Sunday 5 April 2020

The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams

Isn't a book an amazing thing? You can fit one into your pocket and, whenever you want, take it out and open it and be plunged into another existence... 

In this case, into an existence that will have your heart pounding the way mine's pounding now. Because Rogers has just escaped the bad guys.

Okay, let's back up a little. Rogers is Stuart Rogers. The time is 1959 and the place is Southport, North Carolina. Rogers has brought a sailing boat he's purchased back from Panama, to renovate and resell.

Rogers is the hero of a novel — a truly brilliant novel of suspense — The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams, a new favourite author of mine whom I discovered with a book called The Concrete Flamingo.

And Rogers is indeed a hero, not like the protagonist of The Concrete Flamingo who was a doomed anti-hero. Although there's a pretty good chance Rogers is doomed, too...

When the police turn up at the boatyard where he is working on his vessel, he assumes they're after an "exuberant type off the shrimp boat" nearby. 

But, no, they have questions about the man who helped Rogers sail up from Panama, and who died of a heart attack en route.

And that's not all. They take him to the police morgue where, among the "grisly filing cabinets of a city's unclaimed and anonymous dead," Rogers is shown the third member of his crew.

"If you had any breakfast, better hang onto it," the cops tell him. The man has been brutally beaten to death and dumped into the water off a pier, his body washed to the surface by the propellers of a docking ship.

And so begins a nightmare ordeal for Rogers, as he tries to avoid ending up as dead as the other two. The police want to know what's going on and advise Rogers to tell them, "before you wind up in an alley with the cats looking at you."

The trouble is, Rogers doesn't know what's going on. And soon he's on the run — from both the police and the bad guys — in a race against time, trying to find out. 
Before he ends up, terminally, in that alley with those cats. "It was a weird sensation, and a scary one, being hunted," he reflects.

The Sailcloth Shroud is ingeniously plotted and magnificently well written. Talking to a policeman who gives nothing back is "like pouring information into a hole in the ground." And Rogers feels "a quick ruffling of anger" — presumably like wind on still water.

Water, and boats, feature potently in Williams's prose: "the surface of the bay burned like molten glass in the sun... It had rained during the afternoon, a slashing tropical downpour that drummed along the deck and pocked the surface of the water... I stared out at the water with its hundred gradations of colour from bottle green to indigo."

The Sailcloth Shroud is a beautifully written and elegantly intertwined blend of mystery and thriller. And it's utterly agonising when the bad guys close in on Rogers.

I won't give you any spoilers, but the mystery here has a fascinating and satisfying solution and the book features a violent and cathartic climax which is powerfully evoked.

Perhaps, like Rogers, you will find "it would be a long time before I forgot the horror of that moment."
Another marvellous book by Charles Williams. You can expect to hear more from me about this masterful writer.

(Image credits:The grey Pan 'handcuffs' cover, front and back, are scans by me of my own beloved copy. The yellow Pocket Books 7756, with its misleading cover painting by Stanley Borack — sailing hunk, bikini chick — is from a nice scan by Wunderstump from their eBay listing. The red Dell D410 and the Italian Longanesi edition Mai Dire Mai ('Never Say Never') are from Good Reads. The French edition, Péri en Mer ('Lost at Sea' or 'Perished at Sea') is from Le-Livre on ABE. The white cover paperback — 'Harper Suspense' — is from Amazon UK. The Viking hardcover front cover is from Waverly Books' eBay listing. The spread dustjacket of that edition is from Antiqbooks. The English hardcover ('Crime Connoisseur') originated on ABE but the link, like so many characters in this story, is now dead...)

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