Man on the Run, by Charles Williams

I’ve been coming across several examples of the “man on the run from a murder scene” crime fiction trope lately:

A much longer list is posted here, and that one makes no claims to be comprehensive. The reasons why this plot device is popular are easy to see: it creates a path to build suspense toward the ending, there’s always an obvious reason to push the action, and most readers can sympathize with the predicament of being accused of doing something, especially if it’s something they did not do. Of course, there is the obligatory back-story that must be filled in somehow; in two of the listed examples, the author bought some time by having his “man on the run” afflicted with amnesia by drugs or alcohol.

Charles Williams’ 1958 novel Man on the Run is another example of this setup, starting at the moment a man fleeing police capture jumps off a moving train. Like the characters with missing memories of the novels in my list, there is uncertainty as to what evens led up to his running away from the police — leaving us enough time to consider the possibility of his guilt. Like any good crime story, MotR quickly gives us the opportunity to gauge a character’s emotional situation against the framework of his society’s accepted values.

williams man on the run

Mysterious Press electronic edition. mysteriouspress.com

The man on the run, Foley, is of course running for his life; but we soon learn he believes himself to be innocent of a murder, and wants to try to clear his name. In fact, he has jumped off of the train relatively close to where the murder occurred, a fictional port city called Sanport. The social value system working against him is, of course, the public’s contempt for a suspected cop-killer.

After Foley makes his way into a cabin, he hears the conversation of two policemen on his trail:

“Come out of there, Foley!” Roy ordered. There was a moment of complete silence, and then he said, “Let me have your flashlight.”

“Take it easy, will you?” the other replied. “He’s already killed one cop; one more ain’t going to bother him.”

“We got to see in there.”

“Christ—”

“Stand clear.” There was another instant of tense silence, and then Roy’s voice said, “He’s gone. But he’s been here. See all that water on the floor?”

“Yeah.”

The voices dropped to whispers. “He went on into the house through that door. Run around and cover the front. I’m goin’ in.”

“Hadn’t we better call in for help?”

“Help, hell. I’ll get the cop-murderin’ bastard.”

MotR is told in the first person, yet it was not Foley but the police who first inform us of the crime. Foley’s point of view encourages empathy, but the root source of his troubles is unclear for much of the book. We do know from the beginning that Foley operates “one minute at a time” out of his need for survival, now that the public believes him to be a criminal. Morality as a social construct is no longer a source of guidance for him.

Williams’ policemen do not stick around long enough to find Foley, and leave the cabin in an act that’s somewhere between cowardice and sloppiness. Foley recovers a bit and finds out that he has made himself a guest of a writer named Suzy Patton. When she arrives, she does not leave the garage, and Foley finds her unconscious behind her running car, presumably about to die from the carbon monoxide. Foley rescues her and carries her inside, and after she wakes up they negotiate.

“Don’t get tough,” I told her. “I’m not going to hurt you, but I’ll tie you up if I have to.”

“What do you expect to gain by that?”

“Time. If I can hide out long enough, they may think I’ve got away, and I can get out.”

She had clear gray eyes that didn’t seem to be afraid of much of anything. “That’s a stupid procedure. Why don’t you give yourself up?”

“I’d get life. Or the electric chair. Cut it out.”

“They’ll catch you sooner or later. You know that.”

“I’m not trying to make any long-range plans,” I said coldly. “They’re after me, and if they get me it’s going to be rugged. I’m operating one minute at a time. When I’ve used up this minute, I’ll start on the next one.”

“And in the meantime you’re going to add a charge of kidnaping to make it worse?”

“It doesn’t get any worse,” I said.

“So you intend to stay here?”

“That’s right.”

She sighed. “Well, could I get my purse out of the car? Or is that against the rules?”

Foley’s desperation is never really narrated by Williams; instead, we get a clear reading of his emotional state through his actions, but especially his dialogue. Suzy Patton is a “has-been writer,” in her own terms, afflicted with boredom, writer’s block and — most acutely — loneliness. Foley is never sure whether he saved her from a fatal accident or a suicide attempt, but she decides to help him out of either sympathy or gratitude.

 

The story proceeds as a fairly standard detective yarn, with Foley tracking down the culprits and Suzy sheltering him or driving him around Sanport. Another killing occurs in the course of the story, and the police remain on Foley’s tail — there are uniformly convinced of his guilt. The drama of the original crime is eventually revealed, having something to do with port activity and police corruption. Foley is actually a sailor with the merchant marine, but we don’t get meaningfully exposed to his professional life. Instead it’s an explanation as to why he’s led a relatively honest life while remaining on the fringes of society: he’s been at sea most of the time.

MotR is not a terribly sophisticated book, but it reads fast and is undeniably entertaining. Suzy Patton is really the most interesting character in it, and we see Williams’ acknowledgement of this fact in the final chapter … a writer’s farewell to Foley. This one is above average, but my continued interest in Charles Williams is on the strength of his A Touch of Death, a psychologically deeper and more twisted crime story. 6/10.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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3 Responses to Man on the Run, by Charles Williams

  1. fredfitch says:

    I keep meaning to read some Williams. I saw The Hot Spot, the film he and Dennis Hopper made out of Hell Hath No Fury. I get the feeling he’s–interesting.

    You might want to try Deadline At Dawn, Cornell Woolrich’s 1944 novel, published under his William Irish pseudonym. (Also a movie, but not a very good one). Unusual variation on the theme. I won’t explain why, you’ll pick up on it soon enough. Nobody should need to be told Woolrich was interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pete says:

      I read Woolrich’s I Married A Dead Man some years ago. That was an interesting read. Of course, his Hard Case Crime entry is in my collection and will hopefully be featured here someday.

      As for Williams, he is another author whose books have made a return to availability via the e-reader format. So far I have only read this one and A Touch of Death but I can recommend both of them, especially the latter.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Woolrich has his weaknesses, but he writes very well from a woman’s perspective, based on that one I recommended. Williams, maybe not so much. I wouldn’t know. Yet.

        Let me see–man fleeing a murder scene– he can be guilty or not guilty–how about one where he’s guilty and not guilty, then guilty again? And even worse, he’s in Philly. In the wintertime. Black Friday, by David Goodis. Not evailable (they are being damn slow with Goodis), but cheap copies are to be had.

        Like

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