Showing posts with label Charles Williams. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Williams. Show all posts

Monday, May 2, 2022

All the Way

Charles Williams (1909-1975) was the best American author of 20th century crime-noir fiction that most Americans have never encountered. Thanks to some smart reprint publishers, his work is being introduced to a new generation of readers looking for propulsive plotting and gritty, vivid characterizations. All the Way was a 1958 paperback also released under the title The Concrete Flamingo that has been reprinted by Stark House.

The narrator is a drifter named Jerry Forbes, who’s in Key West, Florida when he spots a sexy dame on the beach giving him the eye. Her name is Marian Forsyth, and she’s a secretary in a small Louisiana town. From the moment they meet, Jerry knows that Marian has a hidden agenda. Even the sex between them feels transactional. For those who read a lot of these types of books, this dame has femme fatale written all over her. 

After getting to know one another a bit, Marian proposes an idea to Jerry. She needs Jerry to impersonate her boss to move money from a stock account into their hands as a prelude to murdering the boss. Marian used to be his mistress, and he failed to marry her. Hell hath no fury and all that. 

As usual, Williams’ writing is head-and-shoulders better than his contemporaries. The monologues he wrote for Marian explaining the humiliation she suffered at the hands of her boss are staggering. The book is a bit of a slow burn, but Williams keeps the emotions running high, so the reader understands the narrator’s anxious longing for this woman bent on destroying another man. 

All the Way is basically the story of a complex and dicey long con. It’s an inventive paperback, but you need to be patient with the novel’s sluggish pace. This elaborate identity theft scheme doesn’t unfold with breakneck action. This culminates in one of the most bleak and tragic conclusions I can remember reading in ages. 

All the Way was compelling and interesting, but I don’t think it’s top-shelf Charles Williams. It would have been more impactful as a 50-page novella in Manhunt Magazine. If you’re working your way through Williams’ entire body of work, you’ll probably enjoy the novel just fine, but don’t make this your first stop. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Gulf Coast Girl (aka Scorpion Reef)

Gulf Coast Girl, by Charles Williams, has a rather complicated publication history. The novel was released in condensed form in the September 1955 edition of Manhunt under the title "Flight to Nowhere". That year MacMillan published it as a hardback entitled Scorpion Reef. Pan published the paperback version under that title in 1958. In 1955, Dell published the book as Gulf Coast Girl with cover art by Robert Maguire. Dell then reprinted it again under that title in 1960 with cover art by Robert McGinnis. In 1972, it was reprinted by Pocket Books as a paperback titled Scorpion Reef and currently it is that title as a $4 ebook offering through Mysterious Press.

Bill Manning is a 33-year old salvage diver that attended M.I.T., served in the U.S. Navy and authored a few adventure stories. While working in the little town of Sanport, Florida, Manning is approached by a young Scandinavian woman who presents herself as Mrs. Shannon Wayne. She wants to hire Manning to dive in a lake to retrieve her husband's lost shotgun. Manning accepts the job, but is skeptical of her real intentions.

At the rural lake location, Manning locates and returns the shotgun, but knows it was a setup. Mrs. Wayne, who is really Mrs. Macaulay, is attacked in the lake house by three men seeking her husband. When Manning defends her from the assailants, the whole story starts playing out. 

Mr. Macaulay is a salvage insurance underwriter that stole $750,000 in diamonds from a shadowy criminal enterprise. That crime-ring is led by a smooth operator named Barclay. While attempting to escape by plane, Macaulay ends up crashing the plane into the ocean. He escapes with his life, but the plane, and the diamonds, sink into a big area called Scorpio Reef. The Macaulay couple has been on the run from Barclay for months. 

A few high-tension events happen that lead to both Barclay, and his cohort Barfield, forcing Manning and Mrs. Macaulay to sail them to Scorpion Reef. Using Mrs. Macaulay's knowledge of the aircraft's vague location, they will force Manning to dive for the diamonds. Once the diamonds are found, Manning and Macaulay will be killed and the criminals will win back their stolen wealth. 

