“There’s always a warning, if you’ll listen to it. It buzzes when you’re playing cards with strangers and get an almost perfect hand.”
Nothing in Her Way, American author Charles Williams’s fifth novel is completely different from his earlier work. In common with Hill Girl, River Girl, and Hell hath no Fury, the narrator is a lone male whose life becomes complicated by a woman, but Nothing in her Way, is primarily about an elaborate con which begins when narrator, Mike Belen crosses paths, once again with his red-headed ex-wife, a knockout called Cathy. Mike had almost forgotten about Cathy, but now she’s back and once more in her presence, her former power over Mike returns. Mike acknowledges “she was a whirlpool I was trapped in,” and while he thinks he knows this woman better than anyone else, she still manages to deliver some surprises–none of them pleasant. Cold and calculating, Cathy always plays the long game.
The novel opens in New Orleans with Mike losing heavily at the track. He’s in a bar, drowning his sorrows, when he’s approached by a con artist named Charlie. Then Cathy, now using the name Elaine Holman, appears on the scene and persuades Mike to join in an elaborate con scheme which will exact revenge against a couple of old enemies. At this point, Mike isn’t sure who’s conning who here, and he’s not particularly interested in finding out. Although he and Cathy have been divorced for two years, he wants her back and against his sense of self-preservation, he finds himself going along with her scheme. It’s primal desire mixed with jealousy, and a probably unwarranted need to protect her.
It was strange, the way you couldn’t escape from the past. Or was it the past? Maybe she was the thing I could never get away from. I lit another cigarette and tried to think objectively about it.
Cathy/Elaine is part of a gang formed to con a wealthy San Francisco businessman who’s “paying chunks of alimony to two wives already and number three is getting ready to push up to the trough.” But that’s only the second stage of their Grand Plan. First they need seed money, and for that Mike, now co-opted into the plan, travels to a bleak little desert town and poses as a chemical engineer. …
To say more about the story would spoil the tale for other readers. Let’s just say that there are more twists and turns here than a bowl of spaghetti with the double crosses and the triple crosses continuing until the last page. You have to pay attention to the action as no one is playing a straight game. As I can’t say much about plot, instead I’ll give a quote about Cathy:
The thing I could never go along with was her preoccupation with confidence games. She collected them. She studied the way some people study chess, or Lee’s campaigns in the Civil War. She read everything she could find about them, and devised endless ones of her own, and always she’d lose patience with me because I couldn’t keep up any steady interest in them.
While the earlier novels from Charles Williams include a large chunk of love and lust, love–or at least a sense of deep bonding–is here too, but it’s definitely subordinate to greed. Williams shows how the con-gang reel in their marks through greed, and this involves research into the circumstances and weaknesses of their potential victims. Since part of the novel takes place in San Francisco, there’s mention of Alcatraz and San Quentin– certainly destinations on the mind of any criminal in those days:
The apartment was on the ninth floor. I stood by the big windows in the living room and looked out over the bay. It was sparkling and clear in the morning sunshine, and I could see a boat going out to Alcatraz. They’ve got a view over there too, I thought, but they don’t like it. A whole rock covered with tough guys and wisenheimers who knew more than the cops. And just beyond, out of sight up the bay, was San Quentin, where the state of California kept its smart characters who could never be caught.
While Nothing in her Way is not the author’s best novel, it’s still an excellent read and is available as a two-fer through Stark House Press. River Girl , the second novel in this volume, is vying for top place as my favourite Williams novel along with Hell Hath no Fury.