“It’s men, I tell you. They never should let ’em out alone.”
River Girl is the third novel I’ve read by American crime author Charles Williams, and it’s the best of the three. I didn’t think I’d find one that topped Hell Hath No Fury, so when I tell you that River Girl, published in 1951, soars to the number one spot for Charles Williams novels read so far, then that should give you an idea of just how good this tidy, desperate, dark noir novel is. Told initially in a laid-back style by the amoral narrator, Deputy Jack Marshall, the story’s pace picks up, increasing its tone of claustrophobic desperation as Jack’s life spins out of control.
The story is set in a small, corrupt town run by Sheriff Buford, a confident ladies’ man who holds the political and economic reins on the region. This means that nothing much happens there without Buford knowing, approving, and having a piece of the pie. The problem is that Buford doesn’t like to get those lily-whites dirty–that’s where his deputy, Jack Marshall, our narrator, comes in. Jack Marshall, the son of a deceased judge, is useful to Buford, and most of his usefulness comes from the fact that while Jack is intelligent, he doesn’t rock the boat. He takes the path of “least resistance,” so he doesn’t challenge Buford’s authority or corruption, but neither is he particularly motivated by money. He skims along on the surface of his life, not wanting to examine anything too closely, and as a result, he complies with Buford’s demands, accepting the back door deals, the bribes and the sly winks as people look the other way–even if he doesn’t particularly like it. On a personal level, Jack’s marriage to Louise is strained, full of bitter recriminations and arguments. If Jack looked at his life closely, he’d wonder how the hell he got to this point, so rather than struggle against the position he finds himself in, he goes along with all the moral compromises, giving in at every turn to Louise’s demands and Buford’s iron-fisted control of the town.
The small town corruption exists on every level, and you can draw a direct line of complicity from the whorehouse, to the bank, and then to the sheriff’s office. Buford has that air of congenial bonhomie that masks the cunning, vicious mind of a slick predator. Jack may be amoral but Buford is evil. With a little more ambition, and a little more hunger for money, perhaps Jack could be Buford. Here’s Jack weighing up his boss:
He took out a cigar and lit it, then removed it from his mouth and looked at it in the manner of a man who loves good cigars. He’s an odd one, I thought, a queer mixture, and not somebody I’d want to tangle with unless I had to. That nineteenth century courtliness fronted for a lot of toughness you could see sometimes looking out at you from behind noncommittal eyes.
Even though Sheriff Buford is as corrupt as hell, he’s repeatedly re-elected by the constituents who know that he’s rotten to the core. This is due partly to the fact that the women love him, and the men want to be like him. It’s also due to the fact that everyone who counts–except the local preacher, Soames, likes the way Buford runs things. The big dilemma presented almost immediately is that Soames is preaching against some of the town’s shadier establishments, and with a grand jury investigation on the horizon, Buford wants everyone to keep a low profile until the trouble blows over. Buford, who gets a generous kickback from the local whorehouse run by tart-mouthed madam, Abbie Bell, isn’t too happy then when he gets a call that some drunk customer at the whorehouse has gone postal. This incident illustrates how Jack is the fix-it/clean up guy for Buford’s seedier deals. Since the bank president owns the building in which the whorehouse operates, it’s ostensibly a “hotel,” with a high turn over of girls and customers. Abbie believes that if “they’re old enough to give it away, they’re old enough to sell” themselves–no one asks questions about underage customers or teen prostitutes, and that way there are no uncomfortable answers. It’s a system that works for everyone but is never openly acknowledged. Here’s Abbie’s response to Jack when he tells her that ‘her girls’ need to keep a low profile until the investigation is over:
“I know, I know. I’ve heard enough about it. Look, Jack, I try to keep those lousy high-school punks out of here, but Jesus, I can’t watch the door every minute. I don’t want ’em anymore than Buford does. I’d rather have a skin rash. They smell of a cork and they’re drunk, like that dumb bunny. And they never have a crying dollar on ’em–all they want to do is to feel up al the girls and then go out chasing their lousy jail bait.”
The book opens on a day that is a turning point for Jack. We see him at home with Louise, his grasping, naggy, perpetually unsatisfied wife whose ambitions far exceed her husband’s salary. She’s one of those women who don’t mind that their husbands are mixed up in shady deals, but they do mind that there’s not more money in it for them to blow. Longing to be upper-middle-class with all the trappings of the fur-clad bourgeoisie wives, Louise isn’t fussy where the money comes from, just as long as it gushes her way. Louise thinks she’s better than the prostitutes that work in the local whorehouse, but she has no problem spending the money these women earned the hard way. After plunging Jack into debt with the purchase of a new car, Louise wants to hang out at the beach with her more affluent friends and she needs money. She harangues Jack about collecting money from the whorehouse, but then bitches at the prospect of having to live on his salary alone. Nagging, complaining and bitching until she wears him down, Jack tosses Louise the money he collected from Abbie Bell just to shut his wife up:
“Here,” I said, tossing it. “There’s a hundred and twenty-five in there.” It landed on the bed next to her naked midriff. Well, it’s gone full circle, I thought. That’s where it came from–a girl on a bed.
Disgusted with his job, and frustrated with his wife’s endless demands, Jack goes fishing, travelling deeper into swamp country than he usually goes, and here he meets Doris a mysterious woman who’s living in a primitive hut and who appears to be in hiding….
Caught between the two powerful personalities of his wife Louise and Buford, Jack Marshall is already ensnared in a nasty situation when the book begins, and he seeks to dis-entangle himself but only becomes increasingly caught in a web of intrigue. As a noir anti-hero, motivated by desire for a woman, he tries to escape to a better life, and while he tries to use fate to his advantage, instead fate takes him for a hellish ride, tricking him at every crossroads into thinking that he has choices… that he has a chance when we know he does not.
While River Girl is a fantastic, tense, atmospheric story, the book is also packed full of fully-fleshed characters and dialogue that sounds so real, you hear the characters speaking. Naturally, and you know this is coming, there’s a femme fatale in these pages, but it’s not who you thought it would be–nonetheless, she’s here, a duplicitous, destructive, expensive beauty with a heady need for excitement and thrills. There’s the sense that we know exactly how this town works with its dirty deals and all the so-called ‘nice’ people looking the other way until things get so out-of-control that someone has to be reeled in and thrown out of town. There’s a moment when Jack has to deal with an underage prostitute, and for a moment, he is disgusted with himself. Yet the novel allows for no sentimentality as we read just how Jack manipulates this teenage girl and facilitates her on her desperate road to corruption and self-destruction. One of the story’s sad ironies is that Jack hates his life but lacks the motivation to do anything about it, and then when he acquires the motivation, his method of reinvention is flawed and tarred by the life he’s led. It’s too late for Jack; he just doesn’t know it yet. Jack’s struggle becomes his excruciating battle against fate–a fight that he can’t win and one that will take him full circle as he descends into “some frightening and deadly spiral”
I was conscious of the horrible sensation that I wasn’t just walking in circles in space and time, but that I was actually swinging around the steep black sides of some enormous whirlpool and sliding always towards the center.