of CharIes Williams by Ed Gorman
"He was a hard luck kind of guy. He was much better than many writers who really made it. Not that he'd ever tell you, of course. He was genuinely modest, maybe even a little down on what he wrote. You could never be sure if he thought what he did was quite respectable. He was, after all, writing paperback originals and this was still the 1950s."
This is his agent, Don Congdon, talking on a late New York afternoon.
When she was through being sick, I wet a wash cloth at the basin and bathed her face while she leaned weakly against the bathroom wall with her eyes closed. She didn't open them until she was back on the bed. She took one long look at me and said, "Oh, good God!" and closed them again. She made a feeble attempt to pull her skirt down. I straightened it for her, and she lay still. I went out in the living room and lighted a cigarette. I could handle her all right, but if the police came by again and noticed those garage doors were unlocked, I was dead. It would be at least three more hours before it was dark.
This is from Man on the Run, November 1958, not a classic but a solid turbulent novel that has all Gold Medal Original elements. A) a falsely accused man trying to elude police, b) a lonely woman as desperate in her way as the man on the run, c) enough atmospherics (night, rain, fog) to enshroud a hundred films noir. It has now been out of print for forty years.
According to Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (second edition), Charles Williams was born in San Angelo, Texas, on August 13, 1909, was educated at Brownsville High School, Texas (only through the tenth grade), served with the United States Merchant Marine, married Lasca Foster in 1939, had one daughter, and died in 1975.
What it doesn't tell us is how he died. On that same late New York afternoon, his agent, Congdon, described the details of Williams' death.
In an exceptional essay on Williams, writer and critic Geoffrey O'Brien noted: "Charles Williams is at face value the epitome of a macho adventure writer. his heroes are characteristically pre-occupied with hunting (Hill Girl), fishing (River Girl; Go Home, Stranger; Girl Out Back), athletics (The Big Bite; A Touch of Death), and, above all, sailing (Scorpion Reef; The Sailcloth Shroud; Dead Calm)."
Then O'Brien neatly goes on to point out that while the trappings of the book may seem standard blue collar—especially the early "hill" books—their real theme is "the hero's discovery that he knows nothing about women."
It is Williams's women we remember most, from the innocent girl in Hell Hath No Fury to the sullen and deadly Cathy Dunbar in Nothing in Her Way and the enigmatic Mrs. Langston in Talk of the Town.
No other power—not in Williams's world anyway—can match women's to redeem or destroy.
"It's actually kind of a funny story, how I met Charlie. In those days—this is back in the late forties—I was an editor at Simon & Schuster and his first novel came in over the transom; the writing was exceptionally good for a new writer but the plot was deemed by me and several others to be too commercial for hardcovers of that day, so the manuscript was returned to Charlie.
"Later, I left Simon & Schuster and joined the Harold Matson Company as an agent. I wrote a few writers whose work I had seen at Simon & Schuster to see if they would let me handle their work. Charlie sent me the same novel and I offered it to some other hardcover publishers, and it was turned down.
"Charlie suggested I throw it away, but I didn't. I put the manuscript on the shelf and a year or so later when Fawcett started their line of paperback originals, which they called Gold Medals, I remembered Charlie's work, sent it over to them, and they bought it immediately. I had difficulty reaching Charlie to give him the good news, but finally did. The novel, which was entitled Hill Girl, went on to sell two and a half million copies."
The French, more than any other people, love the suspense story. Gallimard, in its famous mystery-suspense series Série Noire, has kept most of Charlie's novels in print for many years. People such as Truffaut were interested in his novels and Jeanne Moreau and Belmondo starred in Nothing in Her Way, the first novel to be filmed.
"Hollywood was never as interested," says Congdon, "and the early paperback novels usually elicited contempt from most of the people out there, who thought they were 'pulp.'
"However, one of his novels, The Wrong Venus, did sell to Universal and Charlie was hired to write the screenplay. He was disgusted with that experience because the screenplay was pretty much rewritten for James Garner. He worked on a second screenplay of someone else's work, but it also turned out to be a poor film."
Not that during this period—1957-1958—the book career is moving along so marvelously either.
