A Philosophical Thriller: Charles Williams’ Dead Calm
Among the movies that came and went in 1989 was the wide-screen—the very wide screen—Australian thriller Dead Calm. It starred the Australian actor who wasn’t Mel Gibson (Sam Neal) and a Sigourney Weaver look-alike (Nicole Kidman), wore what might be described as a mid-Pacific look (it took me awhile to realize that it was Australian), and was described in the ads as taking us on a voyage of terror. Its central situation had the simplicity that budget-conscious movie-makers must love.
Two yachts are becalmed half a mile or so away from each other under the hot sun. One is crewed by a young naval officer and his wife, the latter still shaky after a car accident that took the life of their child. From the other comes a rowboat propelled by a desperate young man with a tale of nautical disasters that left him the sole survivor aboard a sinking vessel.
When the young man has been put to bed, the husband rows over to take a look at the other boat, whereupon the young man comes back up on deck, knocks out the wife, who has just started up the auxiliary motor, takes the wheel, and heads the boat off into the blue.
The husband is left alone on what is indeed a sinking vessel. The wife is alone with a homicidal paranoiac who blanks out any suggestion that they return to pick up the husband, and who sooner or later will presumably start to take a sexual interest in her.
What, from a movie-maker’s perspective, could be nicer—which is to say, nastier?
Unfortunately the movie didn’t live up to its terror-inducing promise.
It was watchable, but it wasn’t another Duel (Steven Spielberg plus innocent motorist plus highway plus homicidal truck driver) or another Alone in the Dark (blind Audrey Hepburn alone in house with sadistic games-playing killer).
It veered uneasily between being a “quality” thriller of character and an exploitation movie, and its nastiness—floating corpses below deck, a mouthful of cockroaches, hints on the sinking boat’s elaborate video system of unsavoury goings-on before disaster struck, and the likelihood of rape—had obviously been toned down in the interests of distribution prudence.
I don’t suppose the movie pleased anyone very much.
Which was all the more regrettable because Dead Calm was based on a thriller of high distinction, a thriller that at one point Orson Welles had wanted to film, with Jeanne Moreau, Orson himself (presumably before he got his girth), and Laurence Harvey as the nut-case. I am referring to Charles Williams’s novel of the same name.
None of Williams’ twenty-three novels is in print now, and he didn’t earn a mention in Julian Symons Bloody Murder, or Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler’s Encyclopedia of Detection and Mystery, or Jerry Palmer’s The Thriller, which may still be the best book on the genre.
But he had been a highly visible presence in the galaxy of paperback writers during the golden age of the American thriller, along with John D. MacDonald, Mickey Spillane, John McPartland, Donald Hamilton, and others, publishing three novels during his first three years as a writer at the start of the Fifties, and a dozen more during the rest of that decade, three of them in a single year.
When Dead Calm appeared in hardcover in 1963, the New Yorker reviewer called it “first-rate,” the one for the Columbus Dispatch opined that it was “something to marvel at. A-plus,” and Anthony Boucher, in the New York Times Book Review, considered it “A superb story of peril, suspense, and unexpected terrors … Brilliant, breathtaking, spectacular.” I am quoting from the cover of my 1965 paperback copy.
It was presumably also Boucher who considered Williams (in another quotation) “one of the best of all the specialists in suspense.” In those days Boucher was the most influential reviewer of crime-fiction in the country.
On the back of the Dell paperback of Gulf Cost Girl, the publishers announce, “7 Books—4 million copies sold.”
Williams was taken up in France, too. Nineteen of his novels were translated into French; he wrote the screenplay for René Clement’s Les Felins, with Jane Fonda and Alain Delon (1964, a.k.a. The Joy House); and François Truffault’s last movie, Vivement Dimanche (1983) was an adaptation of The Long Saturday Night (1963).
There are also at least a couple of American movies of his books, one of them Dennis Hopper’s 1990 adaptation of Hell Hath No Fury (1953) as The Hot Spot, with the undervalued Don Johnson.
Like Conrad, Williams came to writing late, at the age of forty-two, after serving as a Merchant Marine radio operator for ten years and a Radio Inspector for eleven years after that.
He had obviously read and reread Conrad before turning writer himself (Scorpion Reef, 1955, a.k.a. Gulf Coast Girl) contains several conscious appropriations and allusions), and his work, apart from one or two unsuccessful attempts at humorous fiction, was always characterized by the Conradian concern to make you see.
Even in his first year of publishing he was writing the kinds of sentences that John D. MacDonald, for all his narrative power, was never capable of. “Beyond the wall of the oaks along the bank I could see the sky in the east growing coral now, and across the vast and breathless hush of early morning I heard the explosive smack as a bass hit something among the pads along the other shore” (The Catfish Tangle, 1951).
Like MacDonald before he pieced together the persona of Travis McGee in The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964), Williams wrote a variety of thrillers.
But in general he was at his best—his most comfortable—when working inside a limited and more or less thoroughly knowable space. Close quarters and the progressive uncovering of the past in them, with explosive consequences for those trapped there (whether on shipboard or in small Florida towns), were his querencia.
Like MacDonald, too, he knew certain locales intimately, small Florida towns especially, and water—rivers, lakes, the sea—, and what it was like to use your body energetically.
And he almost always filled a scene to the maximum, a necessary maximum, as if he knew what it would be like swimming deep down into the water below a dock at night in search of a body, or cleaning up a motel room after it had been methodically trashed by acid-pouring vandals.
He could be very generous with his plotting, too, particularly in Scorpion Reef (1955) and Talk of the Town (1957), where he went way beyond the conventional demands of thrillers in his progressive disclosure of past events and their bearings on present ones.
As a writer, Williams remained a conscientious craftsman until the end, though the fact that he published only three books in his last twelve years, and the references to drinking in one of them, suggests that he may have had problems. But his last two books (he died by his own hand in 1975) were scrupulously plotted and crafted.
He looks at me now, half in shadow, from the small photo on the back of The Catfish Tangle (1951)—big-shouldered and not unhandsome, in a long-distance-trucker, merchant-marine way—the sort of man who in his time probably got into brawls in bars.
But the head is tilted forward slightly, the eyebrows have a faintly quizzical lift to them, the eyes below them are watchful, and if there is a hint of a smile at one corner of the mouth, it is a diffident, a perhaps apologetic one.
It is the face of a serious writer. And Dead Calm, his best novel, is a very serious book.
Like Scorpion Reef, Dead Calm is Conradian: Conradian after the manner of “Typhoon” and “The Secret Sharer.” It is one of those Homeric works—permeated by the sea and its dangers and demands—that is gripping both for its action, and as a study of the workings of mind; a book about values.
And as with the best works of Conrad, and of Stephen Crane from whom Conrad learned so much, and of Hemingway who learned so much from both of them, it exists partly in terms of the kinds of books that it refuses to become.
Dead Calm is pervaded by a consciousness not only of conventional thriller attitudes and expectations but also of the kinds of intellectual problems that Conrad was so concerned with.
It deals with the fragility of knowledge, the uncertainty of communication, the unforeseen and unwanted outcomes of worthy endeavours, the nature of authority, the question of what can sustain moral conduct when there are no supernatural underpinnings for it, the menacing power of nihilistic cynicism, the lurking void.
But Williams has not created an anti-thriller like John Le Carre’s odious The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, in which your normal assumptions and expectations as a reader of thrillers—your trust, essentially, in some of the human decencies and their ultimate triumph—are shown up as naive and groundless, and all that’s left are the gratifications of a knowing irony.