Providing more information on this story would be a disservice to those of you who have not read it. This was the author's first foray into nautical adventure and serves as a precursor to his novels like Aground (1961), Dead Calm (1963) and And the Deep Blue Sea (1971). However, Williams cut his teeth on crime-noir novels that typically featured sexy female accomplices lulling an innocent man into the jaws of unlawful violence. This is the central feature that makes Gulf Coast Girl so exciting.

The author's twisted narrative is interwoven with violence, sexual chemistry and this thick and disturbing feeling that something very bad will happen to these characters. Barclay's lethal threats, enforce the fact that this nautical voyage is indeed a one-way endeavor. Because of Williams' excellent character development, I really cared about the fate of these two admirable characters and felt touched by the emotional love story embedded in the crime-noir.

As an exhilarating nautical adventure or a straight-laced crime-fiction novel, Gulf Coast Girl is such a pleasure to read. Charles Williams was a master storyteller and this novel showcases that talent tenfold. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

A Touch of Death

Charles Williams (1909-1975) is one of the highest-regarded (and most under-appreciated) writers of American paperback crime fiction. As such, it only made sense in 2011 for Hard Case Crime, the prestige reprint house at the time, to re-release Williams’ 1955 novel, A Touch of Death.

It’s been six-years since Lee Scarborough left the world of football, and now he’s down on his luck trying to sell his car to earn some cash. He meets a hot chick named Diana with a proposition. The girl knows where there’s a stash of $120,000 in stolen money, and she wants Lee’s help to recover it. As Diana explains, a banker named Butler disappeared two months ago leaving a $120,000 cash shortage behind at the bank. Diana’s theory is that Mrs. Butler murdered her embezzling husband, disposed of his body somewhere, and has hidden away the $120,000 for a rainy day.

Diana’s plan is to ensure Mrs. Butler is away from her house for a couple days while Lee tosses the place in search of the stashed cash. Lee negotiates a split for a sizable portion of the loot if he finds the cash. Things go sideways almost immediately and Lee becomes an inadvertent kidnapper of Mrs. Butler while the path to victory becomes more and more complicated.

The shifting alliances throughout the novel are entertaining, and the interplay between Lee and Mrs. Butler has some of the best dialogue of Williams’ career as a writer. However, the plot meandered quite a bit and wasn’t always up to the high standard previously established by Williams. A Touch of Death is in the middle-tier of Williams’ non-maritime books. It’s certainly not the best of his work (that would be River Girl) but it’s definitely worth your time.

Fun Fact:

A Touch of Death was also released as Mix Yourself a Redhead (U.K.) and Le Pigeon (France).

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 10, 2020

Paperback Warrior - Episode 56

You don’t want to miss Episode 56 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast. We tackle the career and work of Charles Williams. Also discussed: Vechel Howard, Howard Rigsby, Gil Brewer's Sin for Me, and a discussion of the films and fiction of S. Craig Zahler. Listen on your favorite podcast app, at paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE. Listen to "Episode 56: Charles Williams" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Aground

Charles Williams was a phenomenal crime-noir author who often set his stories in rural small towns. Many of his books included a tramp or a statuesque beauty who wreaks havoc on the male protagonist's moral compass. Like his contemporary John D. MacDonald, Williams also wrote a handful of men's action-adventure novels with nautical themes.

Scorpion Reef (aka Gulf Coast Girl), The Sailcloth Shroud, And the Deep Blue Sea were all hits with crime-noir enthusiasts and the author's fans. One of Williams' most respected works is the 1963 suspenseful sea-thriller Dead Calm. The novel was adapted for cinema in 1989 and featured Nicole Kidman and Sam Neil. However, some readers may not realize that Dead Calm is actually a sequel to Williams' 1960 novel Aground, so I’m beginning at the beginning.

