(1) Hill Girl (1951); (2) River Girl (1951); (3) Big City Girl (1951); (4) The Hot Spot (1953) (5) Nothing In Her Way (1953); (6) A Touch of Death (1953); (7) Go Home, Stranger (1954); (8) Scorpion Reef (aka Gulf Coast Girl) (1955); (9) The Diamond Bikini (1956); (10) The Big Bite (1956); (11) The Concrete Flamingo (1958); (12) Man on the Run (1958); (13) Talk of the Town (1958); (14) Uncle Sagamore and His Girls (1959); (15) Aground (1960); (16) The Sailcloth Shroud (1960); (17) The Long Saturday Night aka Confidentially Yours aka Finally, Sunday! (1962); (18) Dead Calm (1963); (19) The Wrong Venus (1966) ; (20) And the Deep Blue Sea (1971); (21) Man on a Leash (1973)
Hill Girl (1951)
River Girl (1951)
“River Girl” is one terrific, top-notch piece of fiction. It reads smoothly and easily and is deceptively good. It is a southern noir piece taking place in and around a small Southern town and a swamp around the town. The narrator, Jack, is a corrupt Southern Deputy Sheriff who is stuck in an unhappy marriage with a woman who barely makes an appearance in the book, but who only seems to want money and, at that, more money than the poor deputy makes. “Louise was very pretty, a taffy blonde with wide, green eyes and a stubborn round chin.” But, their lives were constant fights and endless bickering over money.
Jack goes around town, collecting for his boss from poolhalls, gambling establishments, and brothels. They seem to spend more time drinking and collecting envelopes of money than actually doing much in the way of law enforcement.
Jack and the sheriff are constantly on the watch for getting caught in this graft, concerned that a grand jury will be impaneled and that they will have to flee. He is bitter, unhappy, and lonely and often reminisces about growing up in the town, playing on the fifth-grade football team and having a childhood crush on a girl named Doris or Dorothy. “At night,” Jack “used to lie awake and rescue her from burning buildings and capsized boats and bullies big enough to be in the seventh grade.”
That all changes one afternoon when Jack takes the afternoon off and heads out to do some fishing for a few days. While on the lake, deep in the swamp, he spots a guy who seems a little out of place – his accent isn’t right. Jack also spots the man’s wife- a barefoot young lady dressed in a shapeless oversized garment and with her gorgeous hacked off as if with a knife. Doris takes his breath away. He watches her, trying not to stare, “conscious of the crazy thought that she could be modeling a bathing suit instead of walking across a backwoods clearing.” When he got to understand her better, he realized that “Loneliness was driving her mad.” She had been living in the swamp here in a shack on the water for years, seeing no one but the husband, who barely left the shack either. They had been on the run from someone or something for five years, but she didn’t know what and was afraid to find out. Of course, Jack can’t put this girl out of his mind and couldn’t stay away from her, whether they were each married or not.
Jack explains that “Even before you will admit to yourself that you are a criminal, . . .you begin to act like one without conscious thought.” Soon, he has to get Doris away from this beast of a husband and save her from this swamp life. He also has to escape from the noose tightening around his neck with the grand jury peering into the graft he has been involved with.
Of course, they can’t just waltz off into the sunset. That would be too easy. He sticks out like a sore thumb. Doris can’t blend into the herd with her looks. She might as well be “leading a couple of pandas on a leash.”
This is a love story and a man on the run story through the treacherous Southern swamps. There’s also a dangerous femme fatale on the loose in addition to sweet Doris — a thrill-chasing girl who will drive one hundred miles an hour through small towns and be ready to leave on a moment’s notice. There’s murder here and betrayal and distrust and desperation.
This is a fantastic piece of pulp work that is worth reading more than once. It’s that good. Just like all this pulp stories, as the reader, you feel Jack’s agony as he sinks deeper and deeper into the quagmire and can’t figure his way out.
Big City Girl (1951)
“Big City Girl” was Williams’ second published novel in 1951. He did publish three novels that same year, including his first one which was a major hit. “Big City Girl” is at once country pulp (or country blues as one commentator has put it) like Harry Whittington would write and crime thriller.
