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Underground Reading: A Touch of Death by Charles Williams

A Touch of DeathThis is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime publication, one every week. You can follow along here.

A Touch of Death (2006) was first published in 1954. Like many of Charles Williams' other books, it first appeared as a Gold Medal paperback. Although commercially and critically successful during his lifetime, Williams is now almost entirely out of print - both Joe Lansdale and John D. MacDonald have referred to him as one of the most "neglected" writers of his era. (Happily, it now looks like Mysterious Press have released many of his works for the Kindle, although with covers that make them look like cheap porn.)

Lee Scarborough is a former football player in need of some fast cash. He swings by an apartment complex, hoping to sell a car, but the lead dries up. Fortunately, another opportunity awaits - Diana James (sunbathing, attractive, utterly amoral) spots a fellow spirit in Lee. A bit of fencing results (Lee thinks she's propositioning him, which, she is, but not in that way), and Diana lets Lee in on the chance of stealing $120,000. Apparently a chap named Butler got himself killed after robbing a bank. No one knows where the money is, but Diana's pretty sure that it is still in Finley's house. Diana will play driver/scout/etc. if Lee breaks in, searches the place, and steals the stolen money. Sort of a meta-crime: no one can possibly complain.

Lee needs money and it doesn't take much convincing for him to take this first step down the slippery slope of eeeeeevil. Yet - perhaps Lee doesn't go evil enough. He breaks into the Butler house (as planned) but then finds that the dead man's widow, Madelon, is still there. Lee's considering his hasty exit when someone else breaks in - someone with a gun and a grudge. Rather against his best interests, Lee winds up tackling the gunman and saving Madelon's life. She's too drunk to realise what's happening, so, Lee kidnaps her - half for her own protection, half out of blind panic. When Madelon sobers up, she and Lee are in a remote cabin... and she's pretty pissed off.

A Touch of DeathNo good dead (relatively speaking) goes unpunished. Madelon's unconvinced of Lee's role as her "saviour", and it takes two more assassins before she agrees to team up. Lee will protect her, shield her and, most importantly, hide her - in turn, she'll hand over all the money. Poor Ms. James gets a bit screwed over by the new arrangement, but, well, that's what you get as a meta-criminal.

This is all, essentially, the set-up: the first half dozen of the book's hundreds of twists. To some sizable degree, the crimes, the money, the mystery surrounding Butler, even the connections between all the players... they're all meaningless. The core of A Touch of Death is Lee's inexorable decline into madness. Although he's certainly a willing criminal, he's not entirely able. This has nothing to do with his brains (he's clever) or brawn (he's a big 'un), try as he might, Lee can't shed that fundamental core of humanity that allows him to be a cold-hearted rogue. Every step he takes towards dissolution leaves him a little more ragged around the edges. By the end, he's lost so much of himself - his Lee-ness - that he may never return. (Or can he...?)

By contrast, we have the book's two femme fatales. Diana's a cool one, and certainly icier than Lee, but her motivations are still largely emotional. Like some of the book's other villains, she's driven by hate. Madelon, however, is pure rationality. Nothing swings her, and nothing sways her from her relentless, ruthless self-interest. Although Lee is our protagonist and Diana's the agent behind the plot, it is Madelon Butler that steals the show. Cold, beautiful and ferociously intelligent, Madelon is the only character that is perfectly adapted to the vicious world that Charles Williams has created.

Or... is she? Madelon does have a weakness in alcohol. Admittedly, she never "loosens up" in the conventional sense. Even in her cups she's never chatty, angry or anything that would involve a connection with others around her. When Madelon drinks, she simply checks out. When Lee first meets her, she's semi-comatose - drinking like a fish while listening to old records. It is the only hint that even the great Machiavellian might not be wholly satisfied with the role that she has to play.

A Touch of Death (1963)A Touch of Death is an absolutely chilling hard-boiled novel, a study of two parallel lives. As Lee lessens, Madelon thrives, a case of adaptation and a cruel sort of evolution. The ending is particularly harrowing, as it opens up an entirely new reinterpretation of the book's events, and hints that the horrors visited upon the book's characters may merely be the beginning... 

An excellent cover by Chuck Pyle. It depicts one of the book's quietly pivotal scenes - Madelon getting a haircut - and infuses it with all the menace and sexual tension that the characters would have felt.

The original edition (1954) is probably the weakest of the three covers. The sense of invitation is there, but there seems to a) be some sort of role reversal (Lee looks to be in the position of strength) and b) the only blond in the book... isn't a key character, so I'm not certain what scene this even depicts.

The 1963 reprint is much more interesting - it shows a mysterious assailant sneaking up on Madelon while she's drunk (see above). This is a beautiful cover, and certainly shows one of the book's most important scenes. But, again, it puts the woman (in this case, Madelon) in the position of weakness. Given A Touch of Death's actual 'balance of power', I prefer Mr. Pyle's interpretation.