Sunday 31 May 2020

A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

One thing that distinguishes Charles Williams and makes him such a favourite of mine is the sheer originality of his plotting.

He specialises in compelling stories that don't fit into the usual recognisable templates of the crime novel.

And part of his approach is to propel his protagonist into a lethal situation which he, and the reader, don't fully understand. 
Surviving the story will require working out what is going on and unravelling the mystery.
However, in A Touch of Death (also published as Mix Me a Redhead) it has to be said that understanding the situation is not going to be much help to our hero...

Lee Scarborough is an ex-college football player down on his luck. Like Jerry Forbes in The Concrete Flamingo he meets a beautiful woman who decides she has a place for him in a crooked scheme of hers.

But in this case the lovely and nefarious woman, Diana James, turns out to be merely a warm-up act, so to speak, for an even lovelier and more nefarious woman glorying in the name Madelon Butler.

Madelon is "Brunette, with a magnolia complexion and big, smoky-looking eyes."

Effectively Williams is giving us two femmes fatale here for the price of one.

Diana James enlists our hero's help in a plot which is, essentially, to rob a thief. She tells Lee that Madelon Butler murdered her husband and got away with it.

Madelon's husband was a banker who'd apparently embezzled $120,000 (a lot of money in 1953, when this was written), planning to run off with another woman — Diana James.

Now the larcenous husband has gone missing ("he had vanished like a wisp of smoke" ) and Diana is sure Madelon worked out what was going on, murdered him, and kept the money, which she still has in her house...

So Diana sends Lee to steal it. What could possibly go wrong? 

Just about everything, as it happens. Because nothing in this set-up is quite what it seems, and soon the reader is experiencing agonising suspense.

And Lee is crawling along the ground trying to avoid being shot by a mysterious sniper: "I could feel the cross hairs of a telescope sight crawling all over me like long-legged spiders."

I mentioned that this is an early book by Charles Williams, published in 1953, and it has some minor flaws that would soon vanish from his writing, 

Chiefly these consist of some unconvincing hardboiled dialogue from our hero ("I like my women warm to the touch. And not quite so deadly with a gun").

But Williams's gift for sharp, amusing dialogue is also emphatically present. Particularly after Madelon and Lee team up, albeit reluctantly.

When Madelon makes a reference to Homer's Odyssey and Lee doesn't get it, she says, "I guess they haven't made a comic book of it yet."

Lee is seriously out of his depth with Madelon Butler, and not just in the discussion of literature. 

He finds himself assaulting a cop, dodging police road blocks, and generally feeling such tension that he's afraid his "head would blow up like a hand grenade."

And there is no escape from the situation. "This thing was like a swamp. Every time you moved, you sank into it a little deeper."

A Touch of Death is a gruelling, harrowing noir tale that hurtles towards an unforgettable, darkly sardonic conclusion.

This is the fifth novel I've read by Charles Williams and I am impressed at how different all of them have been.

I can't wait for the next one.

(Image credits: The lovely blue Gold Medal cover which I used for my main image is from Good Reads, as are the other covers, with the following exceptions... The Hard Case Crime US edition is courtesy of Charles Ardai, the man behind Hard Case. Many thanks, Charles! The French Gallimard Carré Noir paperback with the rather unhappy man's face and the pigeon is from Librairie Dialogues. The Gallimard paperback with the Gallic looking guy in a scarf smoking a ciggie is from Scylla. The standard Série Noire edition with the black cover and yellow type is from Rakuten. The yellow and black French hardcover is from eBay. The Cassell Crime Connoisseur hard cover, retitled Mix Yourself a Redhead, is from Ipernity. The Pan edition, also Mix Yourself a Redhead is from Amazon.)

Sunday 24 May 2020

Dial M for Murder by Frederick Knott

Dial M for Murder isn't considered to be one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movies, but I loved it, and it's now one of my favourites.

Because while it's true this may not be great Hitchcock, Dial M for Murder is a great stage play — a masterpiece of suspense and surprise — and Hitchcock did a fine job of adapting it to the screen.

The play was written by Frederick Knott and it is considered one of the all time great stage thrillers, listed by Ira Levin in Deathtrap as being up there with Sleuth and Angel Street (aka Gaslight) — and, I should add, Deathtrap itself.

Not to mention Agatha Christie's masterpieces, The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution and Go Back for Murder.

I've been making a study of these classic theatrical thrillers and Dial M for Murder was next on my list. I'm looking to get a copy to read, but meanwhile I wanted to see Hitchcock's film, so I ordered the Blu-Ray.