It is the story of a convicted robber, Sewell, on his way to the state penitentiary for what could be potentially the rest of his life, his bold escape, and his life on the run with every deputy and public minded citizen on the lookout for him. It is also the story of his wife, Joy, the Big City Girl, of the title, who, penniless, leaves the city to live for a time with Sewell’s father and siblings on what remains of the farm out in the country. Sewell’s father is an old, cantankerous broken down man. His brother is determined to save the farm, despite the fact that it may be only a hope and a prayer that anything will grow there and that the river won’t rise and flood the fields. Everything they own has been sold piece by piece. They live in a one bedroom house without much. They are country poor and there isn’t much left to sell except maybe the dog.
Joy is the character of the title and she is an aging beauty contest winner who frets that at the ripe old age of twenty-eight she may be too old and used up to attract attention, to attract a man. She is forever talking about her beauty contest days and her modeling days and wearing outfits too skimpy to avoid attracting the wrong kind of attention. Her first husband gambled away everything they owned. Her second husband is on the run from the law. She has only her figure left and she is morose and bitter.
Williams writes wonderfully and takes the reader into this bitter, desolate world with these incredible characters that just come to life on the page. This is a book that is easy to read and just absolutely engrossing. It is not as pulpy as some of his later novels. It is, however, just damn good writing. Highly recommended.
The Hot Spot (1953)
The Hot Spot by Charles Williams is such fantastically good pulp that, from the very first bite of it to the final morsel, it is as good as it gets. What descriptions can I use to describe it? Awesome. Wonderful. Far out. Top notch. Every single sentence in this book drips with pulpy goodness. It is a rich treat so filled with the good stuff that you just drown in it. To put it in a nutshell, if you like the good pulp fiction from the fifties, you can’t do any better than Charles Williams’ The Hot Spot.
It is plot-wise a story about Harry Madox who has drifted from one job to another and ran into Harshaw somewhere in Oklahoma or something who offered him a job as a car salesman in a small town. It’s a job so Madox bites, but boy. maybe you shouldn’t just grab the first thing that comes along no matter how hard up you are. Nothing wrong with the job. It’s a straight arrow sales job, or at least as straight as car sales can be. But, there’s this twenty-one year old blonde in the loan office who Madox can’t take his eyes off. And, worse for him perhaps, is Harshaw’s wife, she’s ripe, perhaps over-ripe and lucious and she wants Madox whenever Harshaw isn’t around.
There’s also one bank in this small one-horse town and, when there’s a fire in a cafe, everyone in town including the bank tellers peel out to help put the fire out, leaving one doddering old fellow in the bank with all the drawers still open. Anyone who wants to can just waltz in and take what they want. All they have to do is get past one old dude and a blind guy who sells pencils on the corner. Of course. Madox can’t resist. “Why not.” he explains. “In this world you took what you wanted; you didn’t stand around and what for someone to bring it to you.” What he didn’t count one was that bosses’ wife is onto his game and the country sheriff isn’t any dumb fool.
What follows is a hardboiled masterpiece that just drips with the good stuff. It doesn’t matter how many napkins you bring with you, this stuff is going to drip all over you, just spilling out of the pages.
The story opens with Madox starting to tell Harshaw to get somebody else to run his errands when he sees the girl (Gloria Harper) come in and changes his mind. “[S]omehow she made you think of a long- stemmed yellow rose.” Her hair was the color of honey or of straw, with sun-burned streaks in it. Somehow, Williams, in telling this tale, without even trying to, creates an awkward tension between them, but its a tension that burns hot and passionate. Even after they part that day, he “couldn’t get rid of her entirely because random parts of her kept poking into [his] mind, the odd gravity about her eyes, the way she walked, and the way the top of her head reminded you of a kid with sunburned hair.”
But that’s nothing compared to the hot molten metal that is Harshaw’s young wife. “Somehow she made you think of an overloaded peach tree.” She was “lucious” and “overripe.” And, when Madox goes to see her, “She had on a little-girl sort of summer dress with puffed-out short sleeves tied with bows, and was rattling ice cubes in a highball glass.” But, “the teenage dress didn’t do anything for her overripe figure except to wander on to the track and get run over, and she looked like a burlesque queen in bobby socks.” When he leaves her place, he can’t figure out how to “push the sultry weights of Dolores Harshaw off [his] mind. She was dangerous in a town like this.” And, there was “a steel-trap deadliness” about her. “She was as tough as a shark, and she got what she wanted.”
