Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Charles Williams Part Two

The following article is part two of the Charles Williams overview. It's by Ed Lynskey who's new novel BLUE CHEER is receiving raves around the world. He is also an excellent writer of short stories. This originallly appered on Allan Guthrie's Noir Originals website.

Part Two

Other current crime writers agree Williams was a superior writer given short shrift. "Williams was at least as good as his more well-known contemporaries if not always better." Country noir author Daniel Woodrell in a 1994 NYTBR referred to the "under-appreciated Charles Williams." Jason Starr, a young noir writer, has declared Williams was an early influence. Charles Williams is well thought of and eagerly discussed by members on Bill Denton’s rara-avis list.

Ed Gorman has noted that "Williams was quiet and possessed of a melancholy that imbued each of his tales with a kind of glum decorum." His wife since 1939, Lasca, died of cancer in the early 1970s. This provided the biographical backdrop for Williams’ final book. Nona Tyson, an assistant to Steve Spielberg and who’d also helped out on The Hot Spot script, drew Williams out of his funk to finish Leash for 1973 publication. Encouraged, the author relocated to the Pacific Northwest but loneliness, lousy health, and soupy elements made it no go. He was unable to polish off the next manuscript, returned to LA, dejected. In 1975, he committed suicide. Understandably, details were not forthcoming from his agent or immediate family. No full-length study on the man or the writer is available.

Does Leash, then, reveal something new developing in Williams' vision? Yes, I believe it does.

It was brought out by G. P. Putnam under the Red Mask Mystery imprint that also included such authors as Martin Cruz Smith, Thomas B. Dewey, Michael Z. Lewin, Leslie Edgley, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and Lillian O’Donnell. Coincidentally, short story writer Jack Ritchie published a short fiction in the December 1958 issue of AHMM by the same title. As Bill Crider has correctly suggested, Leash was "not up to Williams’ Gold Medal novels." Ed Gorman also considers Williams "was probably at his best in his books set at sea."

Still, Leash, as Williams’ final foray in print, presents some intriguing themes and revealing insights. It clocks in at his usual Gold Medal 55,000-60,000 word limit. Its similarity with his Gold Medal output ends there, however. Roughly speaking, Williams divided his settings into sea capers (Dead Calm, The Sailcloth Shroud, Scorpion Reef) and rumbles in the sticks (Big City Girl, Hell Hath No Fury, and Hill Girl). Leash, at least for the first half, straddles its emphasis on both these settings.

The protagonist, Eric Romstead, a 36-year-old resident of San Francisco, returns to the Nevada desert town of Coleville to investigate his father’s brutal murder. Captain Gunnar Romstead, a merchant marine captain, has been shot execution-style and dumped at a landfill. Eric’s vengeful quest is to hunt down his father’s assassins while making peace with a father-son rift driven by mutually fierce, independent personalities.

Father and son have rousing maritime exploits, only not shared. Gunnar performed a daring rescue at sea and ran supplies in enemy waters during World War Two. Eric, an accomplished sailor, has a boat dealership in the Caribbean, a cover for his CIA activities. Despite their strong ties to the sea referred to throughout the novel, the bigtop drama is played out in a desert town. Eric first regards it while at his father’s gravesite: "It was full daylight now, the sky washed with pink and gold above the waste of flinty hills and desert scrub to the east, while to the westward the thrusting escarpments of the Sierra stood out sharply in the clear desert air."

Leash is very much a male-centric plot. Father and son, as it were, are tested in this desert town. Both are kidnapped and square off the same nemesis, an electronics wizard, who demands a hefty ransom each time. In fact, the sea has brought them this trouble set in motion by Gunnar's arrest of a man smuggling heroin aboard his vessel. Williams strives to establish an order in this arid, desolate landscape and is not wholly successful. He seems more at ease in employing such settings as seaport cities like San Francisco or the rural South of his youth (birthplace is San Angelo, Texas).

The novel’s second portion relies on lots of technical description of explosives and electronics to build suspense and establish expertise, preceding Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers by almost a decade. Here the prose is concrete, tactile, and muscular: "He gestured toward the confused litter on Brubaker’s desk, the still bloody and dust-smeared automatic, his own statement, now typed out and signed, and half a dozen of the scorched aluminum tubes, a hand-written letter and some more papers, and a flat plastic bag of heroin."

Mileage is computed. Boat specs are given. Eric sums up the novel’s evil deed: "Having somebody by the balls is not just an expression." Williams brings in the D.B. Cooper caper (a man parachuting out of a Boeing 727 at 10,000 feet with a satchel of money) to underscore his own bad guy’s MO. The nifty, nasty device is remindful of one used by villains in a Richard S. Prather paperback. Enough said. I don’t want to be a spoiler.

Lee Horsely has written eloquently on Williams’ vibrant, complex femme fatale, particularly in his mid-1950s Gold Medal titles. Leash deviates from this standard. The female characters are pretty much reduced to flat or stock characters. Eric’s girlfriend in San Francisco, Mayo, waits around for his return, making perfunctory appearances at the book's start and ending. Paulette Carmody, a wealthy divorcee who teams up with Eric out in the desert, essentially embodies the 1970s version of a tough, wise-cracking dame.

One thing not missing from Leash is Williams' trenchant humor. He studs the prose with great one liners ("long as a whore’s dream," "needing younger and younger girls to get it off the runway," "he had a fist like a twelve pound frozen ham" ). There are nice turns of phrase ("in the boundless hush his shoes made little plopping sounds"). And how about this wonderful zinger: "I'll kiss your ass at half time in the Rose Bowl"? Furthermore, Williams' descriptions and characterization do not suffer in this Mojave Desert setting he tries out for size. Finally, the climax in Leash unwinds in typical Williams' taut yet restrained fashion.

What novels Charles Williams may've produced in the 1970s is, of course, speculative and perhaps it is a bit indulgent to guess. Leash suggests an attempt to reach beyond the hardboiled/noir comfort zones he'd erected in the 1950s into the late 1960s. While perhaps not a turning point in the author’s output, it reads more like a modern suspense novel than a traditional hardboiled book. References are made to the CIA and FBI. Pet phrases like "chauvinist pig" are used. Women are minor players to elevate the men to near-hero status. Still, the Williams hallmarks remain intact. The story is vigorously told; the action sequences are clean and crisp; the mystery plot is built line by line. Eric Rumstead becomes a sympathetic main character.

You don't come away with the impression after reading the novel that the author was tapped out or penning his swan song. In sum, the man on a leash, was not Charles Williams. He was well on his way to adapting to the times.

Copyright© 2003 Ed Lynskey


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