Classic Crime: The Witch’s House

Fawcett Crest paperback with gothic style cover art by Harry Bennett

Taking the day off is a good time to catch up on some fiction reading as I have almost no time for reading lately except work which is mostly non-fiction. I can forget what it’s like to read without making notes or checking footnotes and sources, stopping to make notes of what else I need to get to look more deeply into a question…. Plus it was a nice day and I sat on the porch with my feet up and read this cover to cover.

Armstrong’s narrative as usual hits the floor running — literally in this case. One professor in pursuit of another over a stolen bit of lab equipment. In quick strokes we know why to sympathise with the pursuer, Pat O’Shea and his sense of fairness toward a wrongly accused student rather than the shady Professor Adams. In no time we not only have a sense of the two characters, but the introduction of a landscape and location and many specifics of it that will be important later — all in the midst of a pellmell chase that goes wildly wrong, and then! It gets even worse with the arrival of the titular character. Called ‘witch’ by the neighbourhood kids — shorthand for any woman not conforming to a societal straightjacket — she turns out to be a mentally scarred loner who mistakes the gravely injured man as her lost son.

After the first wild chapter, we turn to the respective households of the two educators. Anabel O’Shea is quickly sketched in as a fiery-tempered but loving wife; Celia Adams on the other hand is much more elusive and strange — and so too her creepy twin brother Cecil: yes, we have a twin situation! Even Violent — Vee, Vi — Adams’ daughter finds it all confusing but then she’s a strange little fabulist who’s barely got one foot in reality. Anabel becomes the driving force of the narrative, alternating with snapshots of what’s going on in the witch’s house. Without an ounce of chaff Armstrong brings Anabel to vivid life and fills in all the unexpected background that led to the peculiar theft and Adam’s desperation.

She keeps the suspense high, the action believable and the stakes growing. Armstrong can effortlessly bring out a sense of character in a line and makes the transitions between various characters smooth because each voice is so clearly defined. Even the pair of cops — so easy to make cliché — are individuals, and undergo changes in character. Such skill! She tells us and the characters things though the believably misunderstand or misinterpret what they hear in perfectly reasonable ways. There’s a disabled character who’s referred to with vintage abelist language, but who plays a unique role in unraveling the mystery due to his perspective. The protagonist’s clever ideas don’t always work out, which makes it feel realistic.

A fun quick-paced read.