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.)

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