The author introduces readers to WW2 veteran John Ingram. Through flashbacks we learn that John's wife tragically died in an auto accident and that his former business, a port harbor, was destroyed in a fire that also killed his business partner. Now, John works as a boat broker, a profession that has him inspecting boats and assessing their value to lower the cost for his perspective clients. In the book's opening chapters, readers learn that John has been hired by a man named Hollister who wants to purchase a boat for business purposes. After surveying a schooner called The Dragoon in Key West, John calls Hollister and reports that the yacht is in great condition and ready for purchase. John then returns to Miami where he is met by the police.

Unbeknownst to him, John was tricked into participating in stealing The Dragoon from its port. The owner reports that the inspection routine was really just a way to scout the boat for his accomplices. On the night of John's departure, the boat was stolen by three men including Hollister. The whole purchasing routine was really just a ploy to find a suitable yacht worth stealing. John was conned.

After talking with the boat’s owner, a widow named Rae, the two team up to try and locate the missing yacht. Rae wants her property returned and John, feeling partly responsible for the crime, agrees to assist. The police find a dinghy containing Hollister's watch and clothes, yet there's no sign of the Dragoon. Hiring a pilot, Rae and John eventually locate the yacht on a sandy knoll. During high tide, an inexperienced operator ran the boat into a sandy knoll where it remained aground. But once John and Rae board the Dragoon, they discover why the ship was  stolen.

Like Williams' rural crime-novels, Aground features a likable male protagonist who finds himself in an extreme situation. While Rae could be viewed as the suitable replacement for the author's obligatory sexy seductress, she's presented as a more intelligent, brave addition to the story's twists and turns instead of a cunning swamp nymph. As a nautical adventure tale, Williams doesn't quite do the genre justice. Aground seems to be a high-seas clash as the prey attempts to outwit the predator, but the narrative is more effective as a variant on the home-invasion sub-genre of suspense-thrillers. I can't reveal too many details, but John and Rae are forced to fight criminals in a very confined location. It's this edgy, tightrope anxiety that makes Aground so entertaining.

By keeping your expectations geared towards the survival/invasion prose, this book should provide plenty of entertainment. The novel is available as an affordable e-book by Mysterious Press and you can purchase a copy HERE

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Girl Out Back

After his successful 1951 debut, Hill Girl, Charles Williams (1909-1975) went on to become one of the most respected crime-noir novelists in history. His penchant for rural small-town crime is enjoyable, especially with the sexy female accomplices his novels typically feature. Nothing exemplifies that more than his 1958 paperback original Girl Out Back, expanded from his 1957 novella, “Operator.”

30 year-old Barney Godwin is a complacent businessman in the small lake town of Wardlow. While he isn't fighting with his nagging wife Jessica, Barney runs a profitable bait and tackle shop. It's here where he first meets the luscious vixen Jewel, a woman equally complacent with her abusive husband. While paying for her husband's boat motors, Jessica pays Barney in new, crisp $20 bills which feature a red stain. Thinking nothing of it at the time, Barney is surprised when an FBI agent visits his store inquiring about unusual money in the area. It's here where Barney's life takes a tumble...he tells the agent he hasn't seen any uncommon currency.

Barney's infatuation with the memorable money is rivaled by his heated desire for Jewel. After learning some details about a recent bank heist, Barney begins to unravel the money mystery. He believes he knows the location of the stolen money, but his obstacles are Jewel's gruff husband and an old, backwoods recluse that's obsessed with pulp detective magazines. How they mix into the stolen loot is the bulk of this clever and engrossing narrative.

