Hallas’ novel opens with Richard Dempsey returning from a long day’s work at the diner to an empty house. Before he enters, he knows from the darkened windows that his wife has left him. Inside, he learns she’s taken their son and the family savings. She says he’ll never find her, but he knows she’s always dreamed of going to Hollywood. This is Oklahoma in the late 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression and a crushing years-long drought.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
My new novel, Impala, is a thriller in the vein of the classic crime novels of the thirties, forties, and fifties. The best of those novels follow a pattern that goes like this: An intelligent but flawed character gets in trouble after he gives into to some desire or compulsion, like lust, greed, or revenge. He finds himself surrounded by people and powers that will not let him go. His attempts to extricate himself from his troubles only lead to deeper trouble.
Back in the 1990’s, I wandered into Twice Sold Tales in Seattle, and the clerk asked if she could help me find anything. I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular, so I said, “How about something dark? That I can’t put down.” She lit up and said, “Oh. Have you read Jim Thompson?” She showed me a shelf of titles from Black Lizard, and I picked Pop. 1280. I studied English in college, and had done plenty of reading, but that was the first book I ever found that I literally could not put down.
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