Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Touch of Death by Charles Wiliams

I once read an unfavorable review of a Charles Williams novel that said the protagonist was unbeleivably naive. How could he not know know that the people he was getting involved with were criminals? Which, to most Williams fans, has to sound unbeleivably naive on the part of the reviewer.

In his exceptionally fine piece on the work of Charles Williams, poet, journalist and editor (the Library of America) Geoffrey O'Brien notes that of all the paperback original writers, Williams' protagonists are the ones most predisposed to criminality themselves. If they are naive, it's only in the women they choose to hook up with. And they are rarely naive even about the ladies.

Madelone Butler, in Williams' A Touch of Death (Hardcase, $6.99), is the kind of woman most men would run from. It's too easy to say that Madelone is a deceitful, duplicitous shrew, which she is of course. But that's putting too much on her. She presents Lee Scarborough with the chance of stealing $120,000 in stolen cash or just walking away. Which he could easily do. But--and this is the point many reviewers miss about many of Williams' men--his boys are a lot like his girls, the one difference being that they generally don't betray their partners.

Williams has always been my favorite of the Gold Medal writers. As John D. MacDonald said of him, "Nobody can make violence seem more real." The reason for this is that Williams' men are violent themselves. Not predatory. But certainly tough men, usually from workingclass backgrounds, who use violence when it becomes necessary. Another point too seldom made about his work. He was the master of the slow-build suspense novel; he clearly enjoyed twisting every aspect of the treachery and surprise that fill his books.

This isn't always true of Williams' work. The sea novels for which he's most famous (the excellent film Dead Calm was based on a Williams novel) are usually told by men who, if not heroic, are not crooked. But I've always preferred the deep South, small-town novels usually set after the big war when our wandering boy meets our wandering girl and together they decide to make a little money.

Line by line I think that Williams is by far the best of all the early Gold Medal folks with the exception of Vin Packer and Malcolm Braly. There's real beauty in his descriptions of nature and a true feel for the hypocrisy of small towns. And there is that great frantic sense of being unfulfilled--of looking for something, a woman, a gig, a place, anything that might offer him peace--that always eludes. Williams is the great melancholic, especially his men whose two dominate emotions seem to be remorse and a paranoid sense of betrayl.

Hell, yes, they know what they're getting into, his people, and they get into it gladly. As Sartre once said, go figure.

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