Charles Williams can write like few others can. He tells more in a sentence or two then other writers can tell in whole chapters or even in whole books. He takes the reader on a journey with him, on a red- hot burning journey to hell and back. These characters are alive. There are no cardboard cutouts here.
Nothing In Her Way (1953)
“Nothing in Her Way” is a 1953 novel by Charles Williams concerning confidence games and femme fatales. If you are interested in books about long cons, short cons, horseracing, and gambling, this is the book for you. The central plot in the book is about a couple of complicated long cons that Mike Belen and Cathy Dunbar pull on two men (Goodwin and Lachlan) who ruined their fathers years earlier, making off with the dough and leaving their fathers to take the blame.
Mike and Cathy grew up together, playing cowboys and Indians, and other games and, after they matured, becoming lovers and marrying for two years before divorcing. Mike is still haunted by the redheaded Cathy and is surprised to see her when he is convinced to join a con game and is introduced to her by another name. Even when she is not around and he is sitting in a bar, he looks at a girl at the other end of the bar who had red hair, “But it wasn’t quite the same shade of red, . . . it never is.” He wonders if he would “ever break himself of it.” But Cathy- “her hair was the color of a bottle of burgundy held up to the light.” And Mike explains, “The only catch was that her name wasn’t Ms. Holman. I was reasonably sure of that. I’d known her for twenty-three years, and I’d been married to her for two.”
What’s great about this book is Williams’ terrific prose which moves the story along.
The best prose is saved for Cathy- the femme fatale of legend. Mike narrating the story explains: “In Salem, they’d have burned her – – or they would have if there’d been enough women on the jury.” She was “the same loaded little girl with the short fuse.” But, the question Mike faces throughout the entire story and throughout the long cons that the two pull off together is whether or not he can trust Cathy- “it boiled down to that same question: Just who was bamboozling whom?” Throughout the book, Mike keeps harping about the warnings- the buzzing noises that are there “when you’re playing cards with strangers and get an almost perfect hand, and it’s always smart to listen to it.” Cathy is good, though. “If she got the knife in you, don’t think she wouldn’t turn it. She despised people she could walk on.” She was a “redheaded hellcat” and “a whirlpool” he “was trapped in.”
A Touch of Death (1953)
If you choose to read just one pulp novel in your lifetime, this would be an excellent choice. Guaranteed you will choose to pick up another one or two. Charles Williams was one of the top authors of the pulp era of the fifties. He is not to be confused with the other Charles Williams, who wrote theological books and was often linked with C.S. Lewis. This Charles Williams wrote in a smooth, flowing style that had wider appeal than just the pulp audience of many other authors. This book is not some dark and dreary crawl through the gutter of life by some two-bit punk who ran off with the boss’s wife and money. Rather, it is a well-executed, well-plotted masterpiece that is worth reading more than once. It is obvious why Hard Case Crime chose this book from among Williams’ work to feature in its crime series.
Here you have an ex-college football player (Scarborough) reduced to selling door-to-door who explains that “You can’t eat six-year-old football scores.” He’s soured and possibly has run out of dreams at the ripe old age of twenty-eight.
You have Diana James, a brunette “sunbathing in the bottom part of a two-fragment bathing suit” who offers him a chance to walk off with a piece of $120,000. She was no bimbo, though. “She was sharp.” “She had it figured out from every angle.” She gave him a chance to think about the reward first and, when he got used to that, “you could let your ideas grow a little. You didn’t have to jump in cold. You waded in.”
You have a second femme fatale at war with the brunette. This one, Madelon Butler, was also a brunette, “with a magnolia complexion and big, smoky-looking eyes. And a bitch right out of the book.” “She was almost unbelievably beautiful, and she was drunk as a lord.” She scared the living hell out of him. “An icicle walked slowly up my spine and sat between my shoulder blades.” Even when she’s in his arms, she is like “a beautiful and enraged wildcat.” “If she wanted ice water, I thought, all she had to do was open up a vein.” Wow! “God knows what went on inside that chromium-plated soul of hers, but no human being born could go on taking that kind of pressure forever without breaking.”
