Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Charles Williams

The following article will appear in two parts. 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 Oiginals website.

Charles Williams: More Than A Slight Return

True story. In Summer 2002, I checked out the only Charles Williams novel found in my public library’s holdings, Man on a Leash. Some months later, I went back to recheck it out. No soap. The book (Williams’ last novel) had been taken out of circulation. An ex libris. Well, well. This anecdote illustrates to me how Charles William’s oeuvre has fast disappeared from today’s crime fiction radar. However, his fine works hardly deserve returning to their pulp origins in the form of recycled paper.

My oblique introduction to Charles Williams came years ago watching The Pink Jungle, a 1968 offbeat romance-adventure B-flick starring James Garner, George Kennedy, and Eva Renzi. Williams was credited as the screenplay writer. Adapted from Alan A. Williams’ novel, Snake Water, Williams managed to put in some snappy, quirky dialogue, especially Kennedy and Garner’s exchanges. The movie’s documentation is archived today with Director Delbert Mann’s papers at his alma mater, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. I just have to wonder if Williams, who had a wry contempt for Hollywood, left any squibs inked on the back of a script or memo.

Despite having launched his writing career in the early 1950s with Gold Medal (who also published other hardboiled luminaries such as Jim Thompson and Gil Brewer), Charles Williams wasn’t nominated for an Edgar until 1972 (Best Paperback Original for And the Deep Blue Sea). Instead, I Charge More For Murder by Frank McAuliffe captured the honors. And yet, at the peak of his creative powers, Williams wrote Hill Girl (1951) which sold an astonishing 2.5 million copies.

But self-advertisement and self-advancement weren’t really Williams’ forte. His literary agent Don Congdon has described the former merchant marine sailor as "a hard luck kind of guy" and "genuinely modest." Willaims himself once said about writing: "Sometimes I wouldn't mind giving it all up and just being a beach bum." The dust jacket photo on Leash shows a beetle-browed, stolid-faced gentleman uncomfortable in the conservative coat and tie he’s donned for the occasion. To his friends and associates, he was known as "Charlie."

After leaving Gold Medal in the late 1950s, Williams with his agent went on to publish successful hard cover novels at Viking Press, Macmillan, Dell, and, of course, G. P. Putnam who published Leash in 1973. Williams still managed to please his most ardent admirers. The noted American mystery critic Anthony Boucher reviewed his paperbacks for NYTBR. He was also reviewed favorably in Library Journal for 1963’s Dead Calm.

However, Williams’ readership continued to dwindle. His book sales flagged. Woody Haut has proposed that Williams was unable to tailor his fiction to suit the age of protest, the 1960s. The grand golden era of the pulps had passed. The always observant Williams himself satirized the washed up pulp writer in his 1966 Don't Just Stand There: "It wasn't lack of talent, but simply a matter of early conditioning and the fact he was a little too old to adapt."

Posthumous fame for Williams has been negligible. Harold Matson, the literary agency handling the Charles Williams Estate, oversaw reprints with Simon and Schusters’ Blue Murder imprint and Harper & Row’s Perennial Library Harper Suspense line. One Williams short story, "Flight to Nowhere," first printed in September 1955’s issue of Manhunt, was collected into Maxim Jakubowski’s 1996 The Mammoth Book of Pulp Fiction anthology.

The 1989 film Dead Calm adapted from Williams’ potboiler by the same title is competent but uneven; as Washington Post critic Desson Howe has noted, the screenwriter lopped out "too much character motivation and suspense." Williams was co-credited with Nona Tyson for the screenplay adaptation of his novel Hell Hath No Fury into the 1990 movie The Hot Spot. Again, this Dennis Hopper-directed picture left many viewers unfulfilled. The RKO noirish atmosphere, as Roger Ebert observed, translated fine. Don Johnson as the lead was thought to be miscast. Hopper is said to have tinkered too much with moods and methods later fused into his bad guy role for David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Perhaps Jennifer Connelly’s buff scene is perhaps best remembered from The Hot Spot.

Maxim Jakubowski has written: "Charles Williams is still one of the most neglected authors of the paperback original Golden Age. His tales of sea, backwoods and obsession still ring for me a strong noir chord unlike any other. Yet another example of an American classic better known in Europe than in his own language." Williams’ sustained popularity overseas is puzzling. Leash was his 18th novel translated into French. Gallimard's celebrated Serie Noire printed his novels in France. At least eight Williams titles have been translated into Danish. Author Jiro Kimura notes that three Charles Williams novels appeared in Japanese. German, Spanish and Italian translations were also available. As further evidence of this paradox, Williams scripted the top-notch French film noir, Joy House, from Day Keene’s novel in 1963. Five years later, however, he wrote the U.S.-made The Pink Jungle, only an also-ran.

Parallels have been drawn between Charles Williams and the more renowned mystery novelist John D. MacDonald. For instance, Max Allan Collins has described Williams: "Though a number of major films have been made from his work, Charles Williams remains the best kept secret in (what's now being called) noir fiction. His work rivals the best of Jim Thompson, who was never the polished professional that Williams was, and he should be considered at least the near-equal of John D. MacDonald, who himself ranked Williams at the top of the Gold Medal era heap." Indeed, in an interview with Ed Gorman, John D. MacDonald said he believed Williams had been undeservedly neglected. Williams in some respects eclipsed MacDonald’s vast talent. Mario Taboada, for instance, believes Williams’ "way of maintaining tension throughout" exceeded John D.’s narrative development.



Anonymous said...

A most excellent piece by Ed Lynskey on Charles Williams. He is disgracefully forgotten here in the UK. I discovered him in 1991 when Maxim Jakubowski published Gulf Coast Girl as Scorpion Reef under the Blue Murder imprint. That was on the back of films like Dead Calm and The Hot Spot, but after years of stalking second-hand bookshops, my CW collection is only (a magnificent) seven titles.
-Mike Ripley, www.shotsmag.co.uk

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike--

He's getting very difficult to collect in the US as well. I tried to reprint him for a line of books I was editing ten years ago and the asking price was ten grand. Way way out of proportion to what you could earn back at this stage. You couldn't even break even. I may try again in the next few months. I just hope the estate is more realistic. If he got back in the spotlight again he might well be worth a good sized advance. But you have to get a few books out there first. --Ed