Wednesday, March 25, 2020

24. The Chocolate Cobweb by Charlotte Armstrong

Still tough going with the reading as my twitter addiction flares unabated and we go into our second week of Coronavirus lockdown, everybody's attention on the ticking time bomb that is the U.S. right now and wondering how bad the explosion will be.  I did power through the last third of this book, so it caught my distracted attention that much.  It's a nice little thriller with a great antagonist, though somewhat lessened for me as it had two very similar themes as the first Charlotte Armstrong book I read.

Amanda is a young, attractive art student who learns that as a newborn, she was temporarily given to the wrong parents.  Morover, the wrong father is a well-known artist, Tobias Garrison who lives not far from her in L.A. and is exhibiting.  She boldly introduces herself, gets invited to their house where she meets his handsome, distant son, Thone (with whom she was mistaken in the first hours of her life) and his mousy wife, Ione. Ione, it turns out, is not Thone's mother, but a first and third wife.  Ione's mother, Belle, was Tobias second wife and the subject of his most famous painting.  She died in a horrible accident one night, accidently trapped in the garage with the car running where she was poisoned by the carbon monoxide.

We learn quite early by Armstrong switching to Ione's viewpoint that Ione is a complete psychopath, who is obsessed with removing all traces of Belle from her and Tobias' life, including Belle's son Thone.  She is actively plotting to poison hin with some hot chocolate when Amanda shows up, spoiling it and seeing Ione knock over the thermos of poisoned chocolate deliberately.  It is somewhat contrived, as she helps to mop it up and then swaps the handkerchief so she can take the stained one to her boyfriend the chemist.

Anyways, I gave a lot of the plot away, because it all sets up in the opening chapters (which I appreciated).  The rest of the story is Amanda trying to convince Thone that he is being poisoned, while avoiding Ione's plotting, as she herself may now become a target (Ione suspecting that she may actually be Belle's daughter).  It has a nice gothic situation, in a very modern southern California hillside home.  I enjoyed particularly Ione's the super sweet, controlling utterly mad wife.  Unfortunately, some elements reminded me strongly of Catch As Catch Can, particularly the heroine being trapped in an enclosed space with almost too tight of a time limit before death only to be saved at the very last minute.  The love tension between her and Thone was also similar where there was an almost too aggressive conflict between them where they are so opposed you know they have to fall in love.  Armstrong is good, but I need to give her a break for a while and be in a quieter place to properly appreciate her work.

Oh cool, I just discovered that Claude Chabrol directed Merci pour le Chocolat in 2000, based on this book with Isabelle Hupert as the Ione character.  Definitely not the right body type, but she could play this role extremely well.  Might be worth checking out.

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