Of course I had sex with him, daddy. Didn't you teach me to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?
We like the fiction of Charles Williams quite a bit, so after reading six of his novels we thought we'd go all the way back to his debut, 1951's Hill Girl. The hill girl of the title is eighteen year-old Angelina, who has the temerity to actually enjoy sex, and compounds this sin by hooking up with handsome but married Lee Crane. This is horrifying to Lee's brother Bob, who not only wants what's best for his sibling, but also counts Lee's wife as one of his best friends. Thus this affair simply cannot stand. But Lee can't let Angelina go for reasons that can be best summarized this way: she's insanely hot and amazing in the sack. When Angelina's fundamentalist father literally comes after Lee with a shotgun Angelina ends up under Bob's protection, and shortly afterward under Bob.
Hey, girls just wanna have fun, right? So what develops here is a battle between two brothers over ownership of a woman's body. To his credit, Bob comes to the realization that whatever Angelina did before she was involved with him is none of his fuckin' business, even if the fuckin' was with his brother; but Lee never quite sees the light, even though he's married to a beautiful and wonderful woman. His obsession with Angelina will cost someone dearly. Hill Girl is miles away from Williams' nautical adventures, an interesting window onto sexual attitudes of the 1950s, and solidly put together as well. That's probably why it sold a million copies and launched his career. The cover art for this Gold Medal edition is by Barye Phillips.
Nothing's funny, really. I just can't help laughing about how utterly screwed we are.
Gulf Coast Girl is more solid aquatic themed work from Charles Williams. This time the story involves a woman who seeks help from a crack salvage diver in finding a small plane that crashed in the Gulf of Mexico with a fortune on board. The story has a framing device—the boat they use for their salvage operation is found abandoned and the only clue to their whereabouts is a diary. So the story is narrated by the captain of the rescue vessel, reading from the diary what happened to the protagonists. This frame seems unneeded for nearly the entire length of the book, but the always competent Williams shows late that this device is in no way extraneous. Nifty work. We're really ripping through Williams' catalog now. Originally published in hardback in 1955 as Scorpion Reef, these Dell paperback editions of Gulf Coast Girl appeared in 1955 and 1960 with cover art from Robert Maguire and Robert McGinnis.
I am happy. You wanna see mad? Keep telling me to cheer up.
Charles Williams wrote more than twenty novels, and though the ones we've read have been good to serviceable, we were expecting eventually to come across an absolute winner. Hell Hath No Fury is that book. It was Williams' fourth novel, written in 1953, and features a tough drifter who becomes a used car salesman in a brokedick country town where he happens to notice bank security is lax. But robbing the bank is the mere entry point to all the problems he encounters. There's also a one-woman nightmare of a femme fatale, a shockingly adept sheriff, a filthy blackmailer, an irascible boss, and a sweet local beauty ripe for love. Williams uses the best line in the book on her:
I took her face in my hands and kissed her. And then they dynamited the dam.
There's no dam. That's just what the kiss does to him. And it's a brilliant pulp moment. A book like this screams for film adaptation, and it was eventually put onscreen in the form of 1990's The Hot Spot, with Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, and a radiant Jennifer Connelly. We haven't watched the film, but it's on the slate. The only flaw to the book, besides the usual stuff general to 1950s crime fiction, is the title. The main character Harry Madox thinks he's rid himself of the femme fatale Dorothy Harshaw, but hell hath no fury. Those four words tell us she'll be back plenty mad and will have a say in how matters conclude. It takes a little of the suspense away. Otherwise, top notch.
Worse comes to worst in a dusty western town.
We told you the film was on the slate. When we noticed its premiere date was right around the corner we watched it immediately after finishing Hell Hath No Fury. First order of business—the poster and tagline are terrible. It shows how easy it can be for a studio to screw up both. The text tells you The Hot Spot is a film noir, but the triptych style art provides no compelling imagery. Worse, you don't see Don Johnson clearly, though as a huge television star thanks to Miami Vice he was the movie's greatest asset. And you don't see Jennifer Connelly at all, who even back then was one of Hollywood's most beautiful women. Posters are seen before they're read, and the visuals here give no reason to examine further. We grade it a major fail.
But what of the film? Well, it got generally good reviews, but the public never turned up to see it. Johnson is nicely cast as the drifter/grifter Harry Madox, so he isn't to blame. Jennifer Connelly and Virginia Madsen were less known, but as supporting characters they more than did their part. Other modern noirs had performed well in cinemas, so it's not the style of The Hot Spot that hurt it. The direction from Dennis Hopper sticks reasonably close to the novel, and he gets the overheated small town atmosphere right, so we'll give him a pass too. Most likely the studio simply didn't make an effective push behind the movie—a theory backed up by the bad poster.
