveau designs, with bold colours, gold stamping and often plant-related themes. After 1895 her monogram often appears on her books, ‘MA’ in upper case, with the M slightly overlapping the A. In her thirty year career as a designer, Armstrong designed over 270 book covers and book bindings. She has been described as ‘the most productive and accomplished American book designer of the 1890s and early 1900s.’

From 1910 onwards, Armstrong started to move away from book cover design as the elegant cloth covers were being replaced by less expensive dust jackets. For a few years, she travelled around the West of the United States, hiking and camping and studying the flowers and plants that had always been one of her passions. In 1915 she produced the first comprehensive guide on the flowers of Western America, The Field Book of Western Wild Flowers. This masterly and beautiful book contains 550 illustrations.

Armstrong was in her late sixties and early seventies when she turned to writing. Remarkably, she produced five books in three years. Two were bestselling biographies, Fanny Kemble: A Passionate Victorian (1938) and Trelawny: A Man’s Life (1940.) She also wrote three crime novels: Murder in Stained Glass (1939), The Man with No Face (1940) and The Blue Santo Murder (1941.) Armstrong died in New York in 1944.

Murder in Stained Glass, Armstrong’s first detective novel is also her best. It is a ‘Had I But Known’ novel, narrated (as HIBK novels usually were) by a wealthy spinster, Miss Harriet Trumbull. The book starts with the traditional paragraph that explains that if the narrator had known what was about to happen it would have all been different. Miss Trumbull blames the weather for her presence at Basset Bridge. If it had not been fine, she would never have left her elegant and luxurious home in New York. However, unlike most HIBK narrators, Miss Trumbull’s tone is factual rather than self-pitying. ‘I suppose weather, bad and good, has often made a lot of difference in people’s lives. A truism, no doubt. Anyhow, when I think back and consider the part I played in the Ullathorne affair, I realize that if the sun had not been shining on one particular Monday morning last March, nothing that happened at Bassett’s Bridge would have happened in exactly the same way, and some of it would never have happened at all. For I shouldn’t have been there.’
Miss Trumbull has accepted an invitation to stay with an old school friend, Charlotte Blair, at her old-fashioned country house at Bassett’s Bridge, and is now regretting her agreement.

‘Why had I told Charlotte I would go? I didn’t really like Charlotte. I had never liked her. We hadn’t met for years, not since boarding school, and that’s a long time now, for we are both in our late forties. I remembered Charlotte as an immensely tall pale thin silent girl with frightened eyes, who took a fancy to me, I think, because I was plump and lively and never afraid of anything. Time doesn’t change you, it only makes you more so. I have grown stouter and heavier and more talkative, I reflected; so Charlotte must be thinner and paler. As for her eyes, if they are any queerer than they used to be, God help us all!’

Nevertheless Miss Trumbull does go to Basset’s Bridge, partly because the sun is shining and partly because she doesn’t want to disappoint Charlotte.

Another tradition of HIBK novels is that the narrating spinster should support a young couple whose love is threatened by unreasonable relatives or external circumstances – often a murder. In Murder in Stained Glass the young couple are Charlotte’s orphaned cousin, Phyllis, and Leo Ullathorne, the son of a famous stained-glass artist, Frederick Ullathorne. Ullathorne has moved his workshop from New York to Bassett’s Bridge to escape publicity while he is creating a stained glass memorial window for the Cathedral. Frederick Ullathorne is a great artist but he is also egotistical, selfish and a cruel father to Leo, continually belittling his abilities; it is also reported that he is a womaniser. When Frederick Ullathorne goes to New York on business, everybody is pleased. However, he does not return when expected and it becomes clear that he has disappeared. Then human bones are found in one of the furnaces in the glass studio, and a murder investigation is put in progress.

Miss Trumbull has a low opinion of Skinner, the detective in charge, and starts to do a little sleuthing of her own. This is one way that Armstrong departs from the strict tradition of HIBK novels, in which the narrator reacts rather than acts when presented with a mystery (and quite often reacts with shuddering distaste, rather than moving into investigative action.) Miss Trumbull actively investigates, following clues even when it involves inconvenience, discomfort and ultimately danger.