So you have two crazy, gorgeous women, a hidden fortune that had been embezzled from the banks, a man who was probably dead, although his body was never found, married to one of these women and having an affair with the other. Once you mix that together, boy, do you have a tale to tell. He had warned James that he did not want any “wild-haired babes blowing their tops.”
Scarborough isn’t sure how he fits in here and wonders if he is being set up as a patsy or a “dead duck.” James is setting him up as a “sucker” and, if he can’t pull off the job, she would just send out the next sucker. “I’d been played for a sucker by a smooth operator,” he explains. These two women are both lying to him and throwing him curves, left and right. Throughout the story, there is suspicion and distrust and he constantly wonders if the knife will end up in his back or the scissors in his throat.
Scarborough is never sure who all the players are or who is setting up who. Not even when the ash blonde with the angelic face pays him a visit.
This book has it all, murder, kidnapping, snipers, police dragnets, and, most of all, it has it all turning to hell as Scarborough starts to become more and more unglued. He had been warned about her, hadn’t he? He would never get any of the money, he’d been told. “I wished she were dead. I wished she’d never been born, or that I had never heard of her,” he says. “
This novel is so well-written that the pages literally melt into your hands as you read them. It is narrated in such a perfect pace that the reader doesn’t stumble over long flowery descriptions or complain that there is too much action or too many players.
Williams tells this tale perfectly, as Scarborough feels the noose tightening around his neck and the cage he is in gets smaller and smaller, the reader feels him breaking apart.
Go Home, Stranger (1954)
“Go Home, Stranger” is another excellent pulp thriller by Charles Williams. It is a great read from start to finish. Pete Reno heads directly for Waynesport somewhere on the Gulf Coast after hearing that his sister, Vickie, a famous actress, has been arrested for murdering her husband, Reno’s best friend, after catching him after midnight walking into a hotel with another woman. She was found in the hotel room with the body and the murder weapon showed evidence of having been thrown out a fourteenth story window. She claims she was in the bathroom and, when she came out, she heard the gunshot and saw the killer bolt out the door. With motive, opportunity, and means, the case appears cut and dried and no one believes her story, no one other than Reno.
Working on barely any clues, Reno realizes that Mac, the deceased, was out in Waynesport, chasing leads on a character who had been dealing black market goods in Italy while in the army. Reno follows the leads to a small fishing camp and nothing there makes much sense to him, but he knows he is onto something.
The bullets fly on more than one occasion as Reno ducks the gunfire and dives into the bayou on more than one occasion. There are explosions in the bayou and mysterious characters that do not seem to want him around. Reno finds the intriguing woman who fits the description that Vickie gave of the other woman and starts stalking her to see where she’ll lead him. If nothing else, he enjoys watching those dark brown eyes and beautifully tanned face.
This story is filled with action, intrigue, romance, and just good old- fashioned storytelling. Nobody tells a story as good as Charles Williams does. This is a solid thriller and keeps the reader guessing all the way through
Scorpion Reef (1955)
When a tall sexy Nordic blonde asks you to help her and her husband escape the clutches of a team of professionals mobbed-up guys, what should you do? Not everyone is competent enough to help this couple find the missing plane lost somewhere near a reef in the Gulf. You can’t just leave her to her own devices, can you? Does it change things for you when you find she didn’t quite tell you the whole story? Or are you too bewitched to think straight?
Gulf Coast Girl, first Published in 1955, is yet another testament to the excellence of Charles Williams’ writing. This book, like other Charles Williams novels, is so damn good, it’s in a class by itself.
The story begins with the finding of an abandoned boat in the Gulf, well provisioned, the dinghy aboard her, the coffee pot still warm, and a satchel filled with $80,000 on the deck. There’s a log and a strand of ash-blonde hair and the tale the log tells is something else entirely.
