Lots of books are described as "gripping" and "spellbinding." Many are said to be a "page-turner." Usually I enjoy such books, but do not literally feel forced to keep turning the pages. But I did while reading Dead Calm by Charles Williams.
Williams creates a wrenching dilemma for newlyweds John and Rae Ingram, who are taking their honeymoon on a sailboat in the South Pacific. They rescue a young man in a dinghy who says he has abandoned a sinking sailboat on which his wife and another couple died of food poisoning.
John rows to the other boat to investigate and finds all is not as the young man said. Meanwhile his wife, alone with the young man on their boat, discovers he is not as he seems. Options are limited since they are on sailboats, and, as the title suggests, there's no wind.
Williams turns this puzzle into suspense that really is "gripping" by having John and Rae think through their situations and try solutions only to be faced with new puzzles. He makes these characters real by including their emotions and ethics in the solutions they come up with.
I recall seeing the film based on this movie when it played in theaters in 1989. With Sam Neil and Nicole Kidman as the newlyweds, it got some rave reviews. The director and screenwriter made some changes in the story, as is routine. However all their changes were for the purpose of inserting horrifying sequences full of graphic violence. There is none in the story. I do not recommend the film.
I wouldn't recommend reading A Touch of Death and River Girl back-to-back. The similarities in these two fine novels by Charles Williams make it hard to appreciate their striking differences.
In both novels our hero winds up in a stolen car with a beautiful woman and a wad of ill-gotten cash, driving country roads, on the run from police. Williams writes these chapters well, but I had a sense of deja vu.
But they are very different stories.
In River Girl, the man falls in love with a woman and scrounges enough cash so they can run away together. In A Touch of Death the man starts out needing cash, and accidentally winds up on the run with a beautiful woman he he hates .
Rick Ollerman recommends A Touch of Death as "superbly crafted." He's right. It is tightly plotted without feeling clockwork, suspenseful without feeling melodramatic, and noir with being grotesque.
Ollerman says River Girl contains a lot of superfluous description. It does. I have to assume better editing would have made a masterpiece on par with A Touch of Death instead of merely very good.
Nothing in Her Way by Charles Williams tells the story of multiple confidence games, perpetrated for the purpose of revenge. It's like The Sting (the great film with Paul Newman and Robert Redford) but much more complicated. And, like The Usual Suspects, which deceives the audience, this book deceives the reader, but does so several times.
Also, perhaps surprisingly for a book written in 1953, the plot is driven by a woman who is smart, strong, and determined. Not a femme fatale, she's comparable to the character played by Barbara Harris in Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot. The story is told in the first person by her partner in crime, who scrambles to keep up, as does the character played by Bruce Dern in Family Plot.
River Girl is simple and straight-forward by comparison. A man dissatisfied with his life becomes obsessed with "another woman" and creates a scheme to run away with her. The story consists of all the things that go wrong and his struggles to keep his scheme going. The suspense is among the best I've read.
As I read these novels, I was thrilled to discover an author comparable to Cornell Woolrich and James M. Cain. The I read the introduction by Rick Ollerman included in this volume from Stark House Books and saw that Anthony Boucher made the same comparison in his review of Williams's Hell Hath No Fury.
Ollerman's introduction is an excellent way to discover this author who, as many have said, ranks with the best mid-century crime writers but never achieved the same recognition as Woolrich, Cain, Highsmith, and others. Possibly this is because none of the film adaptations of his books was as high-profile as Rear Window (Woolrich), Double Indemnity (Cain), or Strangers on a Train (Highsmith).
Charles Williams wrote crime novels first published as paperback originals in the 1950s. He shares that distinction with Jim Thompson, Robert Block, John D. MacDonald, and Elmore Leonard, among others. Unlike those writers he never became a household name.
I became aware of Williams when I read Bill Crider's article on paperback originals and saw his name on Crider's checklist of lesser-known author's worth reading. Crider's comment, "Anything by Williams is good," sent me to my libraries but I did not find him in the catalogs.
Amazon pointed me to this volume of two novels by Williams. Crider mentions both as being among Williams's best. I've started Nothing in Her Way and am enjoying the lean storytelling and conversational style typical of the writers mentioned above.
On page one, our hero is approached in a bar by a man who seems to be running a scam. A moment later, we're not sure who is scamming whom. Then the man's partner in crime walks in and it's . . . No. I won't spoil that for you.
I ordered this paperback from Stark House Press, which specializes in reprinting vintage genre fiction. Along with the two novels, it includes an introduction of about 15,000 words by Rick Ollerman. I've read only the first few pages, but it looks very good.