Saturday, December 30, 2023

93. The Sailcloth Shroud by Charles Williams

When I first saw this, I thought it was the prequel to Dead Calm, which got me excited, but that is actually called Aground.  The Sailcloth Shroud was published in  1960, the same year as Aground (and maybe just before?).  It starts off with the protagonist, Stuart Rogers, high up on a mast, sanding away, when two police officers come to visit him.  The first half of the book is very enjoyable, as the backstory is slowly teased out.  We learn that Rogers had bought a sailboat in Panama and with two hired deckhands had piloted it to Southshore, Texas.  Along the way, Baxter, the taciturn expert sailor had died of a heart attack.  When we get to the present of the book, that had all been settled.  This time, it was the other hired man, Keeler, a merchant marine who knew how to work  on big shipping vessels but didn't know how to sail,  who had been found dead.

The narrative is in two streams, with Rogers trying to help the aggressive cops and the more friendly FBI, but slowly becoming snagged himself in what become more and more suspicious circumstances as more info is revealed.  Because they were way out in the middle of the trip when Baxter died and it was hot, they eventually had to bury him at sea and now with Keeler dead (with $4000 unexplained cash) it is only Rogers' word that Baxter really died the way he said he did.

The only way to extricate himself is try and find out who Baxter was and that is the second narrative stream, as Rogers remembers the time together on the ship.  The second half, once we learn the entire backstory is only okay.  It's a bit of a simple story that Williams elongates and makes mysterious in the telling.  The action at the end was cool but nothing mind-blowing and while you sympathize with the protagonists, his biggest character trait is that he knows boats.   The denouement is a bit of an anti-romantic bummer which felt a bit forced to me, although perhaps more realistic.  This book is saved by Williams tight prose but the narrative is limited.


Budwhite said...

Thanks for your review. I agree, not great, just OK. A mystery book more than a pure noir in which Williams even allows himself to introduce some psychoanalytic-Freudian notes" that refer to the universe of William Irish/Cornell Woolrich. The plot is followed with interest, but let's say that it is not a great book…at times one gets the impression that things are somewhat forced. In Spain, by the way, the editors changed the ending, adding a happy ending to the couple.

OlmanFeelyus said...

Oh interesting. Do you mean that it refers to the William Irish/Cornell Woolrich "universe" specifically or more in its general tone and style?
And I wonder if I would have found the happy ending more satisfying.
Thanks for the comment!

Budwhite said...

Well, I am referring more generally to the psychological issue, well treated by Woolrich or even Goodis (especially Goodis, the false culprit, as he must flee from the police and criminals). I have the feeling that Williams like Gil Brewer can treasure some masterpiece, but in Spain some of her most prestigious works such as Nothing in Her Way, A Touch of Death, or All the Way were not distributed. A Spanish essayist published the only book in the world on the life and work of Williams and placed him among the best of all time crime writers. Maybe I'm not a big fan, but I admit that The Hot Spot (1953) was very good...