The movie was originally released in 3D and indeed the Blu-Ray had a 3D option — if I had all the appropriate kit (I don't). 

But, more importantly, it had a very useful documentary detailing the origins of Dial M for Murder.

I'd always thought it was an American play and had originated on Broadway. Far from it...

Frederick Knott was a British writer who had worked for Hammer Films and the 'M' in the title stands for Maida Vale, a London suburb where the BBC has long had studios — highly appropriate. 

Because Dial M for Murder began its long life as television play on the BBC TV anthology series Sunday Night Theatre in March 1952. 

Apparently Knott had originally written it for the stage, but it had been "turned down by seven London producers." More fools, they.

Within three months of appearing on television, the play was on stage at the Westminster Theatre in London — and four months later it was on Broadway.

Dial M for Murder was a smash hit (what morons those seven producers were) and by 1954 it was being filmed by Hitchcock. 

Nice going, Frederick Knott. (And screw you, Seven Stupid Producers.)

It's difficult to discuss too much about Dial M without revealing the fantastic, twisting snake's-nest of a plot devised by Knott (a perfect name for this writer, by the way).

Essentially, though, it's the story of a love triangle — Tony, a former professional tennis player is married to the wealthy Sheila. But she is in love with Max, a crime writer.

But very little is what it seems as Frederick Knott unleashes a serpentine series of plot twists involving blackmail, murder, a deadly phone call, a crucially important housekey and a miscarriage of justice...

Which will take both Max the crime writer and Inspector Hubbard the cop to puzzle it out.

Or to put it differently, it's the story of a perfect murder which almost succeeds...

When I wasn't squirming with suspense, I was laughing out loud with pleasure.

Although the trappings of Hitchcock's film (for instance, the phoney back-projection) are dated, the essential story remains fresh and powerful. 

And Hitchcock's approach with successful plays was to do the very minimum to make them filmic... essentially he wanted to preserve the nature of the stage experience.

A very smart move, because Frederick Knott's play is simply brilliant.

Knott would go on to write very little else — notably two other suspense thrillers for the stage, Write Me a Murder in 1960 and Wait Until Dark, another massive hit, in 1966.

I remember the movie of Wait Until Dark scaring the heck out of me on TV when I was a little kid.

I may have to watch that next.

(Image credits: The retro airbrushed looking poster of the telephone dial with the bloody fingerprint — my favourite — is apparently a modern specimen by Clark Orr and is from Pinterest. The genuinely vintage 1950s posters are from Etsy ("Is that you, darling?") and Heritage Auctions ("Better let it ring"). The vintage blue horizontal poster is from Amazon. The silhouette of Hitchcock with the phone dial on him is designed by Monster Planet and is from Redbubble. The red poster with the hanging phone is from eBay UK. The French poster (entitled "The Crime Was Almost Perfect") with the blue key is from Original Film Art. The other French poster is from the Official Alfred Hitchcock Facebook page. The Italian poster is also from Original Film Art. The poster by Suzanne Powers (red stain on a grey background) is from Fine Art America. The pale blue theatre poster is from Bygone Theatre. The purple poster is from Ten Blade Media.)

Sunday 17 May 2020

Twilight by Robert Benton and Richard Russo

Like a lot of people these days I am curating my own personal film festival. 

My approach is to listen to interviews with directors who particularly interest me, archived on the DGA's invaluable website. These are often terrific, deep-dive interviews that last for several fascinating hours.

It's an approach that is leading to the discovery of some real gems, none of them more wonderful than this 1998 detective thriller by Robert Benton.

Benton started out in movies as a screenwriter — he co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde. 

And then went on to direct Bad Company, The Late Show, Kramer vs Kramer, Places in the Heart...

And Twilight. Not to be confused with a series of teen-favourite movies about vampires and werewolves moping around the Pacific Northwest.

No, this Twilight was entirely the creation of Robert Benton and Richard Russo. Russo had written a novel called Nobody's Fool which Benton had filmed, starring Paul Newman. 

The novelist did some work on that script and Benton enjoyed collaborating so much that he sat down with Russo to dream up a private eye tale set in Los Angeles, a sort of modern day film noir.

And, my word, were they successful.

I don't know how I missed Twilight when it came out, but it's an absolute beauty of a movie. Dark, sardonic, funny and thrilling, it pushes all the right buttons.

And it begins with one of the most perfectly formed brief anecdotes I've ever seen in a film. 

