Saturday, March 17, 2018

River Girl

America is a big country, and in the 1950s Americans still didn’t know one another all that well. To an untraveled guy from Boston, a West Virginian may as well have been a space alien for all the commonalities between their lives. This familiarity divide gave birth to a slew of erotic noir crime novels with the selling point that rural America was filled with hidden, unsophisticated, hot and horny babes ready for action with townies willing to venture into the woods. Sprinkle in some blackmail, murder, and a plot twist - and a crime fiction classic is born. This must have been a successful formula because books like “Backwoods Teaser”, “Swamp Nymph”, “Hill Girl”, “Shack Road Girl”, and “Cracker Girl” - complete with lurid, painted covers - apparently filled the drugstore spinner racks of the 1950s. 

Charles Williams’ 1951 entry into this arena was his third novel, “River Girl” (later re-released as “The Catfish Tangle”). Williams’ later books featured nautical themes and  brought him success and movie adaptations, but “River Girl” was before all that. Like many of the best from the era, “River Girl” was released as a paperback original by Fawcett Gold Medal and has found new life thanks to a reprint from Stark House Books, packaged as a double along with Williams’ 1954 release, “Nothing in Her Way”. 

The short novel stars Jack Marshall as a somewhat crooked deputy working for a very crooked small-town sheriff. Jack serves as the boss’ troubleshooter and bagman for graft collected from the local backroom gambling parlors and whorehouses selling “too-young” merchandise. Despite his supplementary income, Jack is going broke and restless with a disinterested wife at home who doesn’t appreciate him. 

During a solo fishing trip down the river, Jack finds a shack deep in the swamp where an unlikely couple lives. After meeting Doris for the first time while her husband is away, Jack is immediately smitten. All he can think about is Doris despite the intense pressure he’s under from a preacher working to shut down the town’s sin parlors and a grand jury convening to investigate local corruption. When Jack’s infatuation with comely Doris is too much to handle, he pays her another visit and learns that the river girl’s story is far more complex than he ever imagined. Even with the impossible hurdles, could they have a life together?

Man, Charles Williams sure could write. The lust, humidity, and pressure Jack experiences throughout this short novel is palpable. The sexual chemistry between Jack and Doris is hot but never graphic, and the culture of rationalized small town corruption is fully realized thanks to Williams ability to put us squarely in Jack’s narrative mindset. The plot twists are ingenious and largely realistic and the tension builds to a violent, action-packed climax. Throughout the book, Williams adeptly walks the line between a noir crime novel and a forbidden romance story and it works quite well - all the way up to the satisfying conclusion. 

Put this one in your “must read” pile.

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