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.

I Was A Spy by Marthe McKenna

I picked this up after the New York Times ran a belated obituary for Marthe McKenna in September, 2018. This book reads like a non-stop adventure novel. McKenna (nee Cnockaert) was in her early twenties and studying to be a doctor when the war broke out. The Germans overran her native Belgium before their progress was halted and the front-line trenches formed just past her hometown of Westrozebeke. Her town was destroyed and she and her mother were forced to move a little further behind the lines to Roulers, where the Germans had set up a hospital.

Cnockaert volunteered as a nurse at the hospital, where she treated both German and Allied soldiers. If you’ve ever read accounts from other WWI nurses, you know what a horror that job was. Around the time she moved to Roulers, her aunt, an independent and free-spirited loner, recruited her as a spy for the British Secret Service.

Cnockaert was able to gather quite a bit of information from the German officers billeted in her house. (Every house in Roulers was forced to board German soldiers during the war.) Because Cnockaert worked at the hospital and had to be on call at all times, she was one of the only citizens in town who carried a pass that allowed to violate the German curfew. Her pass allowed her to go anywhere at any time, while her dedicated and extraordinary work at the hospital kept her above suspicion of the German authorities. (Because of her medical training, she was more skilled than the other nurses, and her personality made her a favorite of doctors, patients, and hospital administrators alike.)

Cnockaert recounts a number of fascinating missions, in many of which her life was on the line at every moment. In one of her first missions, she sweet-talks the German officer who runs the railway station, trying to extract information from him about when a munitions train will arrive. She gets the information, in a very clever manner, and as she does so, she comes to recognize the German officer who she has just swindled as a fundamentally decent man forced by his country to do job he may not necessarily like. With deeply mixed feelings, she passes her information on to the British, knowing it will lead to the violent death of the man who has just helped her. Two days later, she watches British planes bomb the munitions train, blowing up not only the train but the entire station, with the German officer inside.

Cnockaert passes on other valuable information to the British, including information about a previously unknown German submarine base, a behind-the-lines telephone from which an unfaithful Brit has been passing secrets to the Germans, and most importantly, plans for the large-scale bombing of London that, thanks to her warning, the British were able to thwart.

Her greatest regret comes from an incident whose significance neither she nor the British understood at the time. She reported that a munitions train had arrived in Roulers carrying large cylinders unlike any she’d ever seen before, and that she had gathered from the talk of local soldiers these were bound for the front lines. The Brits replied that they wanted information about troop movements, and they were not interested in cylinders.

Cnockaert continued to investigate the cylinders, and she also reported that two unusual German officers were now billeted in her house. They spent their days studying weather reports, measuring windspeed and making maps. The Brits again replied they weren’t interested in such information, but she continued to search for details, because the constant chatter of the German soldiers about an imminent turning point in the war told her something big was about to happen.

The last things she reported before that Germans carried those mysterious cylinders to the line was that the officers billeted in her house were not standard army officers. They were university professors who taught chemistry. She also mentioned overhearing a soldier who had unloaded the munitions train saying the canisters contained chlorine. Again, the Brits were not interested. No one understood at the time what was afoot.

The first chemical attack of war came just after her final report, and Cnockaert was the head nurse at the hospital that received the first hordes of choking, chemically burned soldiers. Although the townspeople were used to the sight of soldiers arriving with their arms and legs blown off, even parts of their faces missing, the sight of the gassed, burned and choking soldiers so horrified them that for the first time, they rose up in open protest against the Germans.

This is just one of number of incidents the author recounts. There are many more, and many of them are more harrowing because the author is so bold and forward in her attempts to extract information from the Germans. In many cases, she’s the only Belgian in a room full of male enemy soldiers. And in many cases, she travels great distances on foot, in the dark of night, to distant towns and country farmhouses, avoiding German patrols again and again, while knowing she has to show up at work the next morning looking fresh and clean or she’ll blow her cover.

One of the more striking aspects of this book is the portrait it paints of a long-lost world. Although the Europeans were fighting a twentieth-century war with twentieth-century weapons, they were still living in a nineteenth century culture. Cnockaert, a farm girl, speaks fluent Flemish, French, German, and English. The German officers, while overrunning her country, are unfailingly polite to her, just as she is to them. German and Allied soldiers are treated side-by-side in the hospital. The savage war is playing out in a society that is far more civil than American society is today. In reading of these people who so easily shifted their conversation into another language to accommodate the person they were talking to, I felt a pang of loss for a civilization that once prized cultural knowledge and now scorns it. (America, that is.)