And he gets beyond Conrad philosophically in some ways, as D.H. Lawrence got beyond Nietzsche, not only because he has had Conrad to build on, but because he knows more than Conrad did about the other half of the human equation—about women, different kinds of women.
Williams himself was obviously well acquainted with tooth-and-claw nihilism.
Early novels of his like Hell Hath No Fury (1953), Nothing in Her Way (1953), A Touch of Death (1954), and The Big Bite (1956) with their embittered ruthless male protagonists on the make and their even more ruthless—and smarter, and deadlier—female protagonists, could indeed make you feel, as one reviewer put it, that everything was sliding into a big black hole in the middle of the floor.
“Look. It’s a jungle. They throw you into it naked, and sixty years later they carry you off in a box. You just do the best you can.”
She smiled a little mockingly. “Ah. The beginnings of thought. You’re a nihilist.”
“That’s out of style,” I said. “Nobody’s been one for years.”
“You are surprising. I didn’t think you’d know what it meant.”
“Duh,” I said. “I saw it in a comic book.” [The Big Bite]
It was presumably that side of Williams that French intellectuals were taken with, the side that related him to depressive writers like David Goodis, Cornell Woolriich, and the uniquely powerful and disturbing Jim Thompson in whom at times the hole expands to take in the whole floor.
No doubt, too, Williams would have been acquainted with a book or two by the truly nasty Patricia Highsmith, whose The Talented Mr. Ripley had been filmed by Clement in 1960 as Purple Noon, also with Alain Delon.
What do I mean here by nihilism?
Oh, at bottom, the feeling that nothing really matters, particularly when it is happening to you and not to me;
— that all the large mental constructions—societal, religious, philosophical—are empty and incoherent fictions, without any authority sustaining them or giving them any moral authority over us;
— that everything, fundamentally, is really only a question of power—power-seeking, power-withholding;
— that for the perceptive, the individuals who see through the sham and are unimpressed by the masks of virtue, all that matters is doing what gives you yourself pleasure, however trivial, cruel, violent, or disgusting that may be. Who is anyone else, that they should judge you?
In E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, the old liberal-minded Englishwoman Mrs. Moore is taken to visit a set of caves, the Marabar Caves, where there is a curious flat echo. Afterwards, as she sits outside them, waiting for others in her party to emerge.
No, she did not wish to repeat that experience. The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became … Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, “Pathos, piety, courage—they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value.” . . .
But suddenly, at the edge of her mind, Religion appeared, poor little talkative Christianity, and she knew that all its divine words from “Let there be Light” to “It is finished” only amounted to “boum.” Then she was terrified over an area larger than usual; the universe, never comprehensible to her intellect, offered no repose to her soul, the mood of the last two months took definite form at last, and she realised that she didn’t want to write to her children, didn’t want to communicate with anyone, not even with God. She sat motionless with horror …
In effect, she has experienced what T.S. Eliot was pointing to in the line “And cold the sense, and lost the motive of action.”
She has lost the energizing conviction that some things are worth doing, that there are obligations to do them, because of the claims of empathy inside a shared system of values.
—has lost the capacity for moral indignation, which, after all, can always be turned upon oneself.
—has found the anomie of Wallace Stevens’ “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (“The Snow Man”).
The experience of an abrupt draining away of value and meaning comes up in a number of thrillers, John Buchan’s, Eric Ambler’s, Donald Hamilton’s, and Simon Harvester’s among them.
Usually it is the result of extreme fatigue or incipient illness, and it soon goes away.
But you can see why it should be a presence in thrillers, especially spy novels.
Individuals in them are operating under great pressure (from without and, worse, within), alone, and at risk, in pursuit of complicated goals that only they may have figured out.
And the value systems that they serve are frequently under threat intellectually, whether from the opposing system of the Adversary, or from persons on their own side who disapprove of anyone’s engaging in such activities in the first place.
Which of course raises the question of why one should persist in doing something that may be absurd, and a subject for irony, given the unlikelihood of achieving one’s goal, or the questionable nature of the goal itself.
There may be analogies here between the experience of the secret agent and the experience of the writer/artist.
And in fact the expression of nihilistic attitudes seems to be, by and large, something that goes on particularly in and through art, hostile art.
There’s not much point to being a nihilistic bus-driver. But a performance artist? A thriller writer like Patricia Highsmith?
But there is no nihilism in Dead Calm, and no programmatic irony, as distinct from particular ironies, of which there are plenty.
It is a thriller, a consummate thriller, a distilled essence of nail-biting thriller.
And it is a morally affirmative philosophical novel in which knowing, communicating, willing, hoping, and achieving are indeed possible, and not just because of any ignorance of how things “really” are.
As such, it is more interesting and timely now, after all the trendy North American posturings about “fictiveness” and “undecidability” (reaching their nadir in the cult of that curiously naive linguistic muddler Paul DeMan) than when it first appeared.
It is also an intelligent interrogation of thriller attitudes and values with respect to violence.
As in the movie, the situation of Rae Ingram alone on the forty-foot ketch-rigged Saracen with a dangerous madman is a familiar one.
It is what Conrad put the ironist Axel Heyst and Lena into in Victory, when languid, deadly Plain Mr. Jones and his two murderous henchmen come to Heyst’s Pacific island retreat in search of the wealth that they have been told (falsely) that he has accumulated.
It is the situation of movies like The Desperate Hours (from Joseph Hayes’ novel of that name) in which escaped convicts take over a household, and Cape Fear (originally John D. MacDonald’s The Executioners), with its sociopathic ex-army sergeant bent on destroying the family of the former officer responsible for his imprisonment for rape, and Straw Dogs (originally Thomas Lawrence’s The Siege of Trencher’s Farm), and, oh, others, others.
The civilized person—in a sense the Innocent—is brought face to face with the reality of violence and compelled to cope with violent men without help from any of the normal taken-for-granted structures and institutions of civilized order.
He has lost that made order which Conrad’s Marlowe in Heart of Darkness, with his experience of the Congo behind him, suggests to his well-heeled companions on the Thames yacht that they may be taking a bit too much for granted.
“Here you all are, each moored with two good addresses, like a hulk with two anchors, a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another, excellent appetites, and temperature normal—you hear—normal from year’s end to year’s end.”
And Williams has set up the situation without any cheating.
And without clichés
His book is far more solid than the movie.
There are no horror-movie melodramatics, no corpses and cockroaches, no splintered doors, no wide-angled runnings around by the heroine on a boat that feels at times the size of a small cruise ship, no intrinsically insoluble mysteries.
Everything, in a manner of speaking, is very well lit.
And we feel the equatorial Pacific, the sun, the absence of wind, the movements of bodies in space:
Far to the northward a squall flickered and rumbled along the horizon, but here they [on Orpheus] appeared to hang suspended in a vacuum while the sun beat down and the oily groundswell rolled endlessly up from the south. The air was like warm damp cotton pressing in on them, muggy, saturated, unmoving. Perspiration didn’t evaporate. It collected in a film over the body, a film that became rivulets, now running, now stopping momentarily, now moving again with the irritating feel of insects crawling across the skin. It ran down into his already sodden and clinging shorts and dripped into his sneakers. His back ached from crouching under the boom.
At one point, Rae and the reader do experience “a quality of horror” as the enraged Hughie Warriner silently and murderously pushes against the door of the forward cabin that she has barricaded against him.
And it is chilling earlier when Ingram, desperately rowing back towards Saracen, and trying in vain to communicate with Rae, sees from a couple of hundred yards away the figure of Hughie appearing on deck behind her.
