I’m surprised Charles Williams isn’t better known. Seems to me he’s right up there with Chandler and Hammett—well, almost—and from the same era. His career encompassed the same 1940’s and 1950’s era, and his command of language and character is as true and touch as it comes.
The title of Aground refers to a stolen yacht that’s marooned on a sand spit somewhere between Key West and Cuba. The rich widow, Rae Osborne, “a statuesque blonde with a flamboyant mop of hair” hires our narrator/protagonist Ingram to search for the yacht he is for a short while suspected of stealing. They find it, but complications prevent their sailing back home.
During the ensuing conflict, while Osborne and Ingram plot a way out of their difficulties, they engage in tough-tender banter reminiscent of Bogart/Bacall at their best.
“Do you have any desire to get rich?”
“Could two people sail this boat? Very far, I mean?”
“ … Most of the time they’d have their hands full.”
“What about two people who’d just as soon have their hands full of each other?”
Crisp and spicy. Just the way I like it.
Williams apparently didn’t create a character or group of them follow them from one book to the next, at least for this trio. The Big Bite concerns a pro football player who’s washed up by a knee injury suffered in a car crash. It wasn’t an accident. He was the victim of a murder attempt by in a case of mistaken identity. The crash didn’t kill the perpetrator, but someone else came along and finished the job while our John Harlan was unconscious.
John finds out about the caper and decides to replace his sports salary with some blackmail cash. It gets complicated. Williams uses the same taut prose and deft imagery as in Aground.—“She drank like somebody trying to finish a highball with a cab waiting outside … ”—but this time our narrator is no hero. He’s the next thing to a noir protagonist—a decent guy who’s been hardly done by and gets corrupted by the thought of easy money. Entertaining, realistic, and full of people with respectable facades and larceny in their hearts.
Talk of the Town presents us with a different situation altogether. It’s still first-person tough guy, but this one really does have a heart of gold. Ex-San Francisco cop Chatham is driving cross-country, trying to leave a broken life behind, when he’s involved in a small accident in a little Louisiana town. He’s about to get arrested when a woman steps forward to witness that it was the other driver’s fault. Not testimony that sits well with the small crowd that’s gathered. Chatham takes up residence at the motel owned by that very woman, Mrs. Langston. Turns out she’s an outcast, in circumstance that fits the book’s title. Everyone suspects she murdered her popular husband, thought the evidence isn’t strong enough to bring her to trial. She’s ostracized, but too stubborn to leave.
Chatham’s cop instincts take over, and he gets drawn into an investigation over of the original crime. Turns out, of course, that there’s a lot more to the situation than appears on the surface, and what he uncovers makes for an exciting and satisfying read.
I gobbled up these three with relish and anticipate going for more of this prolific guy’s ouvre. I hope he has a renaissance. Even post-mortem, I would like to think it would do him good.