It’s a tale of a couple on the run from mobsters and filled with car chases and brawls and bodies strewn about. It’s also a deep sea tale about a search for buried treasure on a sunken plane and the desperate search to find it. It’s a tale of trust and betrayal. And it may just be the best book you read all year.
The femme fatale here, Shannon Wayne, walked down the pier in spiked heels with ” the unhurried smoothness of poured honey.” “She was a cathedral of a girl.” Over six feet in heels and with the complexion of a Norse goddess. “She could make your breath catch in your throat.” But she waved “that wedding ring in your face while she beat you over the head with the advertising matter that stuck out of her bathing suit in every direction, but it was still nothing to blow your top about, was it?”
Yes, Bill Manning falls for her, hook, line, and sinker. Manning is 33, divorced, bitter, with nothing to look forward to. As Manning explains, he “was practically panting to believe anything she said.”
Williams is a master at building tension and he does it throughout this book. The tension in this story – which is really not that complicated plot wise – is pulled tight. Whether you read this for the Pulpish aspects of the seductive blonde who the poor sucker can’t say no to, the developing relationship between these two characters, the fight scenes, the desperate attempts to get away from the hoods, the deep sea excitement, this is just a terrific book.
The Diamond Bikini (1956)
The Big Bite (1956)
Charles Williams is, without question, one of the top writers to come out of the fifties. The Big Bite is typical of the excellence of his writing.
It is a story about a down-on-his-luck professional football player, who just can’t seem to turn as quickly since he was rear-ended by a drunk. The doctors say his leg is all healed, but it just isn’t the same and his career is over. “They’d stuck it back on, all right, and it looked like a leg, but something was gone.” This isn’t good. As the narrator, John Harlan, explains, “The only thing I’d ever owned in my life was a mechanism that ran like something bathed in oil and now it had been smashed and when they put it back together, something was gone.” He’s cut from the team and goes on a binge. “It was a honey and lasted a week.” He wakes up in a cheap motel in the middle of nowhere with some girl whose name he didn’t recall and “She seemed to think something terrible was going to happen to her if she ever sobered up.”
Five months after his injury, something about the incident is causing a private investigator to look into it again, off the record. The trail of intrigue leads Harlan to get involved in a blackmail scheme. What else does he have to lose? Why not? He should’ve had a long professional career and that’s now all down the toilet. The blackmail leads him to get involved with a sexy siren that likes of which could barely be described.
The story is filled with tension. It is great from page one all the way to the bitter end. There is not one thing I would change about it if I were editing it. It is that good.
Who is the dish he is blackmailing? Why none other than the widow of the drunken jerk who ran him off the road and flushed his career down the drain. She is, in Harlan’s mind, none other than the brown-eyed Fort Knox and he is going to get that woman to open up the vault and pour some gold out. But when he meets her, his mind starts melting: “She was a construction job from the ground up without being overdone about it anywhere – just medium height and rather slim and with only a touch of that overblown calendar-girl effect above the sucked-in waist.” “It was her eyes, however, that could throw the match in the gasoline.” And, “You had the impression that if she ever really turned them on you with that sidelong come-hither out of the corners and from the lashes she could roll your shirt up your back, like a window-blind.” Is John Harlan over his head when he tries to work Julia Cannon? “She was a cool devil in most ways, but when she was after fun she took it
fervently and unbuttoned.”
I highly recommend this excellent pulp-era thriller. It has everything in it that you could want, murder, blackmail, fishing, football, intrigue, and the smartest, craftiest femme fatale to grace the pages of fiction.
The Concrete Flamingo (1958)
“The Concrete Flamingo” by Charles Williams was first published in 1958 under the title “All the Way” and then published in the United Kingdom in 1960 under the title “The Concrete Flamingo.”
What happens when Jerry Forbes, a guy who has been drifting between jobs, ends up in Miami Beach, and meets a Marian Forsyth, a woman who just wasted six years of her youthful vigor on a wealthy executive before being dumped for a younger model? Marian knows everything about Jerry and he is just the guy she has been looking for – – to pull off a murder and a complicated con job on her ex-boss, the guy who dumped her. Why is he the perfect guy for this part in the con? Well, Marian heard Jerry talking and, on the phone, he is Harris Chapman.
