Musically speaking, I'm like a piano ballad and you're like a guy playing banjo with his dick. We just don't belong together.
Above, a cover for Nothing in Her Way, another excellent novel by the reliable Charles Williams, this one dealing with con men—and a masterful con woman. Like any book of this sort, the fun is in the scams within scams within scams. It starts as a real estate swindle, and broadens into thoroughbred racing, with numerous mini-stings mixed in, as the main character finds himself getting into deeper trouble trying to keep up with his slippery ex-wife. Good fun from beginning to end, tense, involving, surprising, and affecting. The copyright on this is 1953. We don't know who painted the cover, but since Barye Phillips was tapped for an entire set of Williams fronts for Gold Medal in the early 1950s, it's a reasonable bet he did this one too.
McGinnis sells sea tale with a seashore.
West German publishing company Heyne Bücher makes good use of art by Robert McGinnis on the cover of Der Flamingo Mörder, which was a translation of Charles Williams' 1958 novel The Concrete Flamingo, aka All the Way. This beachy painting originally appeared in Argosy in April 1961 as an illustration for Ed Lacy's story "The Naked Blanco,” but it's a perfect match for Williams, who became a gifted crafter of oceangoing thrillers, among them Dead Calm, And the Deep Blue Sea, Scorpion Reef, and Aground. And yes, we know, by the way, that technically (not even technically, but actually) a fowl is a bird domesticated for its eggs, which flamingos aren't, but you try thinking up headers for these posts for eleven straight years. Anyway, the entire McGinnis painting from which the cover art was borrowed is below. And as always you can learn more about everyone involved by clicking their keywords at bottom.
During my time in the city I learned those folks have some depraved and immoral ideas. Wanna try a few?
When you read a lot of vintage crime fiction of varying quality it's useful to occasionally return to a trusty author like Charles Williams. He's a solid stylist, which makes all his books decent reading experiences. Big City Girl isn't his best, but it's interesting just the same. It's about an escaped convict who, if he accomplishes nothing else while free, wants to murder his wife—the big city girl of the title. She's living with his family on an isolated farm and, in pure femme fatale fashion, is causing more than her share of trouble with her hosts. What Williams attempts to do here is write an entire collection of characters that aren't very smart, and as we've noted before, that's more difficult than you'd think. You have to credit how well the feat is pulled off here. Some of Williams' books we've read have been great, others merely decent, but none have been close to disappointing. You can purchase anything he authored with confidence.
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. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1916—Paris Is Bombed by German Zeppelins
During World War I, German zeppelins conduct a bombing raid on Paris. Such raids were rare, because the ships had to fly hundreds of miles over French territory to reach their target, making them vulnerable to attack. Reaching London, conversely, was much easier, because the approach was over German territory and water. The results of these raids were generally not good, but the use of zeppelins as bombers would continue until the end of the war.
1964—Soviets Shoot Down U.S. Plane
A U.S. Air Force training jet is shot down by Soviet fighters after straying into East German airspace. All 3 crew men are killed. U.S forces then clandestinely enter East Germany in an attempt to reach the crash but are thwarted by Soviet forces. In the end, the U.S. approaches the Soviets through diplomatic channels and on January 31 the wreckage of the aircraft is loaded onto trucks with the assistance of Soviet troops, and returned to West Germany.
1967—Apollo Fire Kills Three Astronauts
Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee are killed in a fire during a test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Although the ignition source of the fire is never conclusively identified, the astronauts' deaths are attributed to a wide range of design hazards in the early Apollo command module, including the use of a high-pressure 100 percent-oxygen atmosphere for the test, wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials in the cockpit, an inward-opening hatch, and the flight suits worn by the astronauts.
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