Thursday, 9 December 2010

Charles Williams


Charles Williams is a name associated with a hardboiled American writer, but it was also the name of a British man of letters who was a chum of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien and a member of the Inklings who gathered in Oxford in the 30s. He wrote a few books which included elements of the detective story, though he wasn’t a crime writer in the conventional sense.

He was, however, a keen reader of Golden Age stories at the time they were being written, and for about five years he reviewed them in a positive and readable way for English newspapers including The Daily Mail. Happily, an American, Jared Lobdell, has compiled a collection of them, in a delightful book called The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams.

Lobdell sets the reviews in context, writing interestingly about the Golden Age and providing notes about the many authors discussed. They range from Christie and Sayers to totally forgotten names such as Dale Collins and Richard Essex. He is fairly kind even to books that he clearly did not rate highly, but you can always get a clear sense of when he regards a novel as genuinely impressive. And his judgment, to my mind, is consistently sound.

This is not easy to achieve. There are many books that make a splash on publication which do not stand the test of time. But Williams was very good at spotting a class act – as well as at identifying books which rose above the formulaic. There are a good many books that he praises that I haven’t encountered, though. Even if some of them aren’t as impressive as he suggests, I’m strongly tempted to track them down.

13 comments:

seana said...

I'd like to get my hands on that book. I read all of Charles Williams novels right after college, and really enjoyed their strangeness.

Jerry House said...

Have. To. Get. That. Book.

GeraniumCat said...

I feel we ought to be able to get you a grant to track them down and write about them here, Martin! Charles Williams is one of my favourite writers, though I think he's something of an acquired taste. I didn't know he wrote reviews - I think I'm probably naively guilty of believing he breathed a rarer air than the rest of us!

aguja said...

Thank you for this post, which I found really interesting. I discover so much from your research and enjoy reading.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Sounds like a wonderful book. I love books of review, including Pauline Kael's movie reviews. Hers were often better than the movie.

Nan said...

Oh, thank you for this. I'll try and get the book. Have you read a 1978 book called The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter? I so loved it. He brought these men alive to me.

vegetableduck said...

The reviews are very interesting indeed. People can get the book on amazon.com stll, I assume. Williams had a bit of a bias toward the fantastic, but he was a first class reviewer.

Lobdell's introduction and conclusion and notes on the authors have quite a few mistakes though. And I didn't like his application of the country house concept so broadly to the whole period.

Of curse without Lobdell, we would not have had the book!

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for your comments.
Seana and Geranium Cat,I am really interested that you like his books - a good recommendation.
Nan, funny you should say that - I'm reading Inklings right now!!!

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, do you have time to mention a few of the errors in the book so I don't fall into the trap of believing all I read?
As for the generalisation, I agree, though I think these are hard to avoid sometimes in a book of this kind.

Nan said...

I am just amazed. Wouldn't you have loved being part of that group? I may have to buy the book so I can read it again.

Nan said...

I just saw there is another book on The Inklings from 2009 by Harry Lee Poe. It would be nice to have them both. It seems like the latter one is less text and more photos.
Well, I did it. I bought them both - a used copy of the older one, and a new pb of the newer. Thanks for the reminder. I'll send you a bill. ;<)

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Nan, the closest comparison with the Inklings is possibly the Detection Club, which also deserves a book.Please do let us know if the new book is a good one!

vegetableduck said...

Martin I'd better email you. I have my copy (somewhere) pretty marked up, as you can imagine (I even tore off the very flimsy covers). Did you notice that Williams had a high opinion of Crofts and good ones of the Coles and Connington (not so much of Rhode/Burton, who is my favorite among the aforementioned)?

Of course he especially loved Dorothy L. Sayers' Nine Tailors--not especially surprising given the sort of mystical-religious evocation in it--that was right up Williams' alley!