Charles Williams (1909-1975), one of the masters of the 1950s paperback original, has gone through a long period of neglect, probably more read in translation on the Continent than in English. So it is great to have this new edition of two of his early works from those very nice people at Stark House Press. The first book in the volume is Nothing in Her Way, a complex story of gamblers and con artists that begins with a seemingly chance encounter in a New Orleans bar …
I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge, Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog and Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here);
“The only catch was that her name wasn’t Miss Holman. I was reasonably sure of that. I’d known her for twenty-three years, and I’d been married to her for two.”
This is the great zinger at the end of the opening chapter, in which Mike Belen realises that the partner in a potential scam he is being roped into is actually his ex-wife, a woman he has known since childhood when their fathers were in business together. This in fact is a major part of the plot that involves a two-part revenge scenario. Both Mike and Cathy (the real name of his ex-wife) were friends since childhood when their fathers ran a company undertaking large engineering projects in Central America. This all ended in tears 16 years earlier when the two men were ruined and sent to jail after being set up by two of their partners, Goodwin and Lachlan. After all these years Cathy, who never gave up hope unlike Mike (which is why they split), has found them both and so of course he falls in with her scheme.
“You can make an honest woman of me sometime when we’re not busy.”
To do it she is now in league with ‘Prince Charlie’, one of the best con artists around. The plan is for Mike to arrive in a small town in the desert and slowly but surely lure Goodwin, who now runs the local bank, into a plot that will ultimately see him divested of most of his cash. Williams is very smart as he withholds crucial information about the scam for as long as possible to keep it a surprise – just in time though to see it fall apart with Mike left holding the bag – has he, like his father, been hung out to dry by his partners? Has Cathy (they may be divorced but still have the hots for each other) just been used to confuse him? And just how far will she got to get her way? And who is the feeble, stick-thin man Donnelly, who keeps finding and threatening her – is he a villain or just another victim?
“The sidewalk ended abruptly, as if it had got scared and quit when it saw the desert”
At the halfway mark Mike tries walks away from it all but Cathy persuades him back into the fold to finish their revenge. But as the title suggests, being a good femme fatale she is smarter, tougher and more single-minded than anyone else though certainly not trustworthy. So, who will win in this tale of double, triple and quadruple cross? Beyond the enjoyable circumlocutions of the story, Williams proves again and again what a fine prose stylist he was and this also plays a big part in pushing the book along – also, the sequence where Mike thinks all is lost and is stuck in a motel room with nowhere to go is a very fine bit of suspense writing.
“I’m off to betray you, darling,” she said.
The second part of the story takes place in San Francisco and deals with a race track scam not that different from the one featured twenty years later in The Sting. Mike and Cathy try to hook Lachlan with a system that can apparently fix the results of horse races but of course there is danger on the horizon, not least from Charlie’s confererate Bolton, who tried to pull a fast one at the end of the their previous scam and ended up with nothing – will he stay out of the picture? And what about Donnelly, the thin man who keeps turning up like a bad penny? Plus Mike is getting little conscience pangs too. Unlike Cathy, who is an expert on confidence games and bunco artists and loves the thrill of it, he’s just a gambler who occasionally gets a winning streak but doesn’t really want to steal from anyone, even people who really deserve it. This novel may lack the insane but distinctive darkness of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters say, but is still a truly superior example of the crime genre as Williams expertly juggles his characters to keep readers well and truly on their toes. Hard to believe this was just his fifth book.
“The best of all the Gold Medal writers” – Ed Gorman in The Big Book of Noir
Williams today is probably only really remembered, ‘at large’ as it were, for the movies adapted from his thrillers such as Nicole Kidman’s breakthrough film Dead Calm (1989) and Dennis Hopper’s steamy The Hot Spot (1990). But Williams was a prolific writer many of whose works were adapted for the screen, sometimes even by him. Much of this ground is covered in the very detailed introduction by Rick Ollerman that really enriches this volume from Stark House Press, who very kindly let me have this review copy. It comes together with Williams’ earlier book River Girl and is available directly from them and from all the usual online outlets – here are the details
Nothing in Her Way / River Girl
By Charles Williams
ISBN: 978-1-933586-63-2 (paperback), 328 pages, $19.95
In 1963 the novel was adapted into the French comedy Peau de banane, released a couple of years later in the US as Banana Peel. Jeanne Moreau plays Cathy while Jean-Paul Belmondo is Mike (now renamed Michel), who instead of an itinerant gambler is now a jazz musician. Gert Frobe, later to play the title role in Goldfinger, is the heavy of the piece, Lachlan, here renamed Lachard. For the most part the plot is followed very closely though it’;s the tone that has been altered. But if the idea of turning the story into a comedy seems odd (in one sequence Moreau even stops to sing Ward Swingle’s title song, ‘Embrasse-Moi’), it’s worth remembering that Williams himself also wrote several comedic books (e.g. The Diamond Bikini) and that caper stories usually lend themselves to a light approach.
Many of the film’s critics gave up keeping up with the various scams anyway and instead just succumbed in to the charm and star power of its two leads. Marcel Ophüls, son of Max and later the director of such celebrated documentaries as The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus, may seem like rather odd casting, but he was making his debut and makes a perfectly fair job of juggling the comedy and drama, which also has the benefit of attractive locations in the South of France. Shame it’s not very easy to get in a decent English-friendly edition …
DVD availability: A version dubbed into English can be found in the US but is of poor quality, sourced from an old VHS. There is a much better version available in France but sadly there are no subtitles for those who don’t speak French.
Banana Peel / Peau de banane (1963)
Director: Marcel Ophüls
Producer: Paul-Edmond Decharme
Screenplay: Daniel Boulanger, Marcel Ophüls, Claude Sautet
Cinematography: Jean Rabier
Art Direction: Georges Wakhévitch
Music: Ward Swingle
Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Gert Frobe, Paulette Dubost, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Claude Brasseur, Alain Cuny
I submit this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘crime other than murder’ category: