Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Charles Williams' Nothing in Her Way

Charles K. Williams (1909-1975) was an American pulp crime writer. He wrote twenty-two novels. The 1960 novel Fires of Youth was published under his name but he did not write it. He sometimes gets confused with the other Charles Williams, an English writer who was part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Inklings circle.

Nothing in Her Way, published by Gold Medal in 1953, is a book about a confidence trick. I just love crime novels dealing with conmen and con tricks. And this novel deals with a whole series of fascinating confidence tricks.

It all starts when the protagonist/narrator, Mike Belen, runs into his ex-wife Cathy. This happens while a conman is trying to persuade Mike to fall for the oldest con in the book. Mike and Cathy have quite a history. They knew each other when they were little kids. And there’s a weird bond between them. While they were still kids Mike’s father was swindled by a man named Lachlan and ended up in gaol. Mike and Cathy swore they’d get revenge one day. Kids make such promises but these two have never forgotten that childhood pledge. It’s been an obsession with them. Especially for Cathy. Now Cathy tells Mike that the time has come. She knows where Lachlan is and she has a fool-proof plan.

But this con can only work if they have a lot of money to play with. Cathy has that figured out as well. They will first pull another confidence trick, on a man who was one of Lachlan’s accomplices.

They’re going to have a couple of accomplices themselves. One will be Wolford Charles, one of the sharpest bunco artists around. The other is a mysterious guy named Bolton.

Then Donnelly steps into the picture. He’s a gangster type and he claims that Cathy owes him money but won’t pay. This worries Mike but doesn’t seem to bother Cathy.

The plot comprises two incredibly complex cons plus minor cons plus countless double-crosses. No-one knows how much anyone else knows. No-one knows if anyone else can be trusted. No-one knows what their partners’ motivations are.

There aren’t just double-crosses. There are triple-crosses and quadruple-crosses. There are devious schemes hidden inside other devious schemes. Williams provides us not just with plot twists, but with genuinely unexpected plot twists. There’s plenty of misdirection.

There’s not much action. There’s some, but these are non-violent criminals. Conmen don’t wander about with guns. They rely on their wits rather than on muscle or firepower. And the conmen in this story know how to think on their feet. No matter what kind of jam they get into they figure they can talk their way out of it.

The plotting is so tight and the plot twists are so good, and the suspense is so effective, that Williams is able to resist the temptation to throw in superfluous gunplay and fistfights. This story doesn’t need them.

The story builds to a very satisfying conclusion.

Cathy has plenty of femme fatale qualities. She can twist men around her little finger. She’s been doing that to Mike for years. Even when he knows what she’s up to she can still manipulate him. And she always has her own agenda. She is not however merely an evil spider woman. She’s the best kind of femme fatale - you can never be sure if she’ll turn out to be a good girl or a bad girl, or maybe both. Mike has known her for twenty-three years and he still can’t figure her out.

Mike is an interesting character as well. He’s not quite a crook and he’s not quite an innocent dupe. He doesn’t mind doing things that are illegal but he has to be able to justify his actions to himself, under his own particular moral code. Now he’s in a situation where he’s walking a tightrope, doing criminal things whilst trying not to succumb entirely to the lure of easy money through crime.

Even the minor characters have some complexity. Mike isn’t sure what to make of Bolton or of Donnelly and the reader also isn’t sure about them. They might be what they seem to be, or they might not. They might be genuine bad guys, or they might not.

Intricate and skilful plotting, ingenious confidence tricks, characters with some depth, taut suspense - what more could you want? Highly recommended.

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