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.)

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