But so long as Rae behaves herself (Hughie’s fury has been triggered by her attempt to immobilize the engine), her life is in no danger from him, nor is rape ever a possibility. Twenty-seven-year-old Hughie—nice-looking, well-bred, an artist—is friendly, respectful, and obviously without any sexual interest in her.
Nor is John Ingram aboard Orpheus, ketch-rigged and a bit larger than Saracen, confronted with an insoluble mystery, a clutter of unwholesome fragments.
He is there with the two people whom Hughie has abandoned in a locked cabin—Lillian Warner, Hughie’s dark-haired, aristocratic-handsome, wife, whose money had enabled him to buy the boat, and bull-necked, stubble-chinned outdoors writer Russell Bellew, both of them very much alive.
Orpheus is perfectly normal, too, apart from the fact that it is slowly but inexorably taking in water because of dry-rot in the hull.
The dangers are real enough—frighteningly real.
But the fear comes from their not being arbitrary and melodramatic, which is why the book does not fade on rereading.
The waterlogged Orpheus is inevitably going to sink in a day or two, ever if the weather remains calm.
The chances of rescue by some other boat are infinitesimal. As Ingram puts it to Lillian Warriner, “There’s not a chance in a million we’ll be sighted by a ship, not where we are. And even if one happened to pick us up on radar, there’s nothing to indicate we’re in distress.”
The radio of Orpheus is defunct. And unless Rae can get Saracen turned round within seven hours, it will have passed the point of no return.
The nearest land, the Marquesas, is twelve hundred miles away.
These facts, which I have been tidying up for convenience sake, emerge piecemeal, in convincing detail, as they come up in the minds of John, and Rae, and Lucille Warriner, or are brought out in conversations.
The nautical matters are firm for us because they are what Ingram, as an experienced sailor, knows (for example, about their position away from the sea-lanes) or discovers, as he does when he finally puts on a mask and goes over the side to see why their efforts to pump out Orpheus are having so little effect
And his opinions are tested out for us in his exchanges with the intelligent and realistic Lillian Warriner and the sardonically challenging Bellew.
The prose of the novel has the patient expositional clarity that Williams displayed in the best of his earlier novels and that distinguishes, in their respective “English” and “American” ways, the best novels of Eric Ambler and Donald Hamilton.
The door of the cage that Williams’ characters are in is not just locked, it has been welded shut. The characters are absolutely alone with each other and with their approaching fates.
And what will become of them depends almost entirely upon Rae, alone with Hughie Warriner on a Saracen that, with Hughie at the helm, is taking her ever further away, in a dead-straight line, from the Orpheus.
Here, as Ingram outlines them to Lillian, are the essentials of Rae’s nautical situation:
“Even if she does get control of the boat, it’s nowhere as simple as it sounds. She may never find us again. They’re over the horizon now, and unless she knows the course he was steering when he left here, she can’t come back because she won’t know which way back is. Also, at the speed they were going, somewhere around midnight tonight about a hundred miles from here they’re going to run out of gas, and she can’t make it back unless she gets some wind. In these conditions, it could take days. Also, at that distance, the accumulated errors of trying to make a good course while she’s fighting fluky breezes and calms become so great that after a while she won’t know within twenty miles where she is herself.
She can’t call for help, to get a search organized, even if there was anybody out here to look. We’ve got a radio-telephone, but it won’t reach land from here, and you can’t call a ship because they stand their radio watches on five hundred kilocycles and not the phone bands.
So if she ever finds us again it’ll be within the next twelve hours or so, because if they get any further away there’s practically no chance.”
As the novel progresses, it increasingly looks as if the only way in which they can all be saved is if Rae, a genuinely nice woman, will cease being “civilized” and resort to violence, all-the-way violence—ultimately, if needs be, the violence of killing.
Not just a wimpy male like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs, that wildly implausible transposition into rural England of the nightmare type-situation of a New York Jewish intellectual assailed by homicidal hillbillies.
An American woman, by tradition a nurturer, a tamer of small boys, a preserver of civilized values, a bulwark since frontier days against the crazy violence and disorder of macho men.
Actually there were a number of different kinds of women in thrillers in those paperback years.
There was the Black Widow, the Damsel-in-Distress, the Girl Friday, the Sexpot, the Good Scout (with or without freckles), the Fellow Professional, the Tough Old Bird, the Golden-Hearted Whore, the Equal Partner, the Spoiled Rich Girl, the Fallen Sparrow (usually first seen with a drink in front of her). And others.
MacDonald, McPartland, Hamilton, Williams, Wade Miller, and so on—you can construct a whole sexual typology from the great American thrillers that began appearing in the later Forties.
But the classic thriller situation in Dead Calm is that of the decent woman faced with dreadful options.
So what will happen? Will we get yet another demonstration, like Donald Hamilton’s in the Matt Helm books, of the inadequacy of those pacific values to the violences of the real world? Will the “womanly” values and virtues have to give way, if only temporarily, to the “masculine” ones.
And what will motivate that woman, really motivate her, to act decisively. And, if she does, what if anything will the changes in her have to say about those “masculine” values? Are they simply the aberrant kill-or-be-killed values of war, viewed as a breakdown (because of male aggressiveness) in the natural state of peace?
Nor is this just a problem for women.
In Victory, Lena’s self-sacrifice, from her love of Axel Heyst, still leaves Heystian irony pretty much where it was before.
What could have motivated Heyst himself into action, life-or-death action? Seemingly nothing.
Williams himself had memorably adapted the Victory situation eight years earlier in Scorpion Reef, sending the narrator (another sailor) and an untrustworthy heroine out onto the Gulf of Mexico in her yacht, under the gun of a cool, intelligent, tweed-jacketed, and deadly professional criminal and his thuggish assistant, who want him to navigate them to a sunken small plane with diamonds aboard it.
The search, as Bill Manning knows, is impossible, given the vagueness of the marking on the chart he’s been provided with. And after a point the woman will probably be tortured to encourage him to stop procrastinating. And both of them will be killed in any event.
But Manning is a physical type, quick with his fists, and the problem for him is a straightforward matter of self-preservation, even if solving it requires considerable ingenuity.
It is essentially his problem (he doesn’t want to be killed), he owes the criminals nothing, and things would be the same morally were Shannon Macaulay not on the boat at all.
All that Shannon does is complicate the dynamics of the situation, not only because of the possibility of rape and the growing certainty of torture, but as an energizing presence for him.
And when the crisis comes,
Oddly, it wasn’t fear I felt now that it was actually here. It was rage—a strange, hopeless, terrible sort of anger I’d never felt before. I turned and looked at her, thinking how it could have been if they had just left us alone. She was all I’d wanted since the first time I’d seen her. I hadn’t asked for anything else, and she hadn’t asked for anything except a chance to live, and now they were going to take her away from me.
And he does, successfully, explode into action.
What had happened between the two books to complicate and deepen Williams’ thinking, I surmise, is that in 1960 Gold Medal Books had brought out the first of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series, Death of a Citizen, and that the series changed some of the moral rules of the game.
The conception of Helm had evolved slowly.
In the later Forties, while returned veterans like Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, John McPartland (who appears to have been a genuine hard doer himself), and Kenneth Millar (especially in Blue City), were going for strong action and forceful heroes, Hamilton (who hadn’t been overseas himself) had opted for a different approach.
In those very intelligent early thrillers Date with Darkness (1947) and The Steel Mirror (1948), he had explored the situation of the well-brought up and pacific-minded male, drawn on initially by romantic curiosity, who is backed into corners where violence becomes necessary.
