A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Williams is one of the great underappreciated American crime writers of the 20th century. A Touch of Death, first published in 1953, bears the hallmarks of many of his other works: a down-and-out guy around thirty years old who’s not as smart as he thinks he is, a very smart and practical woman who’s more interested in getting things done than in sticking anyone else’s ideas of morality, and a seemingly simple caper that turns out to be vastly more complicated than it first appears.

A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

Lee Scarborough, a former football player who is nearly broke as the story begins, accepts a proposition from a woman named Diana James, whom he’s just met. She wants him to drive a few hours north to the small Texas town of Mount Temple, sneak into the home of the wealthy Madelon Butler, and steal the $120,000 in cash that Ms. Butler’s late husband embezzled from the bank.

Scarborough has an easy enough time getting into the Butler mansion, but as he searches for the money, he sees signs that others have been there before him, apparently searching for the same thing. Well, wait a minute, he thinks. What happened to those people?

He then discovers there’s another person in the house that was supposed to be empty. Madelon Butler is in her bedroom, drunk and listening to classical music on a phonograph. In a minute, it gets worse as Scarborough discovers he’s not the only prowler in the house.

We’re only in chapter three at this point, and our protagonist is already in way over his head. I won’t give away what happens from there, but Scarborough’s problems get a lot worse, especially when Diana James unexpectedly reappears. Scarborough begins to understand that he has unwittingly walked into the middle of a feud between two sharp and ruthless women who truly hate each other. And he has the perfect mix of desperation, false confidence, poor judgment and greed to make his situation a whole lot worse.

One aspect of this book that is unusual for the crime/noir genre is that there is no sex or even sexual attraction between the criminal protagonist and the femme fatale who assists him on his path to self-destruction. Lee Scarborough and Madelon Butler genuinely dislike each other. Ms. Butler never reverts to sex appeal to manipulate people. She’s smart enough to get what she wants by simply outthinking everyone.

As the plot continues to thicken, we watch Mr. Scarborough try to think his way out of the hopeless checkmate position that Madelon Butler has maneuvered him into. The sense of the ever-tightening noose makes this book reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s work, though where Thompson is the better psychologist of perversity, Charles Williams is more ingenious at constructing an endlessly twisting
plot and a devastatingly effective femme fatale.

Madelon Butler, unlike many women in the noir genre, is no underworld tramp. She’s cool, well educated, and exceptionally articulate. When Scarborough asks her why she killed her philandering husband, she says:

I had borne his other infidelities, but when he calmly decided that I was going to support him and his paramour for the rest of their lives, I just as calmly decided he was going to die.

Though the opening chapters of the book are a little clunky, and some of Scarborough’s early decisions tax the reader’s credulity, the ever-thickening plot of the story soon makes up for those shortcomings. As the web of current and past events becomes more and more dense, the reader feels Scarborough’s world spiraling out of control. We feel his growing sense of paranoia, his sense of entrapment, and the full unraveling of his mind.

Though I don’t think this is Williams’ best work, it’s still a very good read. If you find yourself liking this book, check out an even better work of his, The Hot Spot.

Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson

This is a superb piece of journalism and one of the best true crime books I’ve read. In fact, it goes far beyond true crime, richly portraying every stratum of an entire culture and era. The core of the story concerns the sudden and mysterious 1969 death of a wealthy young woman who was well known and well liked throughout her community. The woman’s marriage had been in trouble at the time of her death. Her unhappy husband had a new lover, and immediately after the death, her vindictive father blamed the husband for murder.

Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson (Non-Fiction)

I won’t go too far into the plot, because the plot twists a hundred times before the book ends, and each time you think you understand a character and the significance of the events they’re involved in, something new comes along and upends your understanding, forcing you to reevaluate.

Thompson does an excellent job presenting a tale that involves a number of Houston’s wealthiest families, as well as prostitutes, thieves, hit men, cops, prosecutors, boozers, addicts, bullying oil men, and celebrated surgeons–with the politics of oil and money hovering over it all.

If this had been a novel, readers might reject it as too complicated and too far-fetched. But real life is messier than novels, and as one writer pointed out, fiction has to stick to what’s probable, while real life only has to stick to what’s possible. The second realm is much broader than the first, and much more difficult to wrestle into a thorough and coherent story.

Thompson is an excellent portrayer of characters, and he introduces each new character with rich and salient detail before they become actors in the story. The prostitute is not merely a prostitute. She’s a fully fleshed out human being whose past informs an intelligent world view. By the time you see her interacting with the other characters and making decisions, you understand her motives, her fears and desires. The same goes for the cops, the oil man, the thief, the prosecutors, the young woman and the husband. Because the author has taken the time to make them all well rounded, relatable characters, you begin to see each part of the story from each character’s perspective, and the story that could stand on plot alone becomes exceptionally rich and multifaceted.