Jerry falls for her hook, line, and sinker. Murder, sure why not? Pilfering brokerage accounts? Why not? As long as they can run off to some Mediterranean isle when its done. Of course, it is never that simple when it’s a pulp novel and there are some twists and turns along the way that the reader does not expect.
Marian, meanwhile, is a different kind of femme fatale. She bewitches Jerry without even trying, but she “was as beautifully adept and as pleasant and as far away and unreachable as ever.” You wonder reading this if Marian had all the life sucked out of her by Harris Chapman and what she has left to give Jerry. She has a one-track mind and is on a mission and she will do whatever is necessary to keep Jerry in the game.
What’s terrific about this novel is the detail that Williams puts in as to the planning and execution of one of the most complicated and detailed scams ever invented. Week after week is spent preparing, rehearsing, getting ready for the role of a lifetime. Marion tells him: “In ten days of extensive study, you could become Harris Chapman.” If he pulls this off right, then Not even Chapman’s own fiancé should suspect anything. Yeah, right. No detail is left unplanned. Nothing is left to chance.
The actual plot line can be boiled down fairly simply, but this book is not about the plot so much as it is about getting there and what happens ultimately when the con is pulled off.
Man on the Run – (1958)
Man on the Run was originally published in 1958. It involves an often- used pulp motif of a man on the run from the police for a murder he did not commit. In typical pulp fashion, as he tries to figure out what happened and who was responsible, the evidence against him increases and the quagmire he finds himself in gets deeper and deeper.
While it is plot-wise not that remarkable, Williams was a master craftsman at storytelling and gives us a quality story that is easy to read, intense, hard-to-put-down, and just plain good reading. You can feel the intensity and the fear as Foley evades the police time and time again and he gets deeper and deeper in over his head, all alone, freezing, with nowhere to turn. And, even when he finds a friend, he has to wonder what the friend’s real motives are.
Talk of the Town (1958)
Charles Williams was one of the greatest of the pulp and thriller writers of the fifties and sixties and the proof of that is books like this one. “Talk of the Town” is a story of a lone guy who comes through a small Southern town on his way across country. He left California after beating a suspect who got off on a technicality and resigning from the police force. His marriage ended in divorce and, for no particular reason, he was headed to Miami.
The narrator has no intention of staying in this tiny town, but his car is in the shop and he ends up at a motel run by a woman who seemed tired and as if she had walked through hell and the whole town seems to hate her. “There was almost an unfathomable weariness far back in those fine gray eyes.” She was in a state of panic whenever the phone rang. “She went rigid, as if she had been sluiced in the back with ice water.” “One of these days she was going to come apart like a dropped plate.”
You can feel the air filled with panic and desperation.
This is one of those stories where conventional wisdom says the narrator should keep his mouth shut, mind his own business, and keep moving on, but he gets involved and unearths murder and conspiracy and small-town nastiness. It is a fine story and Williams does a great job of painting the picture of the outsider all alone in this town with the authorities itching for him to move on and not make trouble. He ends up getting involved because he was a good cop and he is a white knight kind of guy. You do feel how the odds are stacked against him and how he simply doesn’t belong there.
This is good old-fashioned southern noir, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with pulpiness.
Uncle Sagamore and His Girls (1959)
In addition to suspense thrillers, Charles Williams also wrote a handful of Southern comedies in the vein of Huckleberry Finn and Dukes of Hazard. Told in the backcountry voice of an eight-year-old and never leaving that voice, Uncle Sagamore’s Girls is a humorous look at the adventures of Billy’s Pop and his Uncle Sagamore in Blossom County. Uncle Sagamore is one of those clever fellows who hides behind a caricature as the town buffoon. He has been making moonshine for many years, but lately things have been getting too hot with the law and all. Through a series of hijinks, he uses his moonshining know- how to effect the county election for Sheriff. Williams does a great job of getting the backcountry voice of the narrator, but this story might have been better as a short story or novelette rather than a feature-length tale. Although amusing, in the end, it was a little thin on plot.