Another striking aspect of the book is how intimately the dramas of the war played out just behind the front lines. The Germans and the Belgian spies slept under the same roof. They ate and drank together. As the war wore on, they commiserated, all of them sick of it and wanting to return to normal life. Cnockaert herself, as a nurse, often treated and rehabilitated the very soldiers whom her information had caused to be wounded, and she always treated them as fully human, not as enemies. Everything is muddled in war.

There is much more to the book than I’ve spelled out here. It’s a fascinating read, and in the four years of the war, Cnockaert did more living than most people do in a lifetime. She may have been the only person in the war to have won the highest national honors from both the Germans and the Allies. She was awarded the German Iron Cross for her work as a nurse, and the both the Belgian and French Legions of Honor, along with special recognition from the British, for her work as a spy.

If you get a chance, read this book. It’s a hard one to put down.

I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without discovering Cornell Woolrich. I had heard of him, but I had never read his work until now. The blurb on the cover of the book compares Woolrich to Raymond Chandler. I would actually say he’s quite a bit deeper and more nuanced. While Chandler focuses on the social world, Woolrich focuses much more tightly on the interior world of his main character.

In fact, he gets the reader to identify so closely with Helen/Patrice in this book, I had to reopen it the day after I’d finished it because I couldn’t remember if it was written in first person or third. It’s third-person, but it’s so powerfully colored by the protagonist’s thoughts and perspective that it’s easy to misremember as a first-person narrative.

Woolrich is a brilliant writer. That much comes out clearly in the prologue, which is among the best openings of any book I’ve ever read. It’s telling too that there’s no action in this section. The narrator merely gives a brief overview of her current life. (The prologue and epilogue are the only sections of the book written in first-person.) She lives in a beautiful house in a peaceful town, she loves her husband and son, and yet she and her husband are haunted by something that happened in the past and can find no peace.

That’s it. No explosion, no crash, no dramatic killing. And yet it’s utterly enthralling. The character has drawn you so fully into her confidence, her perspective is so rich and her language is so strangely powerful, you have to read on.

The rich description carries through into the third-person narrative that begins with chapter one. Here’s the main character, pregnant and abandoned on the first page of chapter one:

She was about nineteen. A dreary, hopeless nineteen, not a bright, shiny one. Her features were small and well-turned, but there was something too pinched about her face, too wan about her coloring, too thin about her cheeks. Beauty was there, implicit, ready to reclaim her face if it was given a chance, but something had beaten it back, was keeping it hovering at a distance, unable to alight in its intended realization…

Her head was down a little, as though she were tired of carrying it up straight. Or as though invisible blows had lowered it one by one.

You rarely see that quality of writing in crime fiction, in part because crime fiction tends not to focus on sensitive people. The quality of writing is consistent throughout the book. Here’s a snippet from a later scene. It’s autumn, and Patrice, still hopeful and determined after taking many more blows, is returning from a funeral.

The leaves were brightly dying. The misty black of her veil dimmed their apoplectic spasms of scarlet and orange and ochre, tempered them to a more bearable hue in the fiery sunset, as the funeral limousine coursed at stately speed homeward through the countryside.

The writer uses a number of interesting devices to brilliant effect. For example, one very short chapter near the middle of the book appears three times in a row. It’s simply a description of what the main character sees when she looks out her window in the morning. In the first version of the chapter, the description is bright and full of hope. In the second, it’s bittersweet, weighted down with a sense of impending loss. In the third, it’s dark, heavy, and threatening.

In three pages, that simple device portrays the decline in Patrice’s mental and emotional state more powerfully than thirty pages of nuanced description could ever do. For all the richness of his writing, Woolrich doesn’t waste any time conveying what he needs to convey.

Woolrich explores some of the same psychological territory as Jim Thomson, though he comes at it from the opposite direction. Thompson often begins with some petty criminal committing a petty act and then delves into the mind of his disturbed main character as he moves toward some violent and catastrophic explosion. Thompson’s main character is always male and is usually the perpetrator. Woolrich begins in his character’s mind, his character is a woman, and she’s the victim. Thompson’s writing is dark and powerful because of its spare, raw directness. Woolrich’s power comes from the richness and elegance of the language, of the perspective, and of the world he paints. While he does focus mostly on his characters’ interior, he paints just as rich a portrait of the social world as Chandler.

