CHARLES WILLIAMS – Talk of the Town. Dell First Edition A164, paperback original; 1st printing, September 1958. Cover artist: Darcy (Ernest Chiriacka). Expanded from “Stain of Suspicion,” a story published in Cosmopolitan, April 1958. This earlier title was also that of the British edition: Stain of Suspicion, Cassell, hardcover, 1959. Reprinted later in the US under the same title: Pocket, paperback, 1973.

   The master at the top of his game, crafting a taut, fast-moving tale back in the days when you could tell a great story in less than 200 pages.

   Bill Chatham narrates the tale and starts out by getting his car badly wrinkled by someone pulling out of a parking space in a small north Florida town. Stuck there for three days, he meets Georgia Langston, the proprietor of the motel where he’s staying, and quickly gets drawn into her problems.

   It seems Ms. Langston is recently widowed and suspected in the death of her late husband. He was found murdered in the pre-dawn hours by a man who was staying at the motel who had connections in Langston’s home town. Moreover, a woman was seen leaving the crime scene, and when police contacted Georgia they found her wide awake at that unghodly hour. The murderer was killed by police, so he’s not talking, but a cloud of doubt has settled over the widow who is ostracized by the community and persecuted by anonymous obscene and threatening calls.

   I’m always impressed by the speed with which Williams can set up a plot and establish his characters. As the story unfolds we find that Chatham is a divorced ex-cop, kicked off the force for excessive brutality (Read the backstory and see if you don’t sympathize with him.) and Ms. Langston is a tough and resourceful woman slowly being ground down by the community she once called her home.

   Meanwhile, just to keep things roiling, Chatham gets in a fight every few pages, there are threats, vandalism, a near-murder and some colorful side characters to help things along. And it’s here where Williams does a clever bit of writing…

   If I may wax philosophical for a moment, I want to say that in my experience there are two kinds of corruption: Selfish corruption of the sort practiced for profit; and the more altruistic sort, committed by those who feel it’s all right to cut a few legal/ethical corners in a good cause. Williams evokes both sorts, from honest cops who don’t feel much like following up a criminal’s complaints to…

   Well, that would be telling, and it would be a shame to spoil a story as tightly written as this one. Suffice it to say that when the selfish-corrupt ones finally show themselves, they are a nasty sight indeed — very well-limned by the author in a few deft strokes — but perhaps not so scary as those who thought they had Right or God or Whatever on their side.