This is a story about murder, piracy, gun running, shipwrecked, stranded individuals, trying to get a ship run aground afloat again while a crazy lunatic fires round after round at them. With thousands of pounds of ammunition aboard and tanks filled with hundreds of gallons of gasoline, if the bullets didn’t take them out, the explosion would. It all starts with a down-on-his-luck Captain Ingram being accused of stealing a schooner, or at the very least, casing the schooner for the group of thieves who made off with it. It starts with a rich blonde widow whose first husband is a clever conman. It continues with a search for a stolen vessel in an area with an eight thousand mile radius and with the blonde damsel drinking bottle of rum after bottle of rum, trying to outfox a professional gunman. It’s also a passionate romance between what at first appears to be the most unlikely couple.
If that sounds like a good story, it’s because it is. Charles Williams was a consummate professional writer who could take any idea and spin it into a tale that you want to hear. While this tale is not as pulpy as many of his other tales, it is some common elements you might find in his other stories including a nautical theme, a conman, desperate down-on-their-luck characters, a blonde who is about as predictable as a meteor shower, and simply a good story to tell.
This is one of several nautical thrillers that Williams wrote. He returned some years later to pen another nautical thriller with some of the same characters, “Dead Calm.” This book however comes first chronologically.
The Sailcloth Shroud (1960)
Finally, Sunday! (1962)
Dead Calm (1963)
What happens when four unstable personalities are trapped together in a tiny cabin on a boat lost and without power in the middle of the South Pacific? How does those four individuals deal with the constantly worsening situation as the boat starts to take on water and rot away? Do the couples wrap themselves up in petty jealousies and bickering? Do they blame each other when things start to go wrong? What happens when one of these people was a bit off his rocker to begin with? Can he really be blamed for what goes wrong? Consumed by paranoia, agoraphobia, claustrophobia, what if he abandons the slowly sinking ship and climbs onto another small sailing vessel? Will the couple on that vessel take him away from there – from where his wife was possibly plotting with another man to drown him in that mighty ocean?
In 1960, Charles Williams published “Aground,” a novel about a search for a stolen sailing ship, a ship that had run aground, gunrunning criminals holding a couple at gunpoint, desperation, and a romance that bloomed between an older sea captain with a gimpy leg and a twice-widowed blonde who was tougher than anyone could ever have imagined. In 1962, Charles Williams published “Dead Calm,” a novel in which he took these two characters, Captain John Ingram and Rae, had them trade the big vessel they recaptured in “Aground” and trade it for a smaller, sleeker, two-person sailboat and set them off on a months-long honeymoon jaunt around the world. At one point in “Dead Calm,” Rae actually sits down and tells the entire tale of the novel “Aground” to explain how she first met her husband and how neither one really like the other at first, but fell in love after five adventurous days in the Atlantic.
“They were nineteen days out of the Canal, bound for Tahiti and the islands to the south, tied to no schedule, free of the frustrations and annoyances of life ashore.” They found Warriner floating in a dinghy, who tells them his boat over there is sinking and everyone else on it succumbed to food poisoning. Ingram doesn’t quite buy everything this young man is selling. Something doesn’t feel right about things he says, how he says them. When Ingram goes to the other boat to look around, Warriner takes off with Rae still on Ingram’s boat, leaving Ingram behind on a leaking, sinking boat to pick up the broken pieces of what went on that second boat, marooned for ten days in the middle of nowhere with four people at each other’s throats. Ingram was “more scared then he had ever been in his life, and the whole scene came to him through the winy haze of a desire to get his hands on Warriner and kill him, but there was no time to give way to futile emotion.” He is told that Warriner is a lunatic, a crazy man, that there is no telling what he will do.
The descriptions that Williams gives of the sea and sky and the emotions running through Ingram and Rae are just perfectly written: “This might be the last time he would ever see her,” Ingram thinks, “this dwindling spot of color fading away toward the outer limit of binoculars, but that was something he couldn’t think about. If he lost his head, there was no chance at all.” “The air was like warm damp cotton pressing in on them, muggy, saturated, unmoving. Perspiration didn’t evaporate. It collected in a film over the body, a film that became rivulets, now running, now stopping momentarily, now moving again with the irritating feel of insects crawling across the skin.” You can really feel how Williams has matured as a writer in reading this – how he creates a feel for what it was like out there in the middle of the ocean with the sun burning down and no rescue anywhere in sight.