Murder in Stained Glass is the only one of Armstrong’s novels known to have been read by Agatha Christie. Unfortunately there is no record of what Christie thought of it, but there seems to be no reason why she should not regard it as a well-plotted, workmanlike novel, with interesting characters and a fascinating setting.

Armstrong brings her intimate knowledge of the production of stained glass to her beautiful descriptions of the windows and the processes involved in making them. Although her father was a far more likeable character than Ullathorne, it seems likely that some of the things Miss Trumbull says as she gropes for the right words to describe the window in a way that will please the touchy artist, may have been culled from memories of visitors to her father’s studio. The clues to the crime are cleverly weaved into the artistic description. Armstrong had originally wanted to call the book Red Flash, a reference to one of the colours used in stained glass manufacture, but her publishers felt that this would mislead readers into thinking the book was a dog story.

Authenticity is implicit throughout Murder in Stained Glass. Other writers of the time imagined what it would be like to be a wealthy, well-connected spinster, but Armstrong was actually part of the American elite. No residential hotel for her Miss Trumbull, she had an apartment on Park Avenue. Ironically, for all the discomforts of her stay in the countryside, it is back home in New York that danger comes closest and Miss Trumbull has to defend her life with that most genteel of weapons, a vigorously wielded tea-pot.

The Man with No Face, the second of Armstrong’s detective novels is not a HIBK book and, sadly, neither does it feature Miss Trumbull. It seems as if Armstrong was having a lot of fun playing with the genre and this time she achieved something that resembled an inverted novel. The story starts with a long prologue set in Australia, at the funeral of Donald Bell, a wealthy and respected member of the community. The mourners are expecting Bell’s adopted son, Percy McGuire, to inherit his wealth and the majority are eager to be on friendly terms with McGuire, disregarding the protests of Sir Wilfred Bennet, who was at the same school at McGuire and knows his true character. Most of the people listening to Sir Wilfred think that McGuire would show signs of his character in his face. ‘“Mr McGuire doesn’t look as if he had a bad heart,” Mrs Denbigh whispered to Lady Bennet. “You know, I quite like his face. Not an interesting countenance. Rather dull in fact. But no evidence of depravity.”’

However, Sir Wilfred is right about McGuire’s character. Some months previously he had forged his adopted father’s signature and, although the matter was adjusted, Bell had altered his will, leaving McGuire an annuity and leaving the rest of his vast fortune to the descendants of a man who bore the same name, although they were not related, Robert Bell of Irongray. The only way that McGuire could inherit Donald Bell’s fortune was if Robert Bell of Irongray had no descendants living. McGuire soon discovers that these descendants now live in America and sets of for New York to remedy the problem of these rival heirs’ existence.
Chapter One opens with the introduction of Mr Minton Marbury, a man in late middle-age and one of New York’s wealthy elite. Mr Marbury has several hobbies, his garden, stamp collecting, genealogy and illuminating pictures. He is happy to paint Clare Beaumont’s ‘coat of armour’ not just because he enjoys the work,but because he is in love with Clare, although he has never found the courage to ask her to marry him after her husband died. Clare is indeed a lovely and sweet woman, but the moment the portrait of Robert Bell of Irongray is identified as Clare’s great-great grandfather, the reader knows her fate is sealed. The next day Clare is discovered dead in bed. The official verdict is suicide but Mr Marbury does not believe that and nor does Jim Northcote, a young artist who ate was painting Clare’s portrait. Together they set out to investigate Clare’s death. At first, uncertain what they are dealing with, they are several steps behind the ruthless killer, a man so nondescript that he is, in effect, a man with no face. The death toll mounts and it is very much in doubt whether they can prevent the obsessed murdererbefore he kills all the unfortunate heirs of Robert Bell. The premise of the novel is clever, as the reader knows far more than the detectives. In most inverted novels the reader follows the criminal and the detectives through the investigation until the crime is solved, but in The Man with No Face the murderer shows his intention to kill and then disappears, blending into the background and briefly re-emerging in different guises to strike down the innocent descendants of Robert Bell, who have no idea that they are heirs to a fortune.

In my opinion,
The Man with No Face does not have the same sparkle as Murder in Stained Glass. However it is a well-crafted and eminently readable novel, with the same authenticity in the art descriptions and the social background as its predecessor.