This book is primarily a psychological suspense: a slow, weighty, and relentless act of brutality against the psyche of a good and honest and vulnerable person. It portrays the effects of evil much more powerfully than so much of today’s crime fiction, which simply focuses on acts of physical violence.

If you read the prolog, you’ll know at once if the book is for you. And if you like this one, check out Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place.

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 Great Divorce – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis’ allegory opens with the narrator, presumably a middle-aged Englishman, walking through the rainy streets of a city at dusk. He happens upon a line of bickering people waiting for a bus and, almost by accident, he’s in the queue, and then aboard the bus, not knowing where it’s bound.

As the bus ascends, he gets a broad view of his vast, gloomy country, with its houses spread miles apart as its inhabitants try to distance themselves ever further from their neighbors.

The bus eventually rises to a lush, sunlit country in which the substance of all things, from the grass to the water to the animals, is so hard and weighty that the passengers on the bus are mere ghosts by comparison.

Bright spirits approach the passengers one by one, each assigned to a specific individual, and try to convince the ghosts to accompany them on the difficult journey over the mountains to a land of joy and love. The one condition is that they can’t take anything with them.

One by one, the ghosts refuse. The proud ones cannot give up their important roles in the world below. The wounded and the wronged cling to their wounds as an identity that defines their entire being. The ones who exercised power refuse to go forward without the guarantee that their power will be preserved or restored.

The bright spirits cannot give the ghosts a sense of the joy that awaits them because the ghosts are so attached to their own misery that they can’t conceive of joy. Unaware of the limits of their understanding, the ghosts cling to their identities as a last possession, and fear that once they’re stripped of that, they’ll become nothing.

The spirits argue, to no avail, that once the ghosts relinquish those last vestiges of self, they actually become more substantial, and the journey over the mountains becomes easier, though they acknowledge that the beginning of the journey is always painful, in different ways for different people. One ghost, a woman who was admired and beautiful in the world below, cannot bear the shame of being transparent, of being “seen through” in this new world. The spirit explains that surrendering to her shame is the first step toward becoming a more substantial being.

“Don’t you remember on earth–there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will accept it–if you will drink the cup to the bottom–you will find it very nourishing: but try to do anything else with it and it scalds.”

The ghosts are more interested in complaining about their place in the world below than in listening to what awaits in the world above. One of Spirits, offering joy and freedom to an unreceptive ghost, expresses his frustration: “Friend,” said the Spirit, “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

The story is in some ways like an abridged and inverted version of Dante’s Inferno. The setting is heaven instead of hell, and instead of seeing the punishment inflicted on the damned, we see the mindsets and attitudes that lead to their misery. None of these ghosts did anything particularly horrible. They look like our neighbors, our families, and ourselves. They’re manipulative or sulking or spiteful or proud. They’re selfish and inflexible. They lack empathy. They’re full of petty grievances, and their smothering “love” for others is merely a desire to possess and control.

Many of them sunk unwittingly into misery, like the grumbling old woman, whose downward trajectory through life is described thus:

“…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever.”

Others have followed a similar descent, so slow and subtle they can’t recognize their own misery. One of the Spirits describes an example:

“The sensualist, I’ll allow ye, begins by pursuing a real pleasure, though a small one… But the time comes on when, though the pleasure becomes less and less and the craving fiercer and fiercer, and though he knows that joy can never come that way, yet he prefers to joy the mere fondling of unappeasable lust and would not have it taken from him.”

The narrator watches as, one by one, the ghosts refuse the offer of joy and board the bus back to hell. And here again Lewis inverts Dante. In The Inferno, the souls know they’re suffering, their suffering is inflicted from without by a being substantially greater than them (the devil) against whom they are powerless. Hell has no exit, and their suffering is eternal.

In The Great Divorce, the inhabitants of the underworld are free to go anytime. They can and do board that bus to heaven, but they choose again and again to return to gloomy world below, to the role and the self and the life they’ve so identified with that they cannot let it go. Their hardships and troubles are self-inflicted, and they don’t know they’re suffering.

“There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery,” one of the Spirits remarks. “There is always something they prefer to joy.”

Unlike the exotic world of extreme torture that Dante paints, Lewis’ hell looks a lot like the world we live in now.

What’s Wrong with Genre Fiction?

I read a lot of classic crime fiction, and when I go back to the best writers in the genre, I consistently find that they pack more substance, insight, and emotional weight into 200 pages than today’s bestselling authors can get into 500 pages. And yet, a handful of authors manage to consistently sell millions of copies of books about uninteresting characters doing far-fetched things described in prose that is not compelling and sometimes not even convincing. Why is this?

The computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra once wrote a parable about two programmers who were both assigned to write a new software program. One programmer set to work immediately writing code. The other spent weeks thinking about the design of the program and the fundamental problems it had to solve before he typed a single line of code.

Both completed their work in nine months, and both programs did what they were supposed to do. When it came time for the programmers’ annual job reviews, their managers looked at the code they had written. The manager of the programmer who had started writing code immediately found a huge, sprawling code base with tens of thousands of lines of code. It was so complex, he could barely make sense of it. But he knew it worked, because people were using it.

When the manager of the other programmer looked at his employee’s code, he found just a few thousand lines of concise easy-to-read code that laid out with crystal clarity the problems the program needed to address, and then very neatly solved them.

The first programmer’s manager said to his employee, “I can tell by what I’ve read that you’ve solved a very difficult and complicated problem. That fact that the software works as well as it does is amazing. I can’t believe you cranked out eighty thousand lines of code in just nine months. You’re getting a raise.”

The second programmer’s manager said, “Your code is so surprisingly simple and clear, it shows that the underlying problem couldn’t have been very complex. The fact that the software works as well as it does just proves you were working on a simple problem all along. I can’t believe it took you nine months to write five thousand lines of code. You’re fired.”

This is how the software world sometimes works, and this is how the publishing world seems to work, especially in bestselling mystery and thriller fiction.

To write a good 200 page book, you first have to write a middling 50o page book. Then you have to distill that and pare it down. It’s not just a process of cutting unnecessary sentences. It’s often a process of conveying three chapters worth of information in a single scene, which has to come across as natural and fluid while advancing the story, developing themes, and conveying facts, emotions, and insights to reader.

Unfortunately, many established authors, knowing they have a dedicated readership, crank out the 500 page version and stop there. A good editor should push them either to have 500 pages of substance, or to cut the book down to where it’s nothing but substance (say, 200 pages?), so it will have more impact. But the writers and editors don’t have to, so they don’t put in the extra work. Readers happily accept the pale and flabby works of [I won’t say who] and have no idea how much deeper and more powerful are the works of the masters like Dorothy Hughes, Elliott Chaze, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Williams, and Jim Thompson.

To put it another way, readers would rather sink into a 500 page mess then contemplate a 200 page gem.

Edsger Dijkstra summed up the problem when he said, “Simplicity is a great virtue, but it requires hard work to achieve it and education to appreciate it. And to make matters worse, complexity sells better.”

In the world of genre fiction, readers tastes have become accustomed to lazy writing and pointless scenes the way children’s tastes become accustomed to processed food. When you give them something fresh, they reject it.

I call this “The Seinfeld Problem.” If you pick up a popular mystery, thriller, or suspense novel that is part of a series, you’ll find lots of scenes where the main character has lunch with a partner or dinner with a date, or has a long argument with a friend over who makes the best meatball subs in town. These scenes don’t advance the plot or enrich the story. They’re supposed to give the reader some insight into the main character, or to make the reader feel more connected.

In series fiction, however, the reader already knows the main character from previous books. The writer doesn’t have to do the difficult and rewarding work of revealing the character through his actions and words. Because that work has already been done, the reader often finds himself just hanging out with the main character, talking about nothing over a long lunch, in just the way Seinfeld and Kramer and Elaine and George hung out and talked about nothing in the show that Seinfeld himself called “a show about nothing.”

Seinfeld got away with it because the characters were interesting and funny, and the viewer understood there would be no plot and none of the characters would change by the end of the story. But mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels are supposed to have plots, and those plots should keep moving. Stories where the main character changes and grows are always more interesting than stories where he/she doesn’t. But part of the nature of series is that the main character has to be the same from book to book. The main character is the product, and readers expect him to be same in the next book as he was in the last, just like they expect the can of ravioli they’re about to open to taste just like the one they ate yesterday.

As a software engineer, I became accustomed to managers asking, “Why are you still working on that program if it’s not crashing and there are no glaring bugs?” I keep working on it because I see it can be simplified, that a thousand lines can be boiled down to two hundred. Managers don’t always appreciate that, and neither do readers. But if you spend a few months reading the powerful, well-written works of the masters in any genre, and then you return to what passes for “a great read” on the current bestseller lists, you start shaking your head and wondering what’s going on.

What is going on?

 

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.”