Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Touch of Death by Charles Williams (Hard Case Crime)

Since September 2009 marks the fifth anniversary of Hard Case Crime, I will be reprinting my reviews of the first 40 books from my old (and now mostly defunct) Craig's Book Club site — 2 for the first 10 days, and 1 a day for the next 20. I hope you enjoy this refresher course in the variety of crime fiction that this fascinating publisher has to offer.

"She stopped her inspection of the room to look at me, the large eyes devoid of any expression whatever. 'I'll take bourbon and plain water.'

"If she wanted ice water, I thought, all she had to do was open a vein." — from A Touch of Death

It's too bad the characters in crime novels don't read them, because then Lee Scarborough would know better than to get involved with the seductive Diana James on a get-rich-quick scheme involving an empty house and $120,000 of embezzled bank funds. Lucky for us he doesn't, though, because A Touch of Death is the best novel yet to come out of the Hard Case Crime archives.

A Touch of Death is a reprint of a 1953 novel by Charles Williams, who also wrote the books that inspired the films The Hot Spot and Dead Calm. (Orson Welles had attempted to adapt the latter novel, but that film was never finished.)

Ex-college football star Lee Scarborough is just looking to sell his car for some much needed cash when he runs across Diana James on a visit to a potential buyer. Something about her topless sunbathing makes him ignore what he came for, but the mention of an easy sixty grand sharply focuses his attention. It seems Diana knows where the money is and wants Lee to go look for it — somewhere in the embezzler's house — and split the proceeds.

The widow, Madelon Butler, is expected to be away for a few days, so it should be a piece of cake. Soon, Lee finds himself rummaging through the house in question — whereupon he runs smack dab into Madelon Butler! So he does the only thing he can think of to do, given the situation. What happens from then on is a complex melange of twists and turns that results one of the most shocking (yet completely organic) endings I've come across. This is one you'll be reading into the night.

Williams writes the silkiest prose I've ever come across. I slipped into A Touch of Death's combination of sex, scissors, and shady simoleons — with not one but two femmes fatales — like a warm oil bath. I usually take notes while reading in order to jot down specific details to include in my reviews, but this novel had me gripped from its first sentence. It didn't let go until I was fully swept up in its nightmarish ending like something out of Poe. And all told with such ease and confidence that it feels like it could have been written in one sitting, though I know it takes a lot of effort to make it look like that.

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