But The Hot Spot holds up well these years later. Some might find Madsen's honeydripping femme fatale improbable, but she's channelling both the source material and classic noirs. Other viewers probably doubted a nineteen-year-old Connelly could develop feelings for a Johnson on the far side of forty, but it happens. People who doubt that just haven't spent enough time in the real world. In the film the age difference does not go unaddressed. Johnson's feelings for his inappropriate crush prompt him to act against his best interests. Whether he pays a price hangs less on his cunning than on chance. Or perhaps it hangs on someone else's cunning—that's where the best femmes fatales always come in. The Hot Spot premiered in the U.S. today in 1990.
That famous southern hospitality must happen in some other part of the south.
Charles Williams' 1954 thriller Go Home, Stranger doesn't take place entirely at sea like fun efforts such as Dead Calm and Aground, but it does have an aquatic focus, with much of the action taking place in swamps and bayous along the Gulf Coast, as lead character Pete Reno tries to prove to the yokel police force that his famous actress sister didn't murder her husband. Though the cops aren't much help he finds an ally who doubles as a love interest. The Gulf feel is strong, the story is interesting, and the writing is typically solid, but this is not Williams at his best. Relegating the sister—who has the most at stake—to a mainly off-the-page role possibly saps the story of urgency. But of course middling Williams surpasses many thriller authors' best work. The cover art is by Barye Phillips, and its dark and moody nature illustrates the prose nicely. The copyright on this Gold Medal edition is 1963.
A deserted island, a pair of killers, and very little time.
We just finished reading Aground, which Charles Williams wrote in 1960, and it was a solid if unspectacular outing from a highly experienced author. In this one John and Rae (two characters who meet here but would later marry and appear in Dead Calm) are trapped with two weapons smugglers on a yacht that's stuck on a reef. The only way to free the boat is to lighten the load, so the crooks make the couple help unload tons of guns onto the atoll, and thus we get the ticking clock for this thriller—when the boat is light enough to float, the criminals will move it to slightly deeper water, make their captives reload the guns, kill them and be off. A fun gimmick, perhaps not exploited to fullest advantage, but the end result is worthwhile. The Crest paperback edition above, with uncredited art, appeared in 1961.
Hmm... you should be on the ground writhing in agony by now. What's this material? Polyester?
We talked about the Charles Williams thriller A Touch of Death back in 2015. Shorter version: it's great. But we didn't show you the alternate cover art. This edition came first, in 1954, from the brush of Saul Tepper. See the other cover here.
Well, the bad news is they aren't coming back. The good news is we can finally have that quiet swim.
We read Charles Williams' seagoing thriller Dead Calm a couple of months back, and it was good enough to send us searching for more of his work. We found that he wrote several novels set on the ocean, and settled on reading 1971's And the Deep Blue Sea. Basically, what you get here is a murder thriller aboard a tramp steamer, with the killings all connected to an escaped Nazi. The story is entertaining, but the plot is baffling in one respect—the hero ends up on this deathship because his yacht sinks and, in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, he's rescued. A one-in-a-million chance. That's why we kept waiting for the moment where this becomes crucial to the plot, but it never does—he could have been a ticketed passenger on the steamer and the book would have progressed exactly the same way. We found that strange, to say the least. But Williams was a highly experienced writer by the time he got around to And the Deep Blue Sea, his penultimate novel, and he's sure handed with both the long prose passages and the dialogue. For us, it isn't quite as good as Dead Calm, but it gets the job done.
A thousand miles out to sea there's nobody to help you if you can't help yourself.
Above, a Bill Johnson cover for the Charles Williams thriller Dead Calm, originally published in hardback in 1963 with this Avon paperback coming in ’65. We love this cover. It gets more interesting the more you look at it. As for the story, it deviates from the 1989 Nicole Kidman movie in several important ways, including the number of characters, the approach the heroine Rae takes toward being stranded on a sailboat in the middle of the South Pacific with a madman, and the climax. The movie is excellent, of course, but it's interesting the choices screenwriters make. In the movie Rae uses sex as part of her arsenal but Williams has more imagination than that—or less, depending on your point of view. In any case, Dead Calm is a recommended read.
Hello? I’m from next door! If you don’t turn down that infernal music I swear I’m going to shoot you!
Charles Williams’ A Touch of Death (published in Britain as Mix Yourself a Redhead) had several different covers, but this 1963 Gold Medal edition with uncredited art is easily the best. It’s a bit strange, though. It almost seems as if it depicts a blind woman. And it does—a woman who’s blind drunk. An intruder is sneaking up on her as she gets loaded and plays her record collection. Don’t worry though. The hero saves her and once she sobers up she reveals herself to be one of mid-century fiction’s greatest femmes fatales—the immortal Madelon Butler. This is a really good book.
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