Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Charles Williams' Diamond Bikini and a question about versatility

I chose that cover of Charles Williams' The Diamond Bikini (1956) to illustrate this post because a blurb from the man who created Shell Scott is no small deal.

I'm not sure The Diamond Bikini is as good as Williams' Nothing In Her Way (1953), which I read last week, or A Touch of Death (1954), which I'm reading now. But in its way, it offers even more persuasive evidence of Williams' talent. That's because Williams shows in this book that he could write things funny, rather than just write funny things. That is, the characters can say and do funny things without appearing to know they are doing so.  My one complaint about this cover, in fact, is that it's more farcical and yuck-it-up than the story that follows.  The novel, in fact, is more Huckleberry Finn than Hee Haw.  Here's one entertaining example, spoken by the book's seven-year-old narrator in the first chapter"
"I still had my baloney sandwich in my pocket because we’d just got to the track when the Pinkertons drafted Pop and I remembered it was wrapped in a sheet of yesterday’s racing form. I hauled it out and took a bite of the baloney while I showed ’em,

"‘Now, here,’ I says, pointing to it with my finger. ‘Look at this.
Barnyard Gate (M) 105* ch.g.3, by Barnaby—Gates Ajar, by Frangi-Pangi. Dec. 5, TrP, 6f, 1:13 sy, 17, 111* 11 15, 13, 89, Str’gf’l’wG AlwM, Wo’b’g’n 119, C’r’l’ss H’s’y 112, Tr’c’le M’ff’n 114. You see? And now take a look at this workout. Fly 2 Aqu ½ft: 48 3/5 bg. A morning-glory and a dog, and if you ever put ten cents on his nose even in a two thousand claimer you got rocks in your head. He’s a front runner and a choker and even Arcaro couldn’t rate him off the pace and he always dies at the eighth pole.’

"They stopped me then, and there was hell to pay. They just wouldn’t believe I was reading it. I told ’em it was all right there, as plain as the nose on their face, that Barnyard Gate was a three-year-old chestnut gelding and had never won a race, and that he was by Barnaby out of Gates Ajar, by Frangi-Pangi, and that the last time he’d run he’d gone off at about 17-to-1 in a six-furlong Maiden Allowance at Tropical Park on December 5th with George Stringfellow up and carrying 111 pounds with the apprentice allowance claimed. The track was sloppy and the winner’s time was 1 minute and 13 seconds, and Barnyard Gate led at the start, at the half, and going into the stretch, and then had folded and come in eighth by nine lengths, and that the first three horses had been Woebegone, Careless Hussy, and Treacle Muffin. I told ’em they was the ones didn’t know how to read, and they said, ‘Well, I never!’

"That did it. They said a boy that the only thing he could read was the racing form was a disgrace to the American way of life and they was going to court and have me taken away from Pop and put in a Home. I didn’t like it, of course, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it and I just had to wait for Pop to get out of the draft.".
The Diamond Bikini shows Williams could write comedy, just as Nothing in Her Way showed he could write a beautifully convoluted con-artist story. What's especially impressive is that neither is typical of Williams' more frequent stories of a down-at-the-heels man who tries to better his lot, but only gets himself in ever deeper trouble. And that versatility suggests to me that, by God, Williams could write.  Who else is that versatile? Who among your favorite crime writers excelled at more than one kind of crime story?

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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Blogger mybillcrider said...

I remember writing a little about this book on Steve Lewis' Mystery*File some years back. I always enjoy Williams, no matter what he's writing.

February 18, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, is this the article you mean? I think that was the first connection I’d seen drawn between Williams’ book and Huckleberry Finn. I am early in my career as a Williams reader, so I have much good reading ahead. I may be due for a trip to Philadelphia’s Port Richmond Books one of these days.

February 18, 2015  
Blogger Unknown said...

This answer might be a bit off topic, but I would note that Arthur Conan Doyle worked very hard to flex his writer's muscles in different directions, especially when he had become tired of writing Holmes stories. Of course, his versatility does not add up to quality across the spectrum. Nevertheless, he deserves an honorable mention within the context of your question.

February 18, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., as it happens, Doyle and Charles Williams share a publisher: Hard Case Crime has issued one novel by each. So I am inclined to believe in Doyle's versatility. I have read a story of his set in the American West, if I recall correctly. I have also read that he thought his spiritualist writings, rather than the Holmes stories, constituted his major literary contribution.

February 18, 2015  
Blogger Paul D Brazill said...

'he could write things funny, rather than just write funny things.' Now, that's something for me to aim for.Brilliant.

February 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So brilliant that I wish I had thought of it. I think it read it first in someone's discussion of the difference between comics, who merely recite jokes, and comedians, who get to the real sense of what makes something funny.

Come to think of it, Lawrence Block says something similar about Donald Westlake, that Westlake knew it took more than jokes to write comedy.

February 20, 2015  

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