He watched the man come forward and made certain plans, on a purely theoretical basis. He had not fought with, or struck, another human being since he was sixteen years old. The man outweighed him by well over fifty pounds and was at least four inches taller. He felt his stomach as a tight knot of nausea just below his ribs.
“Look,” he said weakly. “Look Sheriff, Miss Nicholson’s been sick. She lost her head. She didn’t mean—” [The Steel Mirror]
In his two major thrillers in the Fifties, Line of Fire (1955) and Assignment: Murder (1956; a.k.a. Assassins Have Starry Eyes), and in Smoky Valley (1954), the best of his five Westerns, his tough-minded but reflective heroes, while at home with guns and prepared to play very rough if necessary, are still emphatically men who want a non-violent life for themselves.
Paul Nyquist (gunsmith), Jim Gregory (atomic physicist), and young Civil War veteran Major John Parrish (businessman/ rancher) not only have occupations that they enjoy, they have also experienced what is rarely discussed in thrillers, the long debilitating process of recovery after having been shot themselves.
By his own account, when he embarked on the first Helm book, Death of a Citizen (1960), Hamilton didn’t have a series in mind.
Helm was presumably to have been a man with an even more violent wartime past than Parrish’s who had made the transition from underground wartime assassin (of Germans) to contentedly married husband and father (uncommon again in thrillers at that time), and who would resume his satisfying occupation of photographer/writer after having been temporarily tricked out of retirement.
The series, Hamilton tells us, was the idea of his editor at Gold Medal Books.
But the essentials of Helm were there from the start.
And in working out the framework of the series, Hamilton had obviously said to hell with it, to hell with trying to appease “nice” readers by reminding them politely that the Cold War American world might not be altogether a nice, clean, safe one in which martial professionals were only grubby anachronisms.
In his Fifties Westerns Hamilton had made his own cumulative political analysis of American society—of its essentials with respect to order, power, violence, justice, love, honour.
And now he came out with his intelligent, well-brought-up, and college-educated hero who was unapologetically a counter-espionage, anti-terrorist killer for a top-secret government organization.
As Hamilton himself explains somewhere, what made Helm so bothersome to a number of readers, particular women, was that he was likeable. Or to use that old-fashioned term, presentable.
He wasn’t a figuratively trench-coated, CIA type like Edward S. Aaron’s Cajun-born Sam Durrell, with no discernible existence apart from the more or less dramatic situations that he passes through in the series that began in 1956, or the various other attempts to do American versions of the pre-Sean Connery James Bond.
He valued the social decencies, was interested in a variety of in non-lethal matters (including women’s fashions), and had you had sat next to him at a moderately intellectual dinner party, he could have been in fact the professional photographer-writer that his cover required him to continue to be from time to time.
He wasn’t even the toughest-minded of Hamilton’s heroes, the atomic physicist Jim Gregory in Assignment: Murder being that.
But vastly superior though they are to the Bond books, and gripping though the best of them are (I read them all as they came out, just as I read all MacDonald’s Travis McGees), the Helm books are still morally simpler than Hamilton’s earlier ones.
And enjoyable though it is to live along with Helm in his dealings with baddies, other government personnel, a variety of civilians (especially women), and the unglamorized physical world of pick-up trucks, bars, sports boats, foreign hotels, and so on, his insistent moralism about everyone with reservations about necessary violence—not to mention the ruthless efficiency of his own use of it—can be a bit problematic at times.
Particularly when it comes to relationships between the sexes.
By and large, it is the “male” values that are the norm in the Helm books. The women for whom Helm feels respect, again by and large, are ones who, even if not professionals themselves, can share in, or at least not disapprove of, his own value system.
And Helm remains unmarried (after the separation at the end of Death of a Citizen) and permanently unattached, even if without the remarkably high death-rate among the women with whom Travis McGee finds, temporarily, the heart-to-heart sexual relationship that he truly craves.
Hamilton himself continued to explore the viability of Helm’s ethics, and played interesting variations on them (if he hadn’t, he’d have become bored stiff). But in the early Sixties, Helm was a new and problematic element in the thriller mindscape.
To which, in 1962, Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, had also added Helm’s criminal shadow, the affectless and wholly professional Parker, who would also enjoy a long series life.
Intelligent thriller writers, like other fiction writers, read works by their contemporaries to see what they are up to.
I am morally certain that the blue-collar-born Williams would have felt challenged by the emerging Helm books.
In a sense, the aristocratic-born Hamilton (he would have been a baron had his family remained in Sweden) had been working his way back towards the kind of hard-nosed view of things that Williams had been working his way away from, in an upward curve on which at one point, in a piquant kind of mirror effect, a new Williams novel, whose title I forget, felt like one of MacDonald’s warmer pre-McGee novels, while a new MacDonald novel felt like one of the bleak earlier Williams ones.
I think that Williams, who had worked his own fictional way out of bleakness and blankness into a more or less chivalric and honour-governed view of things, must have felt the need to reassure himself that his own (male) values were neither inorganically dominative nor sentimentally naive.
Well, we do indeed have reminders in Dead Calm of more or less familiar “male” and “female” dichotomies and antitheses.
When Hughie Warriner, after climbing aboard Saracen and quieting down, explains to Rae and Ingram what had gone wrong during the voyage of the Orpheus, and why only he is left to tall the tale, Rae is all motherly concern and pity.
And when Ingram starts to feel some uneasiness about possible inconsistencies in that account, and expresses them tentatively to Rae after Hughie has gone below to sleep, we get a familiar pattern of dialogue:
“Well, sure, honey,” he protested. “I realize what he’s been through. But we ought to make some attempt to salvage what we can—”
“He doesn’t want to go back on there. I’d think you could understand that.”
“He doesn’t have to. I told him I’d go.”
“But why? He said there wasn’t anything worth trying to save, didn’t he?”
“I know. But obviously water wouldn’t ruin everything. Clothes for instance. Also, he contradicts himself.”
“What do you mean?”
“The radio, remember? He said it’s been ruined by the water. But he’d just got through telling us he called us on it.”
She sighed. “Why do men always have to be so literal? Do you think he’s some kind of machine?”
And there are familiar gender divergences, as well as overlaps, between Russell Bellew and Lillian Warriner.
Bellew—World War II paratrooper, big, strong-bodied, stubble-bearded writer about hunting and fishing for outdoor magazines—is pretty much the neo-Hemingway macho male, quite certain now that Orpheus will sink, however hard they pump, and that nothing can save them, but still fuelled by his hatred of Hughie, and continuing to lock horns with Ingram and Mrs. Warriner.
Lillian Warriner, likewise certain that they are doomed, and likewise refusing (because of breeding) to give way to self-pity or to Bellew, is locked into the past in a different way.
She is gripped by her sense of her own responsibility as a woman for the disaster that overtook them,
— her failure as a woman,
— her failure to be a sufficiently strengthening presence for Hughie (thirteen years her junior),
— her moral failure when on one fatal occasion, exasperated by Hughie’s inability to stand up to Bellew, she made an open pass at the latter, thereby driving Hughie into the mothering arms of forty-year-old Estelle Bellew.
But as things go on, Rae’s and Ingram’s values aren’t in fact dichotomized.
The ways in which they cope with their respective impossible situations overlap substantially and do not, as it turns out, involve abrupt changes in their value systems.
On the contrary, it is the continuities and human decencies in their ways of thinking that in the end save them.
