Friday, May 27, 2011

Forgotten Books: Eternal Fire -- Calder Willingham

In 1964 I picked this off the spinner rack for some reason or other. Maybe I liked the title. Anyway, I'm sure I didn't know what a treat I was in for.

It's a long and complicated tale of murder, love, sex, and treachery in the deep south. Randolph Sudderland Shepherdson III is rich, happy, and engaged to Laurie Mae Lytle, a beautiful schoolteacher. Well, Randy isn't really rich. He hasn't yet come into his full inheritance, which is due on his marriage. Unfortunately, his guardian, Judge Ball, has already spent most of the money, so he has to come up with a way to prevent the marriage.

The way he decides upon involves a man named Harry Diadem. Harry is 25 years old and has had his way with (so far) 603 women (Harry keeps good records). The judge wants him to make Laurie number 604.

Throw into this mix a religious, alcoholic, incestuous cop, a dwarf with super strength, a blackmailer, a woman named Sugar Dolly, and a great courtroom scene. The result is a hilarious send-up of Southern Gothic fiction by a masterly writer. Willingham might be better known for his Oscar nominations as a scriptwriter (The Graduate, Little Big Man), but nobody interested in good fiction should pass up his novels.


  1. Anonymous8:09 AM

    Can't believe I never heard of this one.

    OK, it's been ordered. I love the internet.


  2. "A dwarf with super-strength," that's enough for me. I've ordered it!

  3. I, too, read this in the 60s, and that cover is so familiar that it had to be the same edition I bought. It's just ridiculously entertaining, and I've never really forgotten it. My copy got lost in a move somewhere along the way. A year or so ago I found a h/c reprint published by Donald I. Fine in 1987 and snapped it up for a buck. Now I'm looking forward to rereading it. Hope your FFB piece will encourage others to seek out this terrific book.

  4. I still have the one I bought off the spinner rack. Couldn't part with it.

  5. My two favorite non-crime writers are Calder Willingham and William March. The complete works of both are on my bookshelves in my office -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc., are down in the basement somewhere.

    I loved ETERNAL FIRE. Also PROVIDENCE ISLAND. And TO EAT A PEACH has to be the greatest title for a sexy novel ever...though I believe it was retitled THE GIRL IN DOGWOOD CABIN for the reprint, and that's not bad, either. Great funny ending about a guy who finally beds his dream girl.

  6. I've been Meaning To read END AS A MAN for about 30 years, so RSN. And I guess this one, too.

  7. Terry Burns2:56 AM

    I was working in the Rome, Georgia public library in 1968. The director told me to pull the book from the shelves for a while. A teacher had told his junior high students about the book, and had named some of the real people on whom the characters were modeled. He said I don't need parents upset when they see what their kids are reading. Being a high school student, I figured I should read it. I still don't know who the actual people were.

  8. Would be fun to know, I'll bet.