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.

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

This book contains some brilliant writing and colorful characters. It’s a freewheeling 1970s update on the classic noir detective novel.

The book begins just as private eye C.W. Sughrue is catching up to famed author Abraham Trahearne. Trahearne has been touring the seedy dive bars of the western states on an epic bender since his second wife disappeared. Sughrue was hired by the author’s first wife to bring him back home. The detective and fugitive are well matched for adventure. Both are war veterans and literate, intelligent, reckless alcoholics.

The Last Good Kiss

When Sughrue finally catches up to Trahearne, the two become fast friends, and the best parts of the book are the descriptions of their carousing. The first interaction between the two characters gives the general flavor of the first two-thirds of the book. Sughrue is examining the gunshot wound in Trahearne’s ass after a barroom brawl, while Trahearne drinks whiskey to ease the pain.

“What’s it look like?” he [Trahearne] asked between sips.

“Looks like your ass, old man.”

“I always knew I’d die a comic death,” he said gravely.

“Not today, old man. Just a minor flesh wound.”

“That’s easy for you to say, son, it’s not your flesh.”

“In a few days you won’t have nothing but a bad memory and a sore ass,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said. “But I seem to have both those already.”

A number of other reviewers have remarked that this book reads like a cross between Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson. That’s a pretty good description. Sughrue’s actions, his narrative and his worldview are similar to those of Philip Marlowe, though often with a hilarious comic twist.

For example, when he finds himself in the fancy office of a pompous attorney who looks down on him, Sughrue decides his best move is to undermine the lawyer’s arrogance by acting even more presumptuous and entitled himself.

I stood up and walked around behind his desk, took a cigar out of a burled walnut box, lit it, sat down in his leather swivel chair, and propped my boots on his desk.

“What the hell are you doing?” he asked.

“Making myself comfortable, partner,” I said, then blew smoke in his face.

“Get up from there,” he sputtered. He couldn’t have been any angrier if I had sat down on his wife’s face.

That last line is a perfect example of Sughrue’s comic twist on the traditional tough-guy noir detective, and that thread of irreverent, subversive humor runs throughout the first two-thirds of the book, in both Sughrue and Trahearne.

But this is a detective story, after all, so there has to be a mystery to solve, and that’s the focus of the final third of the book, which is darker and more violent. This is where we see Sughrue’s combat training and Trahearne’s more pathetic, childish side. Both of these guys are alcoholics for a reason, and I give the author credit for showing the darker side of chronic heavy drinking.

The writing in this book is far superior to almost everything else in the genre. I give it four stars instead of five only because the mystery was somewhat convoluted and hastily resolved. And it left a bitter taste. But I can see why this book inspired a generation of crime writers. Most novels that intentionally aim at being literary don’t reach as high or as deep as this one, and they certainly aren’t as entertaining.

The Big Bite by Charles Williams

Charles Williams’ The Big Bite is very good crime/noir thriller, though it’s not quite up there with his brilliant 1953 noir The Hot Spot.

The Big Bite - by Charles Williams - 1973 Pocket Books edition

The cover of Pocket Books’ 1973 reprint of The Big Bite. The story is better than the cover, and it takes place in the 1950s, not the 1970s.

John Harlan’s pro football career has ended after another driver hit him in what appeared to be a drunk-driving accident. After his recovery, Harlan is in very good shape by normal standards. He’s in his late twenties, strong, and fit. He just lost that extra bit of quickness that it takes to compete at the highest level of sport, and now that he can’t play football anymore, he’s on the skids with no idea what to do next.

As he drifts about, the insurance investigator who originally looked into the drunk-driving accident tells Harlan he suspects there may be more to the story. Part of the accident may have been deliberate, and while Harlan wasn’t the intended target of that mischief, he certainly was a victim.

John Harlan is a man of low morals and few scruples. He’s bitter, and he thinks he’s entitled to get back some of the money he lost due to the premature end of his career. He decides to blackmail the two people who he thinks were responsible for the “intentional” part of the “accident.”

When it comes to crime, Harlan is a good planner, even though he’s a novice. He takes huge calculated risks, because he’s greedy as hell. His risks pay off, up to a certain point, because of his obsessive planning, which is the focus of much of the narrative. He neglects some little things along the way, like failing to examine parts of his plan from every conceivable angle. He also neglects some big things, like failing to fully understand the nature of the people he’s blackmailing.