For some reason, the whole original paperback response to the suspense novel began to subside, and Charlie's audience shrank along with it. Sales simply weren't as big as they had been, with the exception of those writers who decided to do their suspense mysteries around a single detective or lead character, as John D. MacDonald did. Charlie was asked to do this, but he said it would bore him silly writing about the same guy each time.
Congdon and Williams went to Dell and Knox Burger with idea that Charlie's work ought to be in hardcover. Knox was willing to go along with a first hardcover printing if they could find a publisher and work out the appropriate arrangements. This was done with several of his novels, the first, Scorpion Reef being at Macmillan.
They even talked to him about writing a series. Williams felt about series fiction much as he did about Hollywood.
Italy, Spain, and France—there Charlie is hot hot hot.
In the States, to Congdon, he says: "Sometimes I wouldn't mind giving it all up and just being a beach bum."
Charles Williams wrote in a definitive way about used car lots, drive-up restaurants, motels, gun shops, loafing, sex with women you don't trust, inhaling cigarettes on chilly mornings, loneliness, inadequacy, fear and dread.
He wrote a great deal about dread.
So Orson Welles, through this lawyer he had, buys this book of Charlie's and says he's going to make it into a film. Now Charlie had had several films made, but the idea was that Welles's standing and taste would be sufficient to expect that the film would be good. High hopes. Well, it did get made, but not all of it.
Jeanne Moreau, who was in the film, she said she'd seen early rushes and thought the film was a good one, but that Orson still wanted to tinker with it. And you heard on the talk shows from time to time about how more parts of it are getting made and soon now it will be done. But it was never released.
"You see why I wake up this way? It's a dream I have.
"I'm sitting there in the car watching her come out of that last bank and swing toward me across the sidewalk in the sun with the coppery hair shining and that tantalizing smile of Suzie's on her face and all that unhampered Suzie running loose inside that summer dress, seeing her and thinking that in only a few minutes we'll be in the apartment with the blinds drawn, in the semigloom, with a small overnight bag open on the floor beside the bed with $120,000 in fat bundles of currency inside it and maybe one nylon stocking, a sheer nylon, dropped by someone who didn't care where it fell ...
"And then in this dream she waves three fingers of her left hand and saunters on down the street, past me, and she's gone, and I'm trapped in a car in traffic at high noon in the middle of a city of 400,000, where two hundred cops are just waiting for me to step out on the street so they can spot me. I wake up.
—A Touch of Death
In the early 1970s, his wife died of cancer. Charles Williams bought some land up on the border between California and Oregon and went there to live in a trailer. Alone.
"He'd call and he'd sound depressed," Congdon says, "and I'd say, 'Charlie, you sound really depressed, why don't you get out of there?'
"It rained all that winter and he didn't write much, couldn't get a new book going. Charlie felt that once decent weather came along, living close to the river where he could fish, that things would work out. But there were complications about building a house, so he sold the property and moved down to Los Angeles."
"Charlie worked on some screenplay with Nona Tyson, a friend, who was Steven Spielberg's assistant and secretary. Her support seemed to help Charlie start working again. He finished Man on a Leash and things looked as if they were going to be fine after all."
Charlie had one child, a daughter named Alison, and Williams was proud of her because she was especially bright.
"It was very strange," Congdon says. "So cold and purposeful. One morning I'm sitting in my office and I get a letter from Charlie and it says that by the time I read this, he'll have killed himself, which is exactly what he did.
"I couldn't tell you why, not for sure, and I would rather not speculate on it.
"Charlie was a smooth and polished writer, and he worked so hard on his books. He deserved more attention to his work in the United States, particularly in the film studios. He had the misfortune of writing suspense novels at a time when the public didn't seem to have as much interest in the genre."
Charles Williams wrote in a definitive way about pretty women, the way dust motes tumble in the sunlight, how pink a kitten's tongue is, how booze tastes when you're angry, how booze tastes when you're sad, and how booze tastes when you're alone in the woods and not thinking of anything special at all.
But mostly, Charles Williams wrote in a definitive way about all of us—brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, people unremarkable in any overt way, just fearful people finally, floating on daydreams and obstinate hope before the final darkness.