We meet ex-cop and private eye Harry Ross (Paul Newman) in Puerto Vallarta where he has come to bring home runaway teenager Mel Ames (Reese Witherspoon, never more beguiling).

Mel is down in Mexico with her deadbeat boyfriend Jeff (a magnificently dodgy Liv Schreiber).

Jeff is not very pleased to have their idyll interrupted by a middle aged detective. There's a scuffle, a gun goes off and...

Well, suffice to say, the entire premise of the ensuing story is set up here, beautifully and efficiently.

It's a story that will involve Mel's parents, Hollywood power couple Jack (Gene Hackman) and Catherine (Susan Sarandon). Mr and Mrs Ames are both movie stars, though now somewhat in decline.

Beside the swimming pool of their stunning mansion, Catherine tells Harry that she and her husband are broke. Harry is having none of it. "I'm broke," he says. "You're over extended."

And not just financially. Jack and Catherine are out of their depth in a rising tide of blackmail and murder. And it's Harry's task to save them.

Complicated somewhat by the fact that Jack is Harry's best friend, but Harry's in love with Catherine.

In no time at all Harry is being shot at and arrested, as he tries to work out who is doing what to whom and why.

This is a classic detective tale, immaculately fashioned and deeply satisfying. Also, very funny, with priceless supporting performances by Stockard Channing as a cop and James Garner as another private eye.

Twilight may not have the stature of say, Chinatown or Night Moves. But it's certainly worth including in the same discussion. 

And it's wonderfully, richly enjoyable, with luminous photography by Piotr Sobocinski and an enticing score by Elmer Bernstein.

In fact, I think I'll go and listen to Bernstein's music now.

(Image credits: The white English language poster is from Imp Awards. The black and white photo of Newman with the gun is by Lorey Sebastian and, along with the black poster is from IMDB. Reese Witherspoon with Newman out of focus in the background is from Zimbio. The Spanish poster and all the other images are from the extremely useful Movie Screen Shots.)

Sunday 10 May 2020

Stain of Suspicion by Charles Williams

Hurray. Another addictive suspense novel from the masterful Charles Williams.

Like The Sailcloth Shroud it throws a sympathetic character into an inexplicably deadly situation. 

This is one of the things that makes Williams's books so clever. The lethal menace makes the story a thriller, while our hero's attempts to find its source makes it simultaneously a mystery.

And, as with The Sailcloth Shroud, the satisfying explanation turns out to be a plausible and ingenious crime, lurking under the surface of recent events.

Bill Chatham is a disillusioned ex cop from San Francisco who is driving to start a new life in Florida when he gets into a minor collision in a small town in the north of the state.

The damage to his car means he will be stranded there for three days while it's repaired. They will prove to be a very eventful three days...

What ensues is a brilliantly engineered story as Chatham is caught up in the persecution of a young widow who runs the motel where he is staying. 
Georgia Langston is the victim of vicious local gossip — the original title of the book was the ironic Talk of the Town — not to mention a systematic campaign of harassment.

The locals believe she killed her husband and got away with it. Chatham believes differently and sets out to clear her name.

And almost ends up getting killed himself. More than once.

The blazing heat of smalltown Florida is acutely evoked: "Shadows were like ink in the white sunlight."

The anonymous voice muttering obscenities over the phone to Georgia Langston is  "like something crawling across your bare flesh in a swamp."
And the pressure is starting to tell on Georgia. "One of these days she was going to come apart like a dropped plate."

But not if Chatham can help it. And his interference is resented by those who really did kill Georgia's husband. 

Soon he is the victim of a near lethal ambush and watching his blood flow out onto the dry ground in "little tapping drops of red."

Chatham isn't as subtle as he might be in his investigation — he's "about as hard to keep track of as a moose in a phone booth" according to one sardonic observer.

And he finds himself up against the head of the local police, Kelly Redfield, a good cop going bad under some mysterious intolerable pressure: "Somewhere inside Redfield a bunch of mice were eating the insulation off his nerves."

But the real villain is someone else entirely, someone so driven by greed that they're  fundamentally nothing " but an elemental force, a sort of disembodied and symbolic act of devouring."

I don't want to give the secret away, so I won't say anything else, except that you might like to check out this taut, gratifying and superbly written tale.

(Image credits: The British Pan paperbacks are scanned by me from my own copies. The British Cassell hardcover is from LW Currey. The Mysterious Press eBook edition and the French Folio Policier are from Good Reads. The French Gallimard Serie Noire is from Amazon USA. The front and back cover of the Dell Talk of the Town are from Flickr. The Pocket Book edition with impressively irrelevant cover art by George Alvara is from Ipernity.)