What begins as a brutish game of intimidation and force evolves into a subtle and intense battle of strategy and clever tactics by both the blackmailer and his victims. In fact, for much of the book, it’s unclear who the victims will be. Because we see the world through Harlan’s eyes, we become as convinced of his plans as he does, and we don’t see their flaws until they smack him in the face. Then the reader gets smacked in the face too because Harlan can really suck you in. He’s up against some very clever foes, particularly Julia Cannon, who plays a number of roles in turn, and all of them convincingly. She the cheating wife, the femme fatale, the victim, the master, the psychologist, the moralist, and the oracle.

Though the poor writing in the first few pages of the book may turn you off, stick with it. You’ll start to see the value by the end of the first chapter. This one really comes alive at the end, when a story that has looked like a series of adventures and misadventures starts to take on new layers of depth, darkness, and moral heft. It’s a Jim Thompson-style ending in which a character slowly comes to realize he is imprisoned by the very desires and actions he thought would set him free. Julia Cannon becomes the prophetess and the bearer of wisdom and fate, bequeathing to Harlan a legacy and a future he tries vainly to reject, and exposing in him every flaw she so eloquently enumerated when she chained him to the bed and forced him to listen to what he had so rudely dismissed as “her incessant yakking.”

What she tries repeatedly to drive home to him, and what she does get across loud and clear to the reader, is the hidden cost of crime: that is, the cost to the perpetrators. We get it, and we get her frustration when she says to Harlan, “I was unfaithful to my husband. I realize you have already grasped this, at least as far as its surface aspects are concerned, and there would be no point in attempting to explore it to any depth because eventually we’d run into language connected to emotion, which obviously would have no meaning to you. How would you describe a sunset to a blind mole living on the dark side of the moon?”

The Big Bite was originally published by Dell in 1956. This review is of the 1973 Pocket Books reprint, which sold for 95 cents and includes a full-color two-page ad for True cigarettes between pages 128 and 129. Your best chance to find this title is the Mysterious Press eBook edition of 2012.

The Hot Spot by Charles Williams

Harry Madox has drifted in and out of a number of jobs, and has one failed marriage and some unspecified debts under his belt. When the story opens, he’s just landing a job as a car salesman in 1950’s small-town Texas. He’s not in town long before he meets two women. The young, sweet Gloria Harper brings out the best in him, against his nature and sometimes against his will. And then there’s the boss’ wife, Dolores Harshaw, who has a knack for getting him into and out of trouble.

Madox is one of those guys for whom the straight and narrow just hasn’t worked out. “In this world, you took what you wanted; you didn’t stand around and wait for someone to hand it to you.” He comes up with a pretty good plan to rob to local bank, but his entanglements with Gloria and Dolores complicate everything. I won’t spoil the story; it’s particularly interesting to see how two kindred spirits recognize each other instantly, bring out the worst in each other, and make a mess of things. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

The jaded and unsentimental Madox gives some priceless descriptions of his even more jaded and unsentimental lover, Dolores Harshaw. Here’s his description of her after the first time they’ve slept together. They’re in her house (Madox’ boss’ house), and she’s been plowing through a bottle of whiskey.

“Moonlight from the window had moved up the bed and now it fell diagonally across her from the waist to the big spread-out breast which rocked a little as she shook the ice in her glass. I thought of a full and slightly bruised peach beginning to spoil a little. She was somewhere between luscious and full-bloom and in another year or so of getting all her exercise lying down and lifting the bottle, she’d probably be blowzy…

“She had a bos’n’s vocabulary. My head felt worse and I wondered why I didn’t get out of there. She was already on the edge of being sloppy drunk, kittenish one minute and belligerent the next. God knows I’ve always had some sort of affinity for gamey babes, but she was beginning to be a little rough even for me. She had a lot of talent, but it was highly specialized and when you began to get up to date in that field you were wasting your time just hanging around for the conversation.”

Dolores Harshaw has some plans for Harry Madox, and she’s a smart one. He knows it too. “The smart thing was to get out of here and let her happen to somebody else.” But he just can’t quite untangle himself.

Overall, this is one of the best noirs I’ve ever read, with steadily-building tension and suspense. Williams writes straightforward prose when the situation calls for it, and can also be witty and insightful. His characters ring true, and he provides good insight into their motivations and weaknesses. Dolores Harshaw may be the best femme fatale in all of crime fiction: seductive, conniving, compelling, manipulative, jealous, ruthless, intelligent, and unhinged.

It’s a shame this book is out of print, but you can find used copies online. “The Hot Spot” is the book’s title under the Black Lizard imprint. It had been published earlier by Gold Medal under the title “Hell Hath No Fury.”