One of the joys of reading American crime fiction is that it gives you an exaggerated version of the seedier side of American life. The characters are usually men who start drinking in the morning. Individualists who live in small towns. Real old school Americans who can live outdoors and do jobs with their hands. Beautiful women driven by lust and love for money. Not some Hollywood crap about yuppies or Mark Zuckerberg. The lives of these hard men and wild women really drives the imagination of a conformist middle class square like me.
Bad crime fiction writers fill their books with meaningless twists and pay little attention to detail. There are many bad crime fiction writers. Charles Williams books usually have complicated plots filled with some ingenious con jobs. But more importantly he pays attention to detail. And this is why he is one of my favorite writers of crime fiction.
Apart from two ingenious con jobs, âNothing in Her Wayâ has some fine chapters where the tortured hero Mike Belen goes to live in a dusty small town called Wyecross. His life in the small town while he carries out a con job made me love this book more than anything.
Here is the hero Mike Belenâs first impression of Wyecross:
âWyecross was a bleak little town lost in the desert like a handful of childrenâs toys dropped and scattered along the highway.â
âWhen I began to see the sand, I knew I was almost there. Beyond the rusty strands of barbed wire, it stretched away toward the horizon on both sides of the highway in desolate and wind-ruffled dunes, with only a tumbleweed or gaunt mesquite here and there to break the monotony of it. Then I could see the water tank up ahead.â
Here is how Belen, the first-person narrator describes his place of stay in Wyecross:
âIt was a small cubbyhole as bleak as a Grosz drawing. The front of it was furnished with an iron bedstead and a shaky night table and an old rocker, while at the rear there was a sink and a two-burner gas stove on a table. He (hotel manager) bent down and stuck a match to the open gas heater, which had flakes of asbestos up the back behind the flame. The asbestos turned red with heat."
Williams knew how to invoke the atmosphere in a small town:
âI awoke at dawn on Sunday, and could hear the coyotes somewhere out on the prairie. It was funny. I thought, remembering, how only two or three could sound like thirty.â
Not the sounds of cars and trucks. But wild animals.
I wish more crime fiction writers had taken a leaf out of Williamsâ book and given the reader a look around the small towns and seedy hotels inhabited by the characters.
âNothing in Her Wayâ is mostly a tale of revenge. A couple of childhood friends â Mike Belen and Cathy Dunbar hook up to take revenge on the men who destroyed the business in which both their fathers were partners.
The two con jobs â one involving land and the other involving betting on horses must surely have inspired the writer of The Sting â the Paul Newman-Robert Redford film.
Williams does go over the top at times with the twists. Belen and Cathyâs partners and pasts catch up with them quite often making parts of the book very confusing. The ending makes Belen a bit of an unusual hero. But the heroes of Williamsâ novels are usually very decent men who are world weary and are forced into ridiculous con jobs by sensual women.
The book has a great beginning at a bar. After that it is one con job after the other. Some of them on the reader.
The parts are better than the sum. There were times when I wondered what this book could have been if Williams had cut down on the twists and paid more attention to character development. Cathy Dunbar is not as intriguing as Miss Harper in The Hot Spot or Madeline Butler in A Touch of Death.
The book comes with an introduction by Rick Ollerman. But it is more of a summary of Williams novels rather than a proper introduction. Williams committed suicide after the death of his wife from cancer.