The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams
Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)
Charles Williams (1909 – 1975) is known for writing taut suspense stories, a few such as Dead Calm and Aground with a nautical theme. On the water is out of my comfort zone. Though I grew up in a Great Lakes state, I’m no sailor. So, I read passages like, “There’s a formula for calculating the absolute maximum speed of a displacement hull, regardless of the type or amount of power applied. It’s a function of the trochoidal wave system set up by the boat and is 1.34 times the square root of the waterline length.” And I think, “Okay, I’ll trust you on that.”
But like Patrick O’Brian in the Aubrey-Maturin stories, Williams makes the techno-babble go down easy with his concise, readable style and imaginative story-telling. Despite his Texas origins, he can make his tall tales stay on the plausible side of incredible. In this one, a sailboat captain hires two strangers in Panama to help him pilot a 40-foot ketch back to the US where he can sell it. One of the men dies of a heart attack and must be buried at sea. And just a few days after they land in Texas, the other hire is beaten to death.
Suddenly the captain is subject to unwelcome attention by the cops and FBI and to brutal questioning by hardened criminals. Three flashbacks provide narrative interest. Williams fires off jokes just when the gettin’ can’t get much worse for our hero. He has an excellent touch with down-home metaphors and similes. Like this when our hero manages to run away after “enhanced interrogation techniques”: “My torso felt as if had been emptied and then stuffed with broken glass or eggshells. Every breath was agony, and I ran awkwardly, with a feeling that I had been cut in two and the upper half of my body was merely riding, none too well balanced, on the lower.”
Fine as cream gravy, now that’s talkin’ Texan. I can’t say this one reaches the outstanding standard set by the hard as nails A Touch of Death, because it lacks a femme fatale like the devilish Madelon. Also, the vision of the Spanish moss settings of the Deep South are suggestive but not quite as evocative in this outing. But anybody who likes a rockin’ crime novel or stories of average guys suddenly thrust into hellish circumstances will enjoy this one.