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November 20, 2006

Charles Williams

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The reason I was thinking of Gold Medal Books last week was that I'd recently read two novels by the Gold Medal suspense specialist Charles Williams: "The Hot Spot" (source material for the sexy and seedy smalltown Texas noir by Dennis Hopper) and "Dead Calm," a sailboat thriller that was turned into an early Nicole Kidman movie. I loved 'em both.

A Texas-born high-school dropout, Williams knocked around a lot as a young man: Merchant Marines, electronics inspector, etc. He didn't publish his first novel, "Hill Girl," until he was in his 40s, but it was a big success. He continued to write popular novels, and he spent time working on screenplays in the States and in Europe. Yet he didn't wind up happy and comfortable. By the early 1970s, his wife had died of cancer and the kinds of books he knew how to write had fallen out of favor. While still in his early 60s, Charles Williams committed suicide.

Williams has always been one of the lesser-known of the better-known Gold Medal novelists, if that makes any sense. While Jim Thompson's work was rediscovered in the 1980s, Charles Williams' books have remained far harder to find. You don't see downtown hipsters walking around with Charles Williams novels under their arms, for example.

Yet those who have read him have always recognized how good he was. The great John D. MacDonald, for example, several times called Williams the Gold Medal writer who most deserved more recognition: "Nobody can make violence seem more real," MacDonald said. And such contemporary crime-fiction eminences as Ed Gorman and Geoffrey O'Brien have been generous with praise for Williams' work. Gorman called Williams "my favorite of the Gold Medal writers."

The two novels I read were very different in most ways yet they shared a a few characteristics too: a grownup view of the world somewhere between hardboiled and John O'Hara; a tone that's both juicy and unsentimental; and a fascination with storytelling, especially (oh bliss!) the mechanics of tension and suspense.

"The Hot Spot" (originally entitled "Hell Hath No Fury") is much the tangier, sexier, and more colorful read. It's full of sweaty, smalltown atmosphere, and is populated by no-good characters with a lot of shifty trouble and pleasure on their minds. If you liked the movies "Body Heat" and "The Last Seduction," well, this is those films' grittier, earthier, sexier grandma. And the storytelling! Good lord, what a tour de force. I don't know that I've ever read a better-plotted novel. Jaw-dropping yet plausible and "right" plot twists drop out of the blue about every ten pages.

"Dead Calm" is a more impersonal, sleeker piece of engineering. Yet it's shrewd, nervy, and enjoyable -- a humdinger -- in its own way. A couple sailing the South Seas on their honeymoon sees a becalmed sailboat on the horizon. Is anyone on board? Williams -- a sailing fanatic himself -- gives the sailing and ocean-going a lot of convincing authenticity.

He also gives the people and the relationships a kind of depth that makes most literary writers look like wet-behind-the-ears brats. Even as the action keeps moving forward and the backstory that lends the suspense weight keeps falling into place, Williams throws off observations, actions, and behaviors that are mercilessly incisive about marriage, sex, men & women, money, and sociopathology. All this intutive knowledge and wisdom is expressed in the book's story and action, by the way: there isn't a single "literary" pause for an essayistic aside.

And what a resourceful storyteller he shows himself to be. Narrative-wise, the book is like a tight little exercise in formal logic: With only two boats, the ocean, and a very small number of characters, how can the author possibly keep the surprises building? Yet he manages brilliantly. The book is a slow-closing, very deliberate trap that nonetheless manages to snare you. You think you can see what's coming, and you aren't wrong ... until a perfectly plausible, psychologically astute, and completely unexpected surprise clamps you in its jaw. In a saner world, both "The Hot Spot" and "Dead Calm" would be read, studied, and revered by everyone interested in narrative fiction.

Wikipedia's entry on Charles Williams is a good one. Almost no Charles Williams seems to be in print in this country. In France, by contrast, nearly all his work is. (Laugh at the French though we may, they sometimes appreciate what's best about our culture better than we do. Here's an extensive French page about Williams.) Hard Case, though, does publish "A Touch of Death," which I've just ordered. Ed Gorman reviews "A Touch of Death" here. Bill Crider raves about Charles Williams here. Ed Lynskey's essay about Williams is informative and appreciative.



UPDATE: TxBubba reports that he was able to buy used copies of some Charles Williams novels at Alibris. Charlton Griffin has turned up copies here.

posted by Michael at November 20, 2006


Hi Michael, thanks for the intro to Charles Williams. I found lots of used copies of Williams' books at Alibris, some of them very reasonably priced. I snagged a used pb copy of The Hot Spot for $2.95 plus shipping. A reading copy of Dead Calm goes for $7 to $10.00, while a pristine first edition goes for up to $240. The reading copy is just fine with me since I'm a reader and not a collector.

Posted by: TxBubba on November 21, 2006 8:18 AM

My guess would be that this writer fell under the spell of the Hemingwayesque persona. It was a particularly brittle mold to fit oneself into and led to early burnout and termination for Hemingway himself and possibly for Williams. The whole hard boiled, hard drinking, dark vision thing may be enough for a young man but won't get him through the face the mirror years of late middle age.

Posted by: ricpic on November 21, 2006 12:27 PM

If anyone wishes to purchase Charles Williams titles, you can find them here.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on November 21, 2006 3:17 PM

One of my favorite books is Williams' comic thriller _The Wrong Venus_.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on December 1, 2006 2:16 PM

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