|Vintage Pulp||Mar 4 2021|
A blackmailer takes on a murderer and learns he probably should have stayed in his weight class.
We picture Charles Williams coming up with the idea for The Big Bite in the shower. We generally have our best ideas there, so why not him? But wherever he was it was a eureka moment. He probably stopped whatever he was doing—dinner with friends, walking the dog, pleasuring his wife—and without a syllable of explanation sprinted for his writing desk. Friends sit there baffled wondering who's going to cover the check, dog ends up in the pound, wife is left frustrated and has to finish herself off. But that's the price you pay for associating with artistic types—sometimes an idea has to come first. As Williams' story develops, it isn't just his idea for the novel that's ingenious, but his main character's eureka moment within the narrative too.
Professional football player John Harlan is driving his convertible and is forced off the road by a second car. Both cars crash. The driver of the second car is killed, his head smashed in. But Harlan soon learns that the crash was a deliberate murder attempt, though not aimed at him. It was a case of automotive mistaken identity. He subsequently learns that the man who tried to kill him and died in the second car was himself murdered—not killed by the accident as the police presumed. There had been a third car, and from that car came a killer who administered a coup de grâce. Harlan learns all this and decides to blackmail that killer as recompense, because the accident has ruined his football career. He wants $100,000.
We know Williams was proud of himself for coming up with this automotive shell game that leads to blackmail. You know how? Because although his main character keeps referring to his scheme in terms like, “If everything worked out the way I planned...” and, “This was precisely what I needed to happen...” he never explains exactly what his plan is. As readers you have to watch it unfold, and be impressed that this big lug of a gridiron meathead is so smart. But the snag is—and there's always a snag—Harlan doesn't know anything about his blackmail target. He just knows the person owes him for a lost career. But because he hasn't bothered to learn anything about this killer, he has no idea what he's actually up against.
The Big Bite is Charles Williams' ninth book, coming in 1956, and at this point, five years into his career as a novelist, he's in cruise control. His concepts are excellent, his execution close to flawless. If there's any misstep at all it's that he sacrifices some of what he's built over the course of the novel for an ending that's ironic rather than realistic. We've seen this malady strike mid-century crime novels before, but up until that point Williams has a major winner here. Also in the winning category is the cover art by Arthur Sussman. It mirrors the protagonist's master plan perfectly—deceptively simple, yet ultimately ingenious. We highly recommend this book.