Born Charlotte Armstrong on May 2, 1905, in Vulcan, Michigan, to Frank Armstrong, a mining engineer and inventor, and Clara Pascoe Armstrong. Graduated from Vulcan High School in 1921. Attended Ferry Hall junior college in Lake Forrest, Illinois, for one year, serving as editor-in-chief of student publication Ferry Tales. Attended University of Wisconsin–Madison for two years before transferring to Barnard College, where she received a bachelor’s degree. Took a job writing classified advertisements for The New York Times; later worked as a fashion reporter for the buyer’s guide Breath of the Avenue and as a clerk in a certified public accountant’s office. Published three poems in The New Yorker, 1928–29. Married Jack Lewi, an advertising executive, in 1928, and had a daughter and two sons.
Wrote the plays The Happiest Days (1939) and Ring Around Elizabeth (1941), both produced on Broadway. Published mystery novels Lay On, Mac Duff! (1942), The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), and The Innocent Flower (1945). Turned to suspense with The Unsuspected (1945), whose sale to Hollywood enabled Armstrong and her family to move to California; the film version, directed by Michael Curtiz, came out in 1947. Published novels The Chocolate Cobweb (1948), Mischief (1951, filmed as Don’t Bother to Knock with Marilyn Monroe), The Black-Eyed Stranger (1952), Catch-as-Catch Can (1953), The Trouble in Thor (1953, as Jo Valentine), The Better to Eat You (1954), The Dream Walker (1955), and A Dram of Poison (1956), which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Published short story collection The Albatross (1957) and novels Incident at a Corner (1957), The Seventeen Widows of Sans Souci (1959), The Girl With A Secret (1959), and Something Blue (1959).
Wrote three teleplays for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Sybilla,” directed by Ida Lupino; “The Five Forty-Eight,” adapted from a John Cheever short story; and “Across the Threshold”) and an adaptation of Incident at a Corner for the television series Startime in 1959, with Hitchcock directing. Later novels were Then Came Two Women (1962), The One-Faced Girl (1963), The Mark of the Hand (1963), Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair? (1963), A Little Less Than Kind (1964), The Witch’s House (1964), The Turret Room (1965), Dream of Fair Woman (1966), Gift Shop (1967), The Balloon Man (1968), Lemon in the Basket (1968), Seven Seats to the Moon (1969), as well as the short story collection I See You (1966).
Died July 7, 1969, of cancer in Glendale, California. Her final novel The Protégé (1970) was published posthumously by Coward-McCann, publisher for all of her novels. (Source: Women Crime Writers)
Suggested Readings: The Unsuspected (1947); The Chocolate Cobweb (1948); Mischief (1950); Catch-as-Catch-Can (1953); The Dream Walker aka Alibi for Murder (1955); A Dram of Poison (1956); The Protégé (1970).
Charlotte Armstrong is of historical importance in the crime and mystery genre as one of the women writers–along with, for example, Margaret Milllar, Ursula Curtiss, Shelley Smith and Celia Fremlin–who moved away from the traditional tale of detection to the modern thriller, or psychological suspense novel, where the interest is in the why rather than the who or how, in what will happen rather than whodunit (Jeffrey Marks writes about some of these women authors, including Armstrong, in his Atomic Renaissance, while Rick Cypert has written a critical study of Armstrong, The Virtue of Suspense.)
After writing three detective novels between 1942 and 1945, Armstrong broke this mold with The Unsuspected (1946), a suspense tale much celebrated in its day, as was Mischief (1951), which followed five years later (both of these novels were quickly adapted into films). (Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp)
Atomic Renaissance: Women Mystery Writers of the 1940s and 1950s (Delphi Books, 2003) by Jeffrey Marks
The Virtue Of Suspense: The Life and Works of Charlotte Armstrong (Susquehanna University Press, 2008) by Rick Cypert
The note discovered beside Rosaleen Wright’s hanged body is full of reasons justifying her suicide—but it lacks her trademark vitality and wit, and, most importantly, her signature. So the note alone is far from enough to convince her best friend Jane that Rosaleen was her own murderer, even if the police quickly accept the possibility as fact. Instead, Jane suspects Rosaleen’s boss, New York theater impresario Luther Grandison. To the world at large, he’s powerful and charismatic, but Rosaleen’s letters to Jane described a duplicitous, greedy man who would no doubt kill to protect his secrets. If Rosaleen stumbled upon one such secret, it could have led to an untimely demise—and Jane risks a similar end when she takes a job with Grandison’s company, tangling with one of Broadway’s deadliest actors in a desperate play for the truth.
A playwright before she turned to crime fiction, Charlotte Armstrong drew from her experience in the theater for her fourth novel, The Unsuspected. The book inspired the 1947 film of the same name.
The Unsuspected has been reviewed, among others, by Kate Jackson at Cross-Examining Crime, TracyK at Bitter Tea and Mystery, deadyesterday at Dead Yesterday, Aidan Brack at Mysteries Ahoy! and Martin Edwards at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’.