Hard Case Crime publications are reliably entertaining reads, and so far have been always worth acquiring. Besides novels from new writers or rediscovered works from established names, HCC has featured titles from genre authors who have been largely obscured by time. A Touch of Death by Charles Williams (1953) features an author I was unfamiliar with, despite the fact that several of his novels have been made into movies over the years. AToD was not one of them, but was definitely a deserving choice to be brought back into print by the editors of HCC.
AToD begins with the protagonist Lee, a former college athlete, attempting to sell his car to pay his mounting bills. Instead of finding the person interested in the car, he discovers femme fatale #1, who quickly ropes him into a fairly moronic burglary caper. In short, a banker has disappeared after apparently looting his employer of a substantial amount of cash, leaving a supposedly empty house available for searching. This idea stinks from the start, but poor Lee doesn’t seem to realize that (at least, his doubts are not enough to stop him). Fortunately, he’s a little better at tackling people and knocking out cops than he is figuring out the motivations of his female friends.
While rummaging around the house, he encounters femme fatale #2, the great Madelon Butler. Butler is almost blackout drunk and wallowing amongst her record collection when Lee finds her and fights off an apparent assassin. Not wanting to be on hand for a murder, Lee springs into action, saving Madelon and on a search for a safe hideout. It’s a rapid and tense beginning to the story, but things really pick up once Madelon wakes up and her relatives sniff out their hiding spot.
Lee (and therefore, we) remain in the dark about what really happened to that banker husband, and what Madelon is really up to – mostly because every other character provides vague or misdirecting answers to Lee’s questions. Despite all the confusion, the multiple settings (the house, the hideout, Lee’s apartment, etc.) are clearly depicted and all of the action is easy to follow. Lee famously tries to maintain control with some nice noir lines such as “go mix yourself a redhead,” but neither he nor f.f. #1 are in the same league as Madelon.
AToD is a fast and entertaining read, but beyond that, it feels like a gold-standard example of this kind of fiction. It is the best of my Hard Case Crime reads so far, and put me on notice for any other Charles Williams works. 9/10.