The third of Armstrong’s novels, The Blue Santo Murder Mystery is the weakest of her books. It starts with Mr Carboy, a solicitor, receiving a letter from his client, ‘the richest woman in America,’ Mrs Kearny-Pine, who was staying at Tecos, New Mexico. Mr Carboy ‘ran his eye hastily down the first two pages: “Magnificent scenery. Picturesque pueblo. High altitude. No palpitations as yet. Death of my maid exceedingly inconvenient...” and reached the final paragraph. “I have decided,” it ran, “to change my will. The fortune accumulated by the sagacity of my dear father, which has increased under my stewardship, must be safeguarded, and I shall take steps to prevent its being dissipated by reckless extravagance.”’ Mr Carboy is given no further details and wonders who amongst her heirs Mrs Kearny-Pine intends to disinherit: her nephew, Algernon; her niece, Rosalie; or her husband Stephen. Before his train leaves, Mr Carboy encounters the gentleman detective Sir Hubert Pierce, and moments later the evening newspapers arrive at the station bearing the headline ‘WHERE IS MRS KEARNY-PINE?’ A call to Mr Carboy’s office confirms that his client has been kidnapped.

During her travels in the American West, Armstrong had visited New Mexico, and it is generally agreed that the town she calls Tecos is, in fact, Taos. The most engaging part of the book is her descriptions of the scenery of New Mexico: ‘Ten minutes’ steady climb brought them, with dazzling suddenness, out of moist, cool forest shadow into hot, dry, windy sunlight. Shading their eyes, they stepped out onto a ledge of rock, carpeted with dry turf, overlooking a vast expanse, of plain and mountain shimmering in a haze of blue and violet and pale gold far below.’

One of the most remarkable things about The Blue Santo Murder Mystery is that Armstrong, whose background was more privileged and cultured than any other crime writer of the period, described with such sympathy the painful struggle for survival of the poor, whether the Pueblo in their ramshackle camps or the stoical families travelling in the hope of finding a better future, with too little money to feed the children. ‘Five minutes walk brought them to the motor camp. A dozen flimsy shacks, painted red, facing a strip of bare, sun baked earth. Only one showed signs of life, for summer travel had not yet begun. Here a Model T stood against the wall. On the doorstep a man sat crouched with a baby in his arms, feeding it from a bottle, smoke rose from a fire built on the ground and tended by a pretty little boy. As Rosalie and Greenough approached, the man looked up inquiringly. He had a gaunt weather beaten face, set with china blue eyes. Rosalie recognized him, it was the man she had seen in the curio shop. He stirred, the bottle was withdrawn, and the little creature in his arms let out a wail of anger.
“Poor darling,” Rosalie murmured, bending over the baby as the man hurriedly rammed the nipple back into the wide open toothless mouth. “It’s awfully hungry, isn’t it?”
“He’s always hungry,” the man said resignedly. “Some way, there don’t seem to be no plumb to this child. And milk ain’t easy to come by when you’re on the road. Now Buddie here” - with a proud glance at the little boy - “he chaws bacon and beans like I do.”
“You are taking care of the children all by yourself?” Rosalie exclaimed.
“Yes ma’am. My wife, she up and died five weeks ago. So I sold out and we’re moving West.”’

Margaret Armstrong was a remarkable woman. Born into a wealthy and privileged family, she worked unceasingly all of her life. As an artist she reached the top of her profession and as a writer she was a bestselling biographer and she played with the detective fiction genre and achieved late in life success as a mystery writer. Certainly an author worth reading, especially Murder in Stained Glass.

Recently the three Margaret Armstrong detective stories have been reprinted as paperbacks and on Kindle. * At the time of writing, Murder in Stained Glass is free on Kindle.

Murder in Stained Glass. Published by Pepik Books
ISBN: 978-0993235702.ASIN: B016V6OZIO

The Man with No Face. Published by Pepik Books
ISBN: 978-0993235788. ASIN: B016VD39VQ

The Blue Santo Murder Mystery. Published by Pepik Books
ISBN: 978-0993235764. ASIN: B016V6P4WA

Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

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