This is not a story of good and evil. Warriner is dangerous, but he is not just some mean, nasty criminal. Ingram and Rae already dealt with those types in “Aground.” Instead, Warriner is a crazy person. He is out of his mind. Part of the book is how Rae deals with someone who she just can’t reason with and how the people in this book choose whether or not to assign blame to someone who is out of his mind with paranoia. The characters here and how they relate to each other are extremely complicated.
It is one terrific, top-notch piece of writing and is a solid thriller. Great reading.
Most people are familiar with “Dead Calm” because of the Nicole Kidman movie that came out thirty years after the book. I can’t emphasize enough how different the book is from that movie and how much of a license the screenwriters took with changing the story and the characters. The book fleshes out all the characters (including the ones who never appear in the movie), their histories, and their complicated relationships. The movie makes the Warriner character just a simple bad guy, instead of a complex guy who is half-out-of-his- mind and perhaps not fully responsible for his actions. Rae is not young and helpless like the Kidman character and she doesn’t seduce the bad guy. Read the book. Skip the movie.
The Wrong Venus aka Don’t Just Stand There (1966)
And the Deep Blue Sea (1971)
After his sailboat went down, leaving him with nothing but a rubber dinghy and a bottle of whiskey, Harry Goddard should have known it was all over. There wasn’t much left. Once a renowned movie producer. He was now forty-five, divorced, childless since his only daughter drove her Porsche over a guardrail, seeing her parents’ lives fall apart. His luck had just plumb wore out. “The only hell was the certainty that it was coming.” “Well, he thought, you wanted solitude; you’ve got it.” After thirst and the sun beat him down for days, rescue finally came in the form of a freighter, but, after getting on that doomed, cursed freighter, perhaps Goddard wished he had just taken the easy way and drowned.
This was a cursed freighter straight out of hell and with the craziest cast of characters you’ve ever seen. Besides the movie producer who had decided to all by his lonesome cast off around the world, you had a sick Polish crazy man who never left his cabin, Madeleine Lennox, a fifty-year-old widow with such a thirst for male attention that she booked passage on freighters where there would be no other competition- “No woman could be that unsubtle”, Karen Brooke, a thirty-four year old blonde whose very sight might cause havoc among the crew, Eric Lind, the giant mate, who ran the ship with an iron hand, and Captain Steen, known among the crew as Holy Joe, a booze-hater and a nickel-squealer. Shipping tons of cotton bales and booze to Manila with a crew of thirty men, the freighter seemed to have problem after problem with its engines and that was before there was a murder on board in front of five eyewitnesses, a burial at sea, a political conspiracy, two figures with a past history who never imagined they would meet again or under these conditions, and a mutiny the likes of which had never been seen.
Charles Williams apparently enjoyed writing nautical thrillers cause he wrote quite a few of them and wrote them well. “And The Deep Blue Sea” is a terrific story that takes the reader from the brink of one disaster to another. Goddard is the perfect hero, a bit of a Humphrey Bogart type who never meant to get involved, but now that he’s involved, well, that’s another story. Set in historical context, it is just a terrific load of fun, particularly given Williams’ knowledge of ships and the sea which comes through in his writing. It is such a good novel that is hard to put down once you start reading it.
Man on a Leash (1973)
Charles Williams was at the top of the mountain when it comes to writing pulp noir novels in the fifties. His best novels were so pulpy, so good, that few could hold a candle to his work. Man On A Leash was his very last published novel in 1973 and simply does not have that pulpy, noir feel of his earlier work. Don’t look for it here except in some flashes in the beginning of the book. The first half of the story is about Romstead’s appearance in this mysterious town, his encounter with his father’s home there, and the hell-for-leather Valkyrie that lived next door. The second half of the book knits a lot of the loose ends and clues together and is more of a mid-seventies type men’s adventure story than an old-fashioned noir story that Williams was known for. I certainly enjoyed reading this adventure story, but it was not the pulpy goodness of the earlier works that Williams bequeathed to us.