Friday, July 11, 2014

FFB: A Touch of Death -- Charles Williams

You want femmes fatales?  Charles Williams has you covered.  Not all his books feature fatal women, but quite a few of them do.  One of those is A Touch of Death, which I believe is the first book of his that I read.  I read the second Gold Medal printing, and I was so taken with it that I went out and got all the other Williams titles I could find.  And eventually I found several other printings of A Touch of Death, along with the British paperback, which was titled Mix Yourself a Redhead.  

I've never understood why Williams never developed the reputation that some of the other GM authors did.  He did a lot of things really well, and yet his books never got the acclaim they deserved.  He had quite a range, too. He could write comedy as well as tense noir tales, and his sea novels were excellent.  I said a few words about some of these things in this blog post for Mystery*File.

But back to the fatal femme of this post.   Madelon Butler is her name, and when she encounters down-on-his-luck former pro athlete named Lee Scarborough, little does he know what he's in for.  It's a complicated caper, having to do with a dead husband, big bucks, and several other people who want in on the action.  Scarborough always thinks he's one step ahead of Butler, who appears to him to be just a drunk and, after all, a woman.  He narrates the story in first person, so we discover along with him [SPOILER ALERT] how wrong he is.[END SPOILER ALERT]

We're a bit into James M. Cain territory here, and while I don't want to give away too much of the ending, I'll just say that Scarborough's final words are quite chilling.  

This is the novel that Charles Ardai choose to reprint in the Hard Case Crime series, so it's a lot easier to find than it used to be, which is a nice thing for anybody who's interested in femmes fatales.


Ray Garraty said...

Williams has a small cult following, his PBOs and - especially - hardcovers are not common and not cheap, and still for a wider audience he's almost unknown.
I read all of his books prior to this one, and he's a brilliant writer.

Unknown said...

I agree, Ray. One of the best.

Anonymous said...

Nice coincidence. I was going to review this exact bnook today too, but remembered I was halfway through Lawrence Block's MONA so decided to do that one instead.

Good choice.


Anonymous said...

Pan reprinted several of Williams's titles in England but I never saw that one.


Unknown said...

I have a couple of the Pan editions. The covers are . . . not great.

Ed Gorman said...

You're right, Bill. Williams deserved a fame he never got. Maybe it's because the old truism really is true--at some point you have to have a stroke of luck. Another reason (maybe) is that he never developed (or wanted to) a series character.

And then there were his protagonists. They were out of James M. Cain and only Cain ever succeeded in selling that kind of introspective, melancholy, violent type of man. A number of Williams' men seemed fated to their to failures by sheer inertia--they could pull back so many times but they never do.

The essence of noir of course but as with Cain Williams was in your face with this kind of fatalism. When you look at most pbo noir protagonists there's at least a modicum of the traditional hero in them. But not in most Williams. End sermon.

Unknown said...

As usual, Ed, you're absolutely right. Scarborough has several chances to pull back, but every time he thinks he's still just a bit ahead of Butler or the cops and that he can still pull it off. He's wrong, of course, like so many of Williams' protagonists.

Lawrence Block said...

One problem Williams had was his name. Not that it was bland—it was no blander than Jim Thompson—but because he shared it with a couple of other writers, and nobody could keep them straight. (Well, I suppose somebody could. But a lot of people couldn't.)

Unknown said...

The other Charles Williams that I know about was a writer in the C. S. Lewis circle. His work had a lot more religion in it than the GM Charles Williams' books. Too bad the GM Williams didn't take up a pen name.