And this is not because of any sentimentalized good luck, the kind that favours (as we would like to think) the virtuous, but because those decencies are effective; are grounded in the nature of things.
The novel isn’t just about survival, it is about moral survival, without any of the adjuncts of religious beliefs, hopes, fears, sanctions.
John Ingram is forty-four, “a big man …with a flat, windburned face and cool gray eyes” (rather like Williams himself, perhaps, to judge from a photo on the back of Gulf Coast Girl), his dark hair, “atrociously cut some five days ago by his wife, greying deeply at the temples.”
Rae, tawny-haired, long-legged, is in her middle thirties and was married twice before. (They had become acquainted in the much inferior Aground, but Dead Calm is as free-standing as Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth is in relation to the two previous novels in its trilogy.)
They have been married to each other for only four months, and they are happily on their honeymoon, nineteen days out from Panama on their way to Tahiti and “the islands to the south.”
This happiness is presented convincingly in the opening two or three pages, before they first glimpse the speck of Hughie rowing furiously towards them from the becalmed Orpheus.
And though they do indeed react differently to the young man’s story of a pleasure cruise in which all but he were struck down with botulism—Rae all warm maternal sympathy, Ingram with nagging doubts creeping into his mind because of inconsistencies in the story—they don’t make a gender fight of it.
And Rae’s only (mild) worries when John decides to row over and take a look, are the normal practical ones attendant on someone’s going aboard a boat, obviously with water in it, that’s been adrift for ten days.
Nor are they conventional Innocents with respect to the sea, as had been the quartet aboard the Orpheus—the Warriners, the Bellews—who had likewise set out for the glamorous islands on the 20-year-old yacht that rich Lillian Warriner had allowed Hughie, her new young artist husband in love with the Gauguinesque idea of Papeete, to buy for this purpose.
Not one of them, Mrs. Warriner drily observes to Ingram, “was competent to take a yacht across the Pacific, and incompetence multiplied by any number up to infinity is still incompetence.”
John Ingram, in contrast, is an experienced and professional-minded sailor, scrupulously attentive to the vessel, the Saracen, on which his and Rae’s lives will depend (no dry-rot there).
And Rae is a mature woman, able to play her part in managing the boat, but aware of his superior knowledge and expertise.
They respect one another—she his professional judgment, he her moral good sense. There is no equating of “authority” with bullying and dominance.
If they are innocent, in plot terms, it is in the sense that they have done nothing wrong.
They are not ignorantly innocent. They are not smugly self-centered, or presumptuous, or careless. There is no hubris to be punished, no class-complacency to be disrupted. On the contrary, they are behaving well.
When they take aboard this panic-stricken young man, they are honouring the codes of human decency, not to mention the code of the sea.
When Ingram, once the young man is down below and asleep, decides to go over and take a look at the Orpheus, he is honouring a professional feeling, based on his own knowledge of boats and sailing, that something doesn’t sound quite right in Hughie’s seemingly four-square and detailed account of how only he had come to survive.
And when disaster strikes, as it does almost immediately, there is no question of a false view of reality—of how the world really is—becoming replaced by a true and much grimmer one.
The possibility of such a transformation is brilliantly communicated elsewhere in the novel. As Lillian Warriner explains to Ingram,
“When you look out there you see nothing but the surface. So do I; so does everybody. We realize, vaguely, that two miles down there’s bottom, but we never think of it, even if we’re swimming in it—probably even if we’re in trouble in it. It makes no difference whether you drown in seven feet of water or seven miles; you still drown within a few feet of the surface. But you’re in the water; I think [Hughie] imagines himself rather precariously suspended on the surface of it, as if it were a film of some kind, ten thousand feet above the bottom. In other words, I get the impression he sees it all the way down.”
And behind this vertiginous consciousness of the abyss lies a terrifying experience of abandonment, a total-seeming deprivation of all communal sustenance, in a world that abruptly lacked all fairness; an “absurd” world.
Through a set of innocent coincidences, Hughie and Bellew’s wife Estelle, innocently taking a swim together, had been left behind while Orpheus sailed away with no-one at the helm.
And Hughie, a powerful swimmer, wasn’t picked up for six hours—by now alone, and with the conviction that the abandonment had been deliberate.
But Ingram and Rae do not panic. Nor (for Williams is obviously providing a spectrum) are they afflicted by the more limited feeling of absurdity that has overtaken the Hemingwayesque Bellew.
Though Bellew continues to go through the motions and play the game out to the end—he labours at the pump, he bails with the buckets at the ends of ropes that Ingram has provided—it is with the conviction that it is impossible to keep the water out, that there is no way in which Saracen is going to be coming back for them, and that the only real question is how well the three of them will comport themselves when Orpheus sinks from under them, leaving them bobbing in a minute dinghy.
For the Ingrams, in contrast, the world does not now become as empty and meaningless and deadly as the sea that stretches to the encircling horizon.
Each of them is intensely conscious that the other is—or may—still be out there. And the overwhelmingly important thing for each of them now is to continue to do everything possible to get back together again.
So we get no philosophizing, or pseudo-philosophizing, about why you should or shouldn’t act and what it all “ultimately” means.
There is none of the speculating and willing of Camus’ classic novel of entrapment The Plague, in which a variety of characters with different philosophies adjust themselves to life in the sealed-off plague-ridden city of Oran.
Or of Conrad’s Victory as poor Heyst tries to reason himself into defending himself and Lena.
“Here I am on a Shadow inhabited by Shades. How helpless a man is against the Shades! How is one to intimidate, persuade, resist, assert oneself against them? I have lost all belief in realities …
“Neither force nor conviction,” [he] muttered wearily to himself. “How am I to meet this charmingly simple problem?”
Like Conrad’s own anti-Heyst, stolid, middle-aged Captain McWhirr in “Typhoon,” Ingram concentrates at the outset on the next step, and the next, and the next.
He does what is dictated to him at each point by the physical problems in front of him (the water in the hold, the importance of keeping a bearing on Saracen, the need to get Orpheus under way on her track).
And he shuts out from his mind pointless speculations about the raging vortex of Hughie’s crazed mind and the swirling animosity between Bellew and Mrs. Warriner. (“What kind of madhouse was this? With the boat sinking under their feet, you had to tear them from each other’s throats and drive them to make them try to save themselves.”)
But though he methodically takes bearings, estimates speeds, watches the wind, and figures out how much water their pumping and bailing is removing from Orpheus, Ingram’s is still not a simple, let alone a simply “male”, consciousness.
He isn’t another Captain McWhirr, saved from despair in the face of the typhoon’s immensity by his total blessed lack of imagination.
Nor (for Williams is obviously working in terms of contrasting patterns and possibilities), is his concentration like that of Hughie Warriner at Saracen’s tiller, bent hysterically on getting ever further away from the inchoate machinations of Them (as he imagines Bellew and Estelle) aboard Orpheus, and fleeing to nowhere.
As he watches Saracen move inexorably away with the tiny figure of Rae lying crumpled on the deck, Ingram is almost unbearably conscious that “This might be the last time he would ever see her, this dwindling spot of color fading away toward the outer limit of binoculars… ”
And a little later, after Saracen has been lost to sight,
the thought of Rae poured suddenly through the defenses of his mind again, leaving him shaken and limp. No matter how you barricaded yourself against the fear, it lurked always in ambush just beyond conscious thought, ready to catch you off guard for an instant and overwhelm you… Lay off it, he told himself savagely; you’ll run amok. Do what you can do and quit thinking about what you can’t.
