Before “Cosmopolitan” was a women’s magazine dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of the female orgasm, it was a publication for the whole family featuring short fiction across several genres. In April 1958, “Cosmopolitan” ran a short story by crime-noir author Charles Williams titled “Stain of Suspicion.” The story was later expanded into a full novel as “Talk of the Town.” Subsequent editions of the paperback reverted back to the original title.
The book opens with Chatham getting into an accident in a small Northern Florida town that leaves him stranded for a few days while his car is being repaired. He meets Georgia, the town’s comely hotelier who is getting harassing phone calls accusing her of murdering her late husband. Through narration, we learn that Chatham is a recently-divorced former San Francisco police officer exiled from the force for excessive brutality. Being stranded for a few days in a motel with a damsel in distress is an easy set-up for him to play the hero.
More than other paperbacks by Charles Williams, “Talk of the Town” is an actual mystery novel with an investigator, suspects and a solution. There are really two mysteries to be solved here. First, who is trying to wreck the health, sanity, and financial security of Georgia through a targeted campaign of obscene accusations and harassment? Second, who actually murdered Georgia’s husband and why? It seems that the whole town has it out for this perfectly pleasant woman. Is she really blameless?
While “Talk of the Town” is clearly a well-written novel, it lacked the great characters that makes me love the work of Charles Williams. This was just a pretty basic mystery novel rather than the superior femme fatale noir from earlier in his career or the maritime adventures of his later works. The small-town mystery itself was pretty ho-hum for my taste and lacked the biting edge of a smutty 1950s crime paperback.
Charles Williams remains one of my favorite authors, but you can safely skip “Talk of the Town” without missing much unless you are seeking to be a total completist. You won’t hate the book, but it was pretty substandard when placed alongside the author’s best moments.
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