What a pleasure — discovering an outstanding crime novelist who looks destined to become a favourite of mine.
I was already aware of Charles Williams, primarily through two films that were made from his books, The Hot Spot and Dead Calm. But he wasn't exactly on my radar. He is now.
When I happened upon a vintage copy of his novel The Concrete Flamingo on eBay (US title: All the Way) I was immediately taken with the striking cover art and tempted to give it a try...
What clinched the deal for me was discovering that the novel was the basis for a rare and obscure film noir that I love — The Third Voice, directed by Hubert Cornfield.
So I ordered the book, and the day after it arrived I'd devoured it...
But even before then I was scouring the web for other copies of his books.
Charles Williams is an excellent novelist. He can write with great economy and understated beauty — "We sat forward under the canopy to avoid the tatters of spray as the Blue Runner knifed into the light ground-swell."
The Blue Runner is of course a boat. Williams, like John D. MacDonald, wrote a lot about boats and the sea. And, like MacDonald, he uses Florida as his setting here.
Most of The Concrete Flamingo takes place on land, however — although a dead man's body ends up deep in the ocean: "in the gloom and the everlasting silence, with his chest crushed by the pressure."
These vivid observations come from Jerry Forbes, a cynical, intelligent drifter who is possessed of an "elastic conscience."
Jerry finds himself targeted by a femme fatale called Marian Forsyth who has a use for him — he's the critical element in a wicked scheme she's dreamed up.
It is Jerry's great misfortune that he falls for Marian. But then, who wouldn't?
Marian is superbly evoked. "The blue eyes were coolly satirical... she was unbelievably exciting.... the slender patrician face with the long lashes like soot against the skin."
Dealing with her, Jerry feels like "an oaf at a county fair." Eventually, when she succumbs to his advances, she does so in "rather the way you'd buy a potato peeler from a salesman to get rid of him."
Nonetheless, Jerry falls for Marian so hard that he goes along with her scheme not for the $75,000 she's offering him (a tidy fortune in 1958) but because he loves her.
The poor fool. The poor noir fool.
Actually, "femme fatale" sells Marian short. She is a woman scorned. (In fact one of Williams's other novels is entitled Hell Hath No Fury — that's the one that became The Hot Spot).
Marian's plan is one of vengeance against the wealthy man who has dumped her for a younger, more beautiful woman — a scheming little gold digger.
Marian wittily describes this usurper in piratical terms: "I could see the cutlass between her teeth as she came over the rail."
The Concrete Flamingo is sharply funny, but it's also sharply tragic. Because the scheme Jerry finds himself inexorably caught up in is not just one of robbery. It's also murder.
Marian has a plan to take all of her former lover's money — and also his life. And it's a breathtakingly ingenious plan. "It all fitted perfectly, like the stones in an Inca wall."
This is a terrifyingly suspenseful story; almost unbearably gripping.
And even though it's a conspiracy to commit coldblooded murder, the reader can't help being swept up in admiration and fascination as the plan comes together, and hope against hope that none of those perfectly fitting stones in that Inca wall come loose...
You can expect posts on other Charles Williams novels soon.
And also on the movie The Third Voice, if I can bring myself to buy one of the slightly dodgy looking DVD-Rs that are for sale...
(Image credits: The front and back cover of the Pan edition are scanned by me from my own, now treasured, copy. The British hardcover, the eBook and the rather groovy Italian edition are from Good Reads. The front cover of the US Dell edition All the Way is from NoirBoiled Notes. The back cover is from this eBay listing. The Third Voice poster is from Pinterest. The Third Voice lobby card is from Movie Mem.)