However, this does not mean abandoning thinking altogether, or ceasing to search for knowledge and practical understanding. But “knowing,” in this novel, is not a simple matter.
As in “Typhoon,” the rhetoric of Dead Calm emphasizes the radical differences between the characters’ perspectives and how impossible to them (and to any of us in the actual world) is the God’s eye view that we as readers are permitted as Williams cuts back and forth between the two boats.
Rae’s faith in John Ingram’s competence, as described to us, may be total, but the next minute Williams cuts to where John, his mind flickering back over his years at sea, “at the moment … didn’t believe he’d ever been in a position quite as hopeless as this.”
And the knowledge of Hughie that Ingram and Estelle construct between them during their conversations, solid as it may now seem to us, is totally inaccessible to Rae.
And Rae herself, glimpsing the edges of a oedipal explanation of what may have gone wrong with Hughie (an explanation that to judge from what Lillian tells Ingram sounds pretty plausible), reminds herself that “she could be oversimplifying just a little the labyrinthine complexities of modern psychiatry.”
She is not a psychiatrist, she is her, on this boat, now, an ordinary person faced existentially with these particular behaviours, words, tones of voice, etc. And the clock is inexorably ticking.
But if knowledge—functioning, usable knowledge—is hard to obtain at times, it is not intrinsically unobtainable.
When looked at steadily enough, whether in connection with the sea and navigation or with more “human” doings, things carry their own coercive logic, their charges of meaning and futurity.
Time and space here are not simply voids and abstractions.
A few seconds (will Hughie turn his head?) or a couple of feet (can Ingram, after rowing furiously towards it, grasp the rail as Saracen slides past him?), or a small motion of hands and arms or error of the eyes (is one heading on a bearing that is off by a degree or two?) can make the difference between a lifetime of happiness together and a total loss.
But error and loss are not inevitable.
Both Ingram and Rae have the power of concentrated, purposeful attentiveness.
And each trusts the other.
Each knows that the other will do the very best that it is possible to do in their respective situations, and act, in the proper sense of the term, disinterestedly.
Without egotism. Without vanity.
When Ingram establishes temporarily his authority over the sardonic Bellew, with his air of “hard-boiled and half-contemptuous amusement with which he seemed to regard everything that happened,” it is not a matter of machismo.
It is a matter of time, of overriding urgency, of the imperative of getting the water level down and Orpheus under way.
He is engaged in an intense reaching forward, like that displayed when he has the other two haul him up to the top of the wildly swaying mast from which he may be able to get another glimpse through the boat’s binoculars of the now lost-to-sight Saracen, and take a bearing on it.
Then his pulse leaped. There she was, a minute sliver of white poised just over the rim of the world.
Anything that breaks his momentum and concentration could be fatal.
And when, having put on a mask and dived below and seen the ruinous state of the Saracen’s hull, he realizes that there is no conceivable way in which they are going to be able to keep moving at more than a snail’s pace, he doesn’t start the slide towards a doom-laden resignation and passivity:
“And there’s nothing we can do?” Mrs. Warriner asked.
“Nothing except keep pumping.”
She sat down at the break of the raised deck and lit a cigarette. She blew out the match and tossed it overboard. “I’m sorry, Mr. Ingrain. It’s too bad we had to infect you.”
Still occupied with the practical problem of survival, and its vanishing possibility of solution, he was caught off guard by this lapse into the figurative. “Infect?”
“With our own particular dry rot. Our contagion of doom. We should have been flying a quarantine flag.”
Ingram himself is not lapsing into the figurative, that insidious adjunct of imprecision.
But it is Rae, on whom all their lives now depend, who is at the emotional and moral heart of the book.
And Williams is at his best in presenting the movements of her mind and body—her consciousness—as she tries to figure out the rules of a situation in which, as it initially impinges on her, “All the landmarks and reference points of rational existence had been so suddenly jolted out of position, she couldn’t orient herself” and “there was nowhere to go; behind her was only the sea.”
It is rather like Hughie’s situation alone in the water earlier with Estelle Bellew.
And as Rae herself recognizes, it is has the potential for destroying her mind’s ability to function effectively.
Coming down the companion ladder after her initial conversation with Hughie, she is conscious of the craziness of their civilized good manners, and wonders if she too is losing her grip on reality, just as later on she feels that “She must be mad herself; Paradise couldn’t have become this nightmare in the few short hours since sunrise.”
And as her situation becomes increasingly impossible—but because of its psychological density, rather than from the vacancy that faced Hughie when passively alone in the water with Estelle—she reflects that
Nobody could endure this for seven hours. Her nerves would crack. Sometime between now and sunset her whole nervous system would go up in a puff of smoke like a short-circuited pinball machine; bells would ring, lights would flash, and she’d wind up lying on the bunk staring blankly at nothing while she picked at the fuzz on the blankets.
But with a fineness at once psychological and moral, she works her way through a maze in which time and again, the obvious reading turns out to be untrue or inadequate.
And her situation, as she hesitates between choices, is made all the more dramatic for us by the cross-cutting between the two boats.
Lillian Warrriner and Ingram on the Orpheus function as a species of chorus, both in what they say to one another and in their reflections about what has gone on and what may happen.
By and large, they touch on most of the key aspects of Rae’s situation, and they know some things with a good deal of accuracy, Ingram about navigational problems, Estelle about Hughie.
But it is still only abstract knowledge in contrast to the phenomenological complexities of Rae’s situation as she herself experiences it.
And the reader, having been in a sense forestalled by Ingram and Lillian with respect to possibilities and moral parameters, is obliged to concentrate on what Rae does in that situation, rather than sliding away into an easy knowingness about what she “ought” to do or think or feel.
Our bonding with Rae’s plight and copings is further intensified by a pattern that has already been established with Ingram, a pattern at once psychological and rhetorical.
Ingram almost reaches Saracen, but misses the railing by a couple of feet and it is gone. By dint of sustained effort he manages to get Orpheus sailing in its wake—and then the wind dies and it stops. He puts on a mask and checks the boat’s hull and it is a ruin.
It is a standard thriller pattern but none the less effective for that—the dramatic close of a chapter or stretch of narrative in which the hero or heroine, after hoping and striving, faces disaster: “The door of the cellar was locked and the water was rising!,” etc.
(Eric Ambler worked an elegant variation on it in The Light of Day (1962, filmed as Topkapi), in which, time and again, the shyster hero-narrator, caught with his figurative hand in the till, comes up with a plausible lie that is only barely adequate to keep him going until the next time disaster threatens.)
In a sense, as thriller readers, we may “know” that Rae and John Ingram will overcome their difficulties, just as we know that Odysseus will find a way to escape from the seemingly final trap of Polyphemus’ cave in The Odyssey—the huge boulder rolled across the mouth of it, so that if he and his men kill the giant they will never get out; and the blinded Polyphemus rigorously guarding the exit as his flock leave.
But as Ezra Pound remarked, “Great literature is news that stays news.”
In works that stay news, there are no guarantees of safety.
Disaster can occur all too easily at this point, or this, or this if a less ingenious person (you or I, for example) were unable to find a way to solve the problem.
And disaster does partly occur in Polyphemus’ cave. Two men are eaten by the giant on the first night after he finds them there, and two the next morning, and two again the next evening, and Polyphemus is implacably bent on continuing the series until he comes finally to Odysseus himself.
Dismaying closures are a feature of “serious” modern fiction, too, and not just of the Maupassant variety (“But my poor Madelaine, the diamonds were fake!”).
In Camus’ “The Guest,” for example, the distant watched Arab takes the wrong turn in the road, defeating the French schoolmaster’s best and most morally pondered efforts to save him.
