As a fan of the crime novels of Charles Williams, I’ve reviewed a few for this site, and here they are, so far, in order of preference for anyone interested:
River Girl (1951)
Big City Girl (1951)
River Girl is the story of a corrupt, married small-town deputy sheriff who gets in over his head with a woman he meets in a remote cabin. This is a tense, desperate noir novel that somehow managed to beat out Hell Hath No Fury as my favourite Williams novel so far. Hell Hath no Fury is the story a criminal who drifts into a small town, takes a job as a car salesman and cases out the local bank with plans to steal the cash and split. The main character here makes the mistake of getting mixed up with not one–but two women: Gloria Harper, the boss’s bookkeeper and Dolly, the boss’s trashy wife. Big City Girl is the story of a family of poor sharecroppers. One of the sons is in prison and Joy, his trashy wife who’s addicted to the attention of men decides to leave the city and join the family on the cotton farm. Bad idea…
With these three books, there’s a common theme: women are trouble–even if they don’t mean to be which is certainly true in the case of Doris, the woman hiding in the cabin discovered by deputy sheriff Marshall. Big City Girl and Hell Hath No Fury feature femme fatales who use men and sex to further their aims–although Hell Hath No Fury’s Dolly (played by a sultry, very naughty Virginia Madsen in the 1990 film version) wins hands down in the Evil department. And that brings me back to Hill Girl (1951) the first novel Charles Williams published. Williams saw three of his novels published that year: Hill Girl, Big City Girl, and River Girl so I’m wondering if he had a backlog of manuscripts when he was finally picked up by Gold Medal.
Then take a look at these vintage covers which certainly reinforce the idea that women are evil seductresses, but Williams is a much more sophisticated thinker than that. In his world, women, some women, use their looks and sex to move ahead in society–men after all, have the power, the wealth, and the career choices, so women use other means to gain control.
The Hill Girl of the title is a bootlegger’s daughter named Angelina, and that name seems a little ironic the first few times we see Angelina with her long honey-coloured blonde hair, more or less dressed in rags that do little to cover her figure. She’s bad-tempered, unhappy and more importantly, as we see as the plot plays out, she’s jail-bait or even worse … shotgun bait. But let’s back up a little. Hill Girl is the story of sexual obsession, two very different brothers, Lee and Bob, and the woman who comes between them. Yes, you guessed it … Angelina.
Bob, the younger son, moves back to his family’s hometown to take over and run his deceased grandfather’s farm. You’d think, initially, at least, that Bob is the black sheep of the family since the eldest son, Lee, who’s married and lives in the family home, inherited everything from his father who was known somewhat dauntingly as The Major. As the story unfolds, the ‘good son’ and the ‘bad son’ designations shift around, and we see that Bob, the younger brother, although he fought with his father and was persona non gratis in his father’s home, is actually the ‘good’ son while Lee, who inherited his entire father’s estate worth around $30,000 (Bob was left $1) and married a wonderful, kind woman named Mary, is the bad seed. He’s just smooth enough to hide his rottenness.
The book opens with Bob’s return and his auspicious, as it turns out, meeting with bootlegger Sam Harley who lives along Black Creek bottom. Then failed pro-boxer Bob returns to the family home which is now owned by Lee. Brief homecoming over, Lee drags Bob out to get some moonshine from Sam, but his real reason for going to Sam’s is Angelina. Lee lusts after the bootlegger’s daughter and there is a very tense scene with Lee bound and determined to have Angelina in spite of the threat of Sam’s shotgun. The roles of the brothers are very quickly delineated. Lee is hellbent on pursing Angelina and Bob, the only brother with a conscience, is determined to save him from being shot….
Lee, of course eventually gets his way with Angelina, and in some rather crude descriptions reveals how little he values Angelina, and as it turns out, how little he understands her. While Williams creates some fascinating female characters in his books, Angelina is the weakest-drawn character here, first she’s bad, bad, bad, and then she turns into a completely different person. Angelina first appears to be a savage, surly, empty-headed teen nymphet who is Trouble, “a sex crime looking for somebody to happen to,” but later Williams moves in on this character with generous sympathy, so we that we are now supposed to see Angelina as kind and naïve. Cooped up on the farm and kept as unpaid labour she longed for simple items such as shoes or a dress that fits, and her rebellious, self-destructive behaviour is aimed at her father and loathing of her life more than anything else. So Angelina as ‘bad,’ vanishes. While the character shift isn’t convincing, Williams shows how women are forced to operate in a world dominated by men, so there are some interesting observations on the subject of how men treat women as though they’re owned like any other possession. Here’s a scene in which Angelina wants to get her hair bobbed–something forbidden by her father:
“You’ll like hell do what you please,” I started, and then caught myself and shut up. After all, it was her hair, and Sam Harley had been telling her she couldn’t cut it all these years and trying to browbeat her, and look where he had wound up in her eyes. You couldn’t get anywhere by trying to bully her. She didn’t bully worth a damn. You might get your way if you overpowered her, but it wouldn’t be worth what you lost in the process.
This is a remarkably sensual novel with descriptions of physicality–the nature of uncontrollable sexual desire but also the joy of working hard and enjoying nature.
The days are long in April, longer in May, and longer still in June, but they are never long enough. They begin with dew on the grass and the long-legged shadows of sunrise and end with whipoorwills calling in the darkening bottoms and swallows circling and diving at dusk. And all day long, through the hot sweaty hours, the work goes on.
With Lee’s crude descriptions of Angelina’s sexual appetites, the book was no doubt ahead of its time, but now it seems dated. Stylistically, Hill Girl seems a lot less smooth than River Girl; it seems to be a much earlier novel even though they were both published in 1951. Back to that question of manuscript backlog. Definitely not the author’s best work, but fans will want to read this–although copies are not cheap.