Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Tuesday 16 August 2011

The Big Bite by Charles Williams (Pan G342) (1960)

When John Harlan's pro football career is ended by a car crash that leaves the other driver dead, he needs to find an alternative source of income. An unlikely opportunity presents itself a few months later when a man called Purvis, who claims to be an investigator working for the dead driver's insurance company, pays him a visit. Purvis suggests to Harlan that the car crash which ended his career may not have been an accident and points him in the direction of the dead driver's widow. She turns out to be a seemingly cool and definitely attractive young woman who may well have something to hide, and Harlan discovers that whilst one career has ended, another career as a shakedown artist may be beckoning. However, Harlan also subsequently discovers several obstacles in his way, obstacles far more threatening than those he previously encountered on the football field...

Charles Williams' Wikipedia entry notes that 'He is regarded by critics as one of the finest suspense novelists of the 1950s and 1960s' and I'd certainly agree with this statement.

This 1956 novel is often relegated to the second division of his works, possibly due to a payoff that isn't quite consistent with what has come before it (although I find its bleakly fatalist sting supremely satisfying). However, this is still a beautifully paced, taut and well-written piece of work that draws the reader in from the first page and doesn't loosen its grip until the end.

Williams was first and foremost a great writer. His ability to nail a character in one pithy sentence is exemplified by this description of the rumpled and seedy Purvis: 'His clothes looked as if he dressed by jumping into them from the top of a stepladder', but he also possesses a keen eye for social observation and a similarly keen ear for dialogue that both defines character, keeps the plot running at a rapid clip and adds a little twist or nuance to keep the characters from falling into stereotype or caricature. This, in turn, imparts a greater psychological depth further distinguishes him from many of his less sophisticated thick-ear generic imitators who plied their trade at the time (although I have also been known to be partial to more traditional thick-ear generic fare from time to time).

The sense of time and place, from the seedy locations inhabited by the lowlife chancers to the upscale residences occupied by the seemingly respectable characters is also similarly well-evoked, so that the end result is a satisfying slab of prime-cut 50s fiction and one that is highly recommended.

VERDICT: Toothsome!

AFTERWORD: Almost all the Charles Williams novels I've read have been well-written and rewarding reads and he's one writer whom I wish had written more before his untimely death by his own hand in 1975. Some prefer his novels set at sea to his land-based works, whilst others prefer his earthier backwoods tales. Either way, try any of his novels and I defy you not to be hooked enough to come back for more. And, for me, that's the mark of a great writer.