The brilliance of this work lies first in the scope and depth of the author’s research, and second in his ability to tell a tale such a complex tale with such richness, nuance, and clarity. If you like stories that portray complex (and lurid) human interaction within a rich social and historical context, you will love this book. Thompson makes it easy to sink in for the long, strange trip.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude is set in a boarding house in the London suburb of Thames Lockdon during the winter of 1943. A number of Londoners have abandoned the city after the German blitz and taken up residence in the Rosamund Tea Rooms, where they live under the weight of the war and government-imposed nighttime blackouts.

The Slaves of Solitude, by Patrick Hamilton

The book presents a cast of characters forced together by the war who would never have come together on their own. The protagonist, from whose perspective we see most of the action, is the prim, repressed, highly observant and highly sensitive Miss Enid Roach. Her sometime love interest is the heavy-drinking, good-natured American lieutenant Dayton Pike. Her rival and nemesis is the conniving and underhanded Vicki Kugelman, and her tormentor is the hilariously boorish, cringe-inducing bully, Mr. Thwaites.

The overall atmosphere of the book is one of repression, claustrophobia, and forced closeness. But it’s still one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. The inhabitants of the Rosamund Tea Rooms have sunk into a toxic atmosphere of sniping and resentment, and the house is dominated by the boastful, pompous, and impossibly obnoxious Mr. Thwaites, a Dickensian comic character whose sole joy in life is to torment everyone around him.

His favorite target is the meek and even-tempered Miss Roach, who tries to maintain a sense of dignity as she absorbs his abuse. This would be depressing if it weren’t so funny. Because no one in the boarding house will stand up to Thwaites, he freely expresses his ill-informed opinions on everything, in the most obnoxious ways possible.

This scene gives a good flavor of the character and the writing. By this point in the book, we know that neither Mr. Thwaites nor any of the other characters has ever been wealthy. They’re are all stuck at the boarding house precisely because they can’t afford to go anywhere else.

The meal was breakfast: the subject, utility clothing. “As for the stuff they’re turning out for men nowadays,” said Mr. Thwaites bitterly, “I wouldn’t give it to my Valet.”

Mr. Thwaites’ valet was quite an old friend. An unearthly, flitting presence, whose shape, character, age and appearance could only be dimly conceived, he had been turning up every now and again ever since Miss Roach had known Mr. Thwaites. Mostly he was summoned into being as one from whom all second-rate, shoddy, or inferior articles were withheld. But sometimes things were good enough for Mr. Thwaites’ valet, but would not do for Mr. Thwaites. Mr. Thwaites’ spiritual valet endowed Mr. Thwaites with a certain lustre and grandeur, giving the impression that he had had a material valet in the past, or meant to have a material valet in the future. Mr. Thwaites also occasionally used, for the same purposes, a spiritual butler, a spiritual footman, and in moments of supreme content, a spiritual stable-boy. He had at his disposal a whole spiritual estate in the country.

In the close atmosphere of the story, the narrator spends a lot of time parsing the statements and subtle actions of the characters, as in the passage above. Sometimes the close parsing is funny, sometimes it’s revealing and insightful, and often it’s all of those things at once.

Though she sees quite clearly, poor Miss Roach is too modest and retiring to assert herself, and life seems to happen to her in confusing ways. She’s as ambivalent toward her American lieutenant as he is toward her, and for a long time, she can’t decide whether or the German provocateur Vicki Kugelman is evil or simply coarse, obtuse, and ill-mannered.

It isn’t until the end of the book that Miss Roach begins to see what the reader sees quite clearly in the beginning and then loses sight of: that the primary causes of her being so stuck in life are first, the impossible, smothering situation into which the war has forced the residents of London and its environs; and second, the fundamental elements of her character that make her so maddening and empathetic. Anyone as observant, sensitive, and unassertive as she will be pushed around by life.

Still, you can’t help liking her, especially when the narrator reveals her thoughts, as in this scene, where she returns home from drinks with Vicki:

The thought of these three drinks, as she let herself into the Rosamund Tea Rooms, accidentally brought to her mind another thought–the thought that whereas she had paid for two out of these three drinks, Vicki had paid for only one, and that this unequal division of payment had taken place, actually, on three other occasions. She rebuked herself for this thought.

She was, she saw, always having thoughts for which she rebuked herself. It then flashed across her mind that the thoughts for which she rebuked herself seldom turned out to be other than shrewd and fruitful thoughts: and she rebuked herself for this as well.

Patrick Hamilton is today most famous for his play Gaslight. Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman starred in the 1944 film version, from which comes the term gaslighting, which means to psychologically manipulate a person (usually a woman) in such a subtle and thorough way that they begin to doubt their own judgment, perception, and sanity. Hamilton was an acute observer of human motives, psychology, and social interaction. The Slaves of Solitude puts a comic twist on his sharp and accurate observations. It’s a wonder, and a shame, that the book is not more widely read.