Without ruining this superb novel for you, Girl Out Back can be described as a tongue-in-cheek look at the pulp crime genre, including a few hilarious jabs at southern romance and plantation novels. Williams is a master of his domain, and it was interesting for me to read the author's commentary, through story, on the crowded 1950s crime-fiction genre. Girl Out Back delivers an intriguing mystery, a sensual beauty, and a tantalizing scheme for the average man to rise above suburban normalcy. It's a captivating triangle that could only be told by the high caliber talent of Charles Williams.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 28, 2019

Talk of the Town

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 make 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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Nothing in Her Way

The industry often cites heavyweights like Keene, Brewer and Whittington as literary kings within the crime fiction genre. While never as commercially successful, author Charles Williams was equally as masterful, penning a number of 1950s paperback classics. One of these, Nothing in Her Way (1953), has been reprinted as a Stark House Press double with River Girl (1951).

The novel can be viewed in two separate halves with connecting characters and stories. Ideally, it's a heist novel with two different pitches – one involving a risky, elaborate real estate deal and the other a “fixed” horse race. The two heists are thickly woven with a robust cast of scoundrels, each with their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the rather dense, but easily digested, story arcs.

Mike (obligatory first person protagonist) and Cathy are out to avenge their fathers' wrongdoing in a botched business transaction. Their fathers worked at a building firm that reached its pinnacle of success supplying infrastructure in Central America. Both men were pinned under a rather scrupulous business arrangement that sent them both to prison while partners Goodwin and Lachlan made off as wealthy benefactors. Fast-forward 16 years and Cathy has formed a fairly spectacular heist-revenge caper.


In the book's opening pages, Mike is recruited by Cathy and a seasoned con man in Bolton. The ploy? Oddly, to con Goodwin into purchasing land he already owns from Mike. While the idea seems preposterous to Mike and the reader, the narrative explores Mike pretending to be a chemist studying sand in a small desert town – desert owned by Goodwin. How does it shake up? No spoilers here, let's just say the first half ends in a fiery crescendo of fists, bullets and a complex getaway. 

The second half, as you might have guessed, focuses on Lachlan. With Goodwin...ill-disposed...the tables are stacked to have Lachlan bet a fortune on a horse race that he perceives is fixed. The idea of a predetermined horse race seems impossible, but it's up to Mike and Cathy to don another disguise to con Lachlan into thinking it's legit. As complicated as that might be, it's further hampered by an old creditor named Donnelly wanting a piece of the stakes...or Cathy dead. 

I just can't say enough positive things about this Charles Williams masterpiece. After reading it, I immediately thought about how it would look as a film. In researching material for this review I discovered it was adapted for film already! In 1963 the book was adapted into the French comedy Peau de banan, which later released in the US as Banana Peel. Whether you track it down or not, don't skip out on this novel. The gem is available both physically and digitally and has been re-printed several times including the Stark House double.

Buy a copy of the book HERE 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Man on the Run

In 1958, Fawcett Gold Medal released a new paperback original by noir fiction master Charles Williams called Man on the Run. Mysterious Press has kept the book alive - along with most of the author’s greatest hits - as an eBook for fans who don’t want a 60 year-old vintage paperback disintegrating in one’s hands.

Like a lot of books I tend to read, the novel opens with the narrator jumping off a moving train and taking refuge in a nearby cottage. Russell Foley is being relentlessly pursued by the police because they think he’s a cop killer. If you’ve never read a book before, you might be surprised to learn that Foley is, in fact, an innocent man who has been wrongfully-accused. This is one of those novels where the fugitive hero must solve the murder himself to clear his own name and hopefully resume life as a free and innocent man.

Foley is assisted in his quest for justice by the sexy female owner of the cottage after she comes home like Goldilocks to find rough-looking Foley in her place. Actually, the Meet Cute was more involved than that, but I won’t spoil it for you here. Suzy is a leggy blonde looker with an unflappable and seductive nature (of course), and she comes to accept Foley’s claim of innocence. She’s a great character and the best part of the book. 

Once the relationship is formed, we have a pretty basic mystery novel here with the couple trying to solve the murder of the cop without getting Foley nabbed by the police in the process. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but there’s nothing particularly innovative here either. It’s a serviceable novel by an author capable of much better. 

