Friday, July 23, 2010

"The Long Saturday Night" by Charles Williams (Gold Medal, 1962)

Charles Williams’ The Long Saturday Night was published by Gold Medal in 1962. It would turn out to be his last for the publisher. It’s about John D. Warren, a real estate broker from Carthage, Alabama. When he arrives early to visit to the private duck-hunting club early on Friday morning, he doesn’t realize what the weekend holds in store for him. First, he’s accused of murdering Dan Roberts, one of his tenants and fellow members of the duck-hunting club—the only member who was also out that morning. Next, a mysterious phone call suggests that his wife, Frances, was stepping out with Roberts as well as another man. Then there is the matter of several thousand dollars that Frances took with her to New Orleans which have vanished without a trace. And then there’s her dead body, lying in Warren’s home.

On the run from the cops, it is up to Warren and his resourceful secretary, Barbara Ryan, to piece together the connection between Frances and Dan Roberts, as well as identify the mysterious caller and catch the real killer—all on one long, frantic, and dangerous Saturday night.

Perhaps the “wrong man” and “amateur detective” scenarios sound familiar enough, but it is proof of Williams’ skill that he can seemingly reinvent these tropes and breathe new, panic-stricken life into them. Using a remarkable first-person narration, Williams burrows deep into his main character, John D. Warren, and brings his growing paranoia to life. The first-rate storytelling is both enthralling and magnetic, and it has the fevered pacing of a never-ending nightmare.

Francois Truffaut turned The Long Saturday Night into a movie called Confidentially Yours! in 1983 (in France it was called Vivement Dimache!, literally “Finally Sunday!”). (Here is my review of the movie.) The film turned out to be Truffaut’s last. Unfortunately, it is not one of his better movies. The adaptation seemingly sticks close to the outline of the plot, but the tonal changes are totally out of step with Williams’ paranoid vision. Truffaut tries to add a comedic, screwball feeling akin to The Thin Man, and tosses in plenty of unnecessary and distracting movie references (especially to Hitchcock). The movie doesn’t work because, for one thing, the actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Fanny Ardant) don’t have the same chemistry as William Powell and Myrna Loy in The Thin Man movies. Truffaut also is unable to recreate the swift pace of Williams novel, nor is Trintignant able to convey the increasing anxiety of Warren’s character. Ultimately, the movie just wasn’t that thrilling or funny, a bad sign for a movie that tries to be a comedic thriller.

While the book is currently out-of-print, used copies are still floating around. Fans of early paperback crime fiction don’t want to miss this one. For more information on Williams, check out Bill Crider’s excellent essay, “The Gold Medal Corner: Charles Williams” over at Mystery*File where he calls Williams “one of the people who belongs in the Gold Medal Pantheon.” August West, over at Vintage Hardboiled Reads, also reviewed the book: “The Long Saturday Night might not be the author's most well-known novel, but it's one that should not be overlooked.”

As always, a couple of quotes from the book.

“I kept opening and closing my mouth and swallowing to hold back the oily ground-swell of nausea running up into my throat, and pressing my face into the bedspread as though I were convinced that if I could close my eyes tightly enough the picture would go away.”

“The bed rocked as if I were still driving, and the instant I closed by eyes the pulpy and battered mass of her face was burned into the backs of the lids down to the last projecting shard of bone, and I sat up shaking and sick, my mouth locked against the outcry welling up inside me.”

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More of Friday's Forgotten Books are available at Patti Abbott's blog.

7 comments:

  1. Liked Truffaut's version of SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER but I have never seen this.

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  2. I'm a big fan of Charles Williams' novels. His Gold Medal books are classics.

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  3. I agree, Cullen, Truffaut missed the boat with his take on this terrific thriller. I'm a great fan of Fanny Ardant, but even she couldn't rescue the script. The ending was particularly weak. But, the book is quite an enjoyable read. Williams didn't write a bad book. As far as i know, the Hard Case Crime reprint of A Touch of Death from a few years ago is the only CW book currently available new. A shame, as his work is top tier and deserves to be in print. Thankfully, old copies are available of a lot of his stuff, though a few titles are hard to find. All worth seeking out.

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  4. I'm with you on the ending. I just couldn't understand a lot of the changes Truffaut made -- they seemed unnecessary. I also felt that way about Truffaut's adaptation of "The Bride Wore Black." As much as I love Jeanne Moreau, she didn't seem to capture the character from the book, and the movie on the whole just seems to miss the mark.

    I haven't read "A Touch of Death" yet, but it is on my list.

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  5. A Touch of Death is a terrific read. You'll love it, Cullen. One look at the HCC cover and you know the femme fatale is not one to be crossed ...

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  6. The Gold Medal imprint is almost always a recommendation, but Williams was/is Williams. His books from other publishers, e.g. Dell, are equally good. I have most of his thrillers, in UK Cassell hardcover or Pan paperback -- where sometimes the titles were changed -- and I've read them more than once! I last read the one you review here, which kept its original title, as recently as a few months ago.

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  7. My copy of this book is actually a tie-in to the movie Confidentially Yours!... haven't seen the film, but the book cover alone (and the title!) is so far removed from the contents of the book that I found myself hiding the cover while reading it...

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