Or again: In Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Catherine Barclay dies in childbirth just when the young couple seem to have overcome great obstacles and won through to freedom and happiness.
Conditioned as we are by irony and the imagination of disaster, we tend to feel that this is how things “really” are.
The seeming disasters in Dead Calm for Ingram and even more for Rae carry that kind of weight, so that, faced with them, it is easy to feel that this really could be the end;
—that “life” (the sea, Hughie’s madness, and so forth) is simply too much for these small frail human centres of consciousness called “Ingram” and “Rae”;
—that, as the narrator puts it in A Farewell to Arms, “Life kills the very good and the very brave and the very sensitive.”
We ourselves as we read—well, I myself, anyway—can imagine no possible way in which Rae’s problem could be overcome.
Nor, if there happens to be a possible technical solution, is there any certainty that Rae herself will hit upon it.
So there is something precious and heartening, Rae and Ingram not being Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise and Willy Garvin, about the ways in which seemingly absolute closures in Dead Calm turn out not to be absolute. The escapes are earned escapes.
They are also ones that we ourselves, put into similar situations, might not be able to earn, and not because we weren’t strong enough or agile enough but because our minds, and our modes of being, weren’t good enough.
So how does Rae go about solving her problems, and ours? Is her approach feminine? masculine? what?
Well, the essential cognitive problem, to begin with, is the question of what Hughie is.
It is rather like the puzzle posed in Algis Budrys’ science-fiction novel Rogue Moon (1960) by an evanescent structure, roughly three hundred feet across and sixty high, and at least a million years old, that has been discovered on the moon, and about which a scientist explains:
“We don’t even know what to call that place. The eye won’t follow it, and photographs convey only the most fragile impression. There is reason to suspect it exists in more than three spatial dimensions. Nobody knows what it is, why it’s located there, what it’s true purpose might be, or what created it. We don’t know whether it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral. We don’t know whether it’s somehow natural, or artificial.”
The rules governing passage through it are almost, but not totally, impossible to figure out. If you get them wrong, it kills you, in highly unpleasant ways.
When, early on, Rae “tried to make some sense of this thing that had happened to them, [she] ran immediately into the opaque and impenetrable wall of the fact that Warriner was the only clue to any of it, and Warriner was mad. Where did you go from a starting point like that?”
At first, before she realizes how mad he is, he is someone who is innocently, if mysteriously, in error (her first reaction when she groggily awakens after being struck down) and who simply doesn’t realize what’s going on.
“Please! We’ve got to go back! Don’t you understand? Turn around. Turn. Like this.” She made a lateral motion with her free hand, as though trying to explain the mechanics of wheel-turning to an idiot or to someone who spoke another language. She realized immediately this was wrong, but was too frantic to know how to correct it.
But no, when he speaks he seems nice, civilized, articulate. So presumably he can be appealed to in terms of moral urgency.
And then, no again: he simply slides away from her “unreasonable” agitation with a display of schizophrenic illogic.
“Unreasonable? Can’t you understand? My husband’s back there. We can’t go off and leave him. He’ll drown.”
Warriner dismissed the whole subject of Ingram with an abstracted wave of the hand. “He won’t drown.”
“But the boat’s sinking—”
“It probably won’t. Anyway, he wanted to go aboard there, didn’t he? It’s his own fault.” He turned and looked at her, as though puzzled by her refusal to grasp so obvious a fact.
Well, then, he is lost in an unreal world of his own and can be bypassed by immobilizing the engine, which in its turn will presumably immobilize him.
No again. When she removes the distributor cap (unfortunately there’s a spare) the intensity and speed of his reactions are terrifying. He is highly efficient.
Very well, so he is paranoid, opaque, unreachably alien: “It was as though they were threatened with destruction by the blind and impersonal trajectories of some hitherto placid machine that had run amok through a short circuit in its wiring.”
Again no. Once his explosive rage drains away, he is as charming, friendly, and articulate as ever. Nor is his rage (near though he comes to killing her) directed essentially against her.
So, then, surely, surely, if she can only find the right button to press, the right tone to adopt, he is a human individual—vulnerable, lost, suffering, yearning for forgiveness—who can be reached.
That was it, she thought: if she could establish an identity he could recognize, first merely as a woman who was friendly and sympathetic, and then as one he could help in some way, she might penetrate the insanity of breakdown and get through, at least temporarily, to the old behavior patterns.
So perhaps if she were to tell him, as she does at some length, how she and John had come together and how much he means to her…?
No, again. No. No.
It is clear—and the more we learn from the conversations between Ingram and Lillian Bellew about what lies behind Hughie’s break the clearer it becomes—that Hughie cannot be reached on the one crucial point, and that if Rae persists in trying to reason with him he will almost certainly kill her.
By now we ourselves know from Lillian Warriner’s account and Ingram’s reflections on it a good deal about what lies behind Hughie’s ontological fragility.
We know about his bullying yahoo Southern father, disgusted with a son more interested in drawing animals than killing them, his over-protective mother, his subsequent over-dependence on other older women, including Lillian herself.
We know about the Sartrean Huis-Clos sequence of events, bringing out the worst in four initially compatible people during Orpheus’ disastrous weeks at sea, a voyage during which things increasingly fell apart because of Hughie’s incompetence as a navigator and his inability to take responsibility and exercise authority as captain of Orpheus.
We “understand” Hughie. Or think we do.
But Rae is not a psychiatrist, Saracen is not a mental hospital, and there are no male nurses to protect her from this frighteningly powerful man if she missteps.
And she seeks in vain to have him settle down in her mind into some kind of familiar and coherent pattern—a machine that has run amok? a dangerous animal? a desperately assumed mask behind with lies a normal, if childlike, warm human self?
She herself is aware of her analogy-making, too. When she comes up into the cockpit at one point, she reflects that getting too close to him, getting too invasively into his territory, would be
like misjudging the length of chain by which some dangerous wild animal was secured. She waited, thinking of this and conscious of the incongruity or even the utter madness of the simile. Dangerous? This nice, well-mannered, unbelievably handsome boy who might have stepped straight out of a mother’s dream. That was the horror of it, she thought. Conscious evil or malicious intent you could at least communicate with, but Warriner was capable of destroying her with the pointlessness and the perfect innocence of a falling safe, and with its same imperviousness to argument.
Other concepts wobble as well, concepts that most of us, and certainly most thriller readers, are likely to carry around with us.
Rae herself is conscious of the hollowness of some of them, particularly with regard to violence.
As John has predicted, she recognizes the absurdity of pointing a gun at Hughie “the way they did on television” and expecting him to obey her command to turn the boat round.
This, she knew in her heart, was idiocy comparable to that other cliché of the private eyes and western marshals, the immaculate and neatly packaged death by gunshot wound that never hurt either the shooter or the shot …
And when she initially contemplates “simply” hitting him on the head, she recognizes also that
She knew nothing whatever about knocking people unconscious … in spite of the easy and apparently painless way it appeared to be accomplished all the time on television, and unless she was able to overcome her natural revulsion to such an act and did it brutally enough and in the right place he would only wake up and choke her to death.
Moreover, if her body is there in space—the macro-space of the sea and sky, the micro-spaces of Saracen—her mind, too, has its spatiality.
And just as the physical spaces are in part indeterminate and shifting in their nature, so that a “safe” distance can suddenly, with the crossing of an invisible frontier, become a dangerous one, or a sanctuary turn into a trap, so too there are degrees of concreteness in the mind’s movements.