It’s important to remember that Williams was among the best of his era. However, Man on the Run is not his best book by a long shot. If you’re looking for a quick and easy noir read, I suppose you could do a lot worse.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Hell Hath No Fury

In 1953, Fawcett Gold Medal released Charles Williams’ fourth published novel, Hell Hath No Fury. It was later reprinted several times under the alternative title of The Hot Spot, and under that name, it was adapted into a 1990 movie starring Don Johnson and directed by Dennis Hopper.

Our narrator is Harry Madox, the new-in-town, amoral car salesman who observes some odd behavior from the sexy 21 year-old girl in the dealership’s collection’s department. On the same day, he also notices an appalling lack of security at the small town’s local bank. And then there’s the matter of his boss’ voluptuous wife with her lusty eyes trained on Harry.

These three story threads (the girl, the bank, the boss’ wife) are all swirling around Harry’s head when he begins planning a bank heist. As a certified expert in crime fiction bank jobs, I give his plan, execution, and post-robbery actions a solid B+. The complications that arise thereafter are due to minor flaws in the planning amplified by drama with the two women in his life.

Williams’ writing is always top-notch and this is no exception. The prose is crisp, conversational and hardboiled. When one character tells another that he sticks out “like a cooch dancer at a funeral,” you know that you’re in literary good hands. The plot twists and turns were crafted by a master of noir who knows how to reveal great surprises along the way to the conclusion.

It’s hard to believe that Williams only authored 22 novels in his 24-year writing career before his 1975 suicide. His impact on the noir genre really can’t be minimized, and Hell Hath No Fury is a superb example of his early suspense work before he shifted gears to maritime-themed suspense books. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Hill Girl

In 1951, paperback original novels were still in their infancy as a medium and Fawcett Gold Medal was leading the charge by getting these short works of genre fiction into the hands of readers hungry for post-pulp entertainment. This was also the year that the reading public was introduced to the writing of Charles Williams with the release of his debut novel, Hill Girl.

Hill Girl is the story of 22 year-old Bob Crane’s return home to an isolated mountain community after a multi-year absence driven by his failed career as a college football lineman and later a losing prizefighter. After the death of his abusive father, Bob’s wild and irresponsible brother, Lee, inherited the family’s house in town, and Bob got the family’s farm in the “bottoms” between the mountains. Bob’s narration explains that the people outside of town “live off in the bottoms and rarely meet people other than the neighbors they have known all their lives.”

Before Bob left home, Angelina was a gangly teen living with her father in the rural hills. In his absence, Angelina somehow grew into a curvy sexpot, and Bob’s married brother has now become infatuated with the backwoods babe. Meanwhile, Angelina’s father is a whiskey bootlegging hillbilly who is insanely protective of his sheltered daughter.

Although the paperback is titled Hill Girl it’s not the lusty femme fatale crime novel I was expecting. Instead, Williams wrote a short, literary novel about the complicated relationship between two brothers who come from a dysfunctional family dynamic and the Hill Girl who enters and further complicates their lives.

Williams is a far better writer than most of his cohorts in the Fawcett Gold Medal stable, and this is in full-effect in Hill Girl. The book is also smattered with several laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue. It’s hard to write in the voice of a hilarious protagonist if the author isn’t a funny guy himself, and I can only assume that Willams was a man filled with humor in life. Williams also knew his was around tragedy as also seen in this short paperback.

This was a fantastic book, but it wasn’t an adventure novel, a crime novel, or a mystery. There was also very little “action” compared to a typical novel covered here. The paperback was originally released before Williams began writing the maritime noir books that became his bread and butter. Instead, Hill Girl presents us with a fascinating and well-written family melodrama that is part romance and part coming-of-age tale. I can give this novel the highest endorsement without any reservations, but you just need to know what you’re getting. Recommended.

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.