Sunday 3 May 2020

My Top Ten Crime Novels

A Facebook friend issued me a challenge this week to come up with my top ten favourite crime novels.

I immediately broke the rules of the challenge — I was supposed to post the cover of one book per day, and pass the challenge on to someone else. I didn't.

But I did come up with a top ten list which I thought I'd share with you...

I have imposed some rules of my own — keep it down to ten, and only one novel per author, otherwise at least half the writers on this list would have had multiple titles. So here we go:

Raymond Chandler — The Big Sleep. Certainly the Howard Hawks movie starring Bogart and Bacall didn't hurt this novel's prospects, but it was always a clear winner. The opening sequence where Marlowe meets General Sternwood in the greenhouse is unforgettable.

Agatha Christie — Murder in Retrospect (aka Five Little Pigs). This is not only a brilliantly clever whodunnit, it is also beautifully written with powerfully realistic and complex characterisation. And it is easily the finest of the many Christies I've read so far. Its only weakness is the silly title which invokes an irrelevant nursery rhyme. Hence my preference for the American Murder in Retrospect.

Dick Francis — Enquiry. I've read a lot of Dick Francis but this was the first and it remains most vivid in my memory, not least for the brilliant description of the hero's love interest, and the incredibly harrowing sequence where he almost gets chopped in half by a train.

Dashiell Hammett — The Maltese Falcon. If I had to choose just one crime novel as the greatest of them all, this would be it. It's coming up for a hundred years old but still feels fresh, sharp, modern and deeply cynical. Again, the great Bogart movie (directed by John Huston) does no harm to its reputation. This is the book that gave us the private eye novel as we know it.

Thomas Harris — Red Dragon. If Hammett created the private eye novel, this is the book that introduced serial killers and profilers into the literature and into the language. Before Harris did his research, no one had heard of any such things. After this book — and its sequel The Silence of the Lambs — they were suddenly tropes, with literally thousands of imitators. Astoundingly well written. Harris is a genius.

Ira Levin — A Kiss Before Dying. A masterpiece of suspense literature by one of the best writers in this (or any) genre, featuring one of the most ingenious narrative tricks ever devised for a crime novel. The psychopathic killer at the heart of the story is both unforgettably evoked and cunningly concealed from the reader. Levin moved on to writing classics of supernatural horror (Rosemary's Baby) and science fiction (The Stepford Wives) but he would return to pure crime and suspense for his late gem Sliver.

John D. MacDonald — The Drowner. I've read something like sixty novels by John D. MacDonald and I think there was only one dud in the whole bunch. A truly extraordinarily gifted writer, he's largely forgotten today but his influence lives on in the work of Thomas Harris, who has modelled his superlative prose style at least in part on MacDonald's and also in the work of Stephen King, who is influenced by MacDonald's subject matter, notably in this book.

Philip MacDonald — X v Rex (aka Mystery of the Dead Police). A serial killer novel before the term existed (1933). Philip MacDonald was a master craftsman who wrote dozens of crime novels under his own name but used a pseudonym ('Martin Porlock') for this one, perhaps because it was so darkly outrageous. It's the tale of a psychopath who decides to begin killing policemen at random... Terrifyingly modern.

Charles Willeford — Miami Blues. Ah, Charles Willeford. In a list of writers who are no strangers to dark humour, Willeford is the darkest and funniest. Labouring in the world of cheap paperback fiction he had been writing extraordinary, indelible novels for years (like Pick Up). This was his breakthrough to the big(ger) time, about a Miami cop called Hoke Mosely who would become his series character.

Charles Williams — The Sailcloth Shroud. Williams is a recent discovery of mine, and he immediately ranks with the best. This is a characteristic story of an innocent man caught up in murderous machinations and being hunted by both the police and the bad guys. Beautifully written, occasionally hilarious, and tremendously suspenseful.

(Image credits: The Maltese Falcon is from Facsimile Dust Jackets. The Big Sleep is from the same site. A Kiss Before Dying ditto. X v Rex? You guessed it. The hardcover of Murder in Retrospect? Yup. However, the Dell paperback is from Good Reads. Enquiry is from JW Hubbers' excellent Dick Francis site. The Corgi paperback of Red Dragon is from Good Reads. The Ballantine paperback of Miami Blues is also from Good Reads. The Drowner is also from there. The Sailcloth Shroud is my own scan of my own copy. The Spanish edition of X v Rex is from the fine Tipping My Fedora site.)