You reach ahead with the aid of a concept or term or half-formed image, but it may be only a very loose reaching, not a grasping.
When, early on, she concludes, perfectly sensibly, that she must stop the engine, “it occurred to her she had no idea at all what she was actually going to do. Disabling the engine had a fine sound to it—but just how did she disable it, and what was she going to do afterwards?”
But the point is that error and ignorance here, in Rae’s negotiating with her environment, aren’t total.
They’re not like the disjunction between Hughie’s detailed false account to the Ingrams (which Rae had believed) of what had happened on board Orpheus and whatever it was, as viewed from Rae’s subsequent and better informed perspective, that may actually have happened.
They’re more like the procedures in Stephen Crane’s fictions where characters find themselves having to adjust their preconceptions in the light of what confronts them in “concrete” situations—military, nautical, slum-urban, and so forth.
“At bottom,” as I have remarked elsewhere, “all of Crane’s best writing involves the drama of categorizing and re-categorizing.”
We know that Williams had read Conrad attentively. It would be very odd if he had never read Crane.
By a patient attentiveness, Rae manages to transpose her limited knowledge of automobile engines into terms of the unfamiliar configuration that confront her when she examines the boat’s engine.
It is not a matter of things either having or not having meaning in some absolute sense as she regards the at first formless continuum of the engine.
Nor is it a question of “giving” them meaning, in a subjective and arbitrary imposition.
It is, rather, a matter of semi-concrete (visual), semi-abstract (conceptual) attempted fittings-together whereby you arrive at the kinds of meanings—the functions—that others have already provided, so that a particular piece of metal suddenly “becomes,” correctly, a distributor cap.
She studied it, searching for a vulnerable spot to attack. Though she had once been a sports-car enthusiast and had for a short period in her life owned an agency for one of the European cars, she knew little more about gasoline engines than does the average woman. She was aware, however, that they could be stopped by shutting off either the gasoline supply or the spark that exploded it.
There was a valve in the small copper line coming from the fuel tank to the connection on the engine, but closing that would solve nothing. She could take a hammer from the toolbox and smash the line itself, but that would let the fuel drain into the bilges and convert the boat into a potential bomb. Then how about pulling loose a bunch of wires? That was better, but still not perfect. Warriner could replace them in less than an hour.
Then her eye fell on the distributor. There was the answer. Smash that, and the power plant was permanently out of commission.
I have taken the liberty of splitting one paragraph into three, in the interests of screen readability.
And when, after the attempted immobilization has failed, she is barricaded inside the sanctuary of the forward cabin and new and much more alarming gaps in her conceptualizing reveal themselves, it is not a disaster.
This narrowed world in which she has assumed herself, in a tentative way, to be more or less at home, does not simply vanish and become replaced by nothing, dreadful though some of the shocks are.
Somehow she had to get control of the boat so she could take it back—Her thoughts broke off, and she sat up abruptly, feeling a chill along her spine.
Take it back? Back where?
She’d forgotten she had no idea at all which direction they’d been traveling since they left the other yacht. And with it lost somewhere over the horizon now, where all directions looked the same, trying to get back to it could be just as hopeless at ten miles as at a thousand.
As she immediately recognizes, she has to keep track of their course somehow; and there is a spare compass stowed away down below.
It, too, isn’t a magic wand, any more than a gun is.
She has to figure out where to place it so as to maximize the chances of its giving an accurate reading. And the readings that it gives fluctuate, so that she has to strike an average. And even then, “There was no certainty, she knew, that this reading of 226 degrees was anywhere near the actual course, the one [Hughie] was steering in the cockpit; they might even differ by as much as 20 or 30 degrees.”
But as she also recognizes, if she can get control of the boat she can, by a process of methodical trial and error, transpose this reading into terms of the compass on the binnacle.
A few moments later, though:
She sat down, weak-kneed, on one of the other sailbags and regarded end-to-end those two conditions she’d danced across separately and so lightly a moment before.
If she ever got control of the boat… Provided it wasn’t too far….
Too far back to where John might still be… If … if she ever got control of the boat…
Control of the boat? But how?
Trying to reason with [Hughie], she had already discovered, was futile. Trying to overpower him was so manifestly absurd there was no point wasting time even thinking about it.
Which brings her, and us, back to the matter of violence.
Just as we haven’t had any philosophical reductiveness in the novel with respect to the “abyss”—the thing that is “really” there if we are sufficiently unblinded and fearless to peer into it—so there isn’t any about violence.
It isn’t a simple matter of nature versus nurture, with nature given primacy.
Lillian Warriner may have been right in her prediction that “inevitably there’ll be a point when she has to stop thinking, and it’ll become a simple matter of instinct versus conditioning. Instinct is a lot older.” We shall never know for sure.
But that is not how the novel is operating, and nothing in it is a simple matter.
There is no a priori set of Rae Ingram’s mind against the use of force.
She is not the kind of woman like Grace Kelly in High Noon, or some of the prisses who so irritate Matt Helm, for whom the use of force, any force, is simply wrong wrong wrong, and who seek, as it were, by an act of will, to maintain the world as a place in which force is never really necessary.
Though she has never fired one herself, she is not someone for whom guns, any guns, are simply nasty. Her father and brothers were hunters, and it didn’t bother her.
But she is aware that if force is to be used successfully (and failure will mean her own death and the death of John), it has to be used with a total commitment of her being at the decisive moment.
And when she settles on a marlin-spike (“It was over a foot long, of heavy bright steel, gently tapering from one thick end to a point at the other—the classic weapon, she knew from sea stories she’d read, of the bucko mates of nineteenth-century square-riggers driving their crews around the Horn”) and solves, after several tries, the problem of where to conceal it on her person, and goes up on deck to where, perfectly good humoured now, Hughie sits at the wheel and praises the bone-structure of her face (he is, he tells her, a painter), the moral complexity of it all surges in upon her.
For a moment she saw the whole scene with a sort of wondering horror—a civilized woman of the twentieth century, sitting here with the marlin-spike of the Cape Stiff bully-boys seated against her flesh between her nylon panties and her bra, listening while this handsome boy who was murdering her husband as surely as if he’d used a gun discussed with such charm and evident admiration the structure of her face....
The marlin-spike simply isn’t on, given the odds against her succeeding with it.
Which makes way for the increasing entry into her consciousness (the memory of it had flickered there earlier, only to be repressed immediately) of Ingram’s shotgun, so important in the novel.
A shotgun can be used successfully by someone like herself. No skill or strength, at such close quarters, is needed to aim it and pull the trigger.
But what Williams does with the shotgun and its potentialities has no equivalent in any other thriller that I have read, including—especially—those of Donald Hamilton, who had moved with Death of a Citizen to Gold Medal Books, where Williams too had had a berth in the Fifties.
The shotgun had not been a common weapon in thrillers.
Near the end of Richard Starnes’ very readable The Other Body in Grant’s Tomb (1951) the villain is cut down by a blast from a twelve-gauge riot gun, “the most murderous close-in weapon ever devised by man.” And I seem to recall a lethal shotgun in one of E.V. Cunningham’s (a.k.a. Howard Fast’s) rather depressing series with women’s names. But that’s about it.
But Hamilton, who hunted himself and wrote non-fiction about guns and hunting, liked shotguns, and was impatient with others’ reservations about them.
In the third Matt Helm novel, The Removers (1961) Helm is at the Nevada ranch of his ex-wife Beth and her new husband, and desperately needs to get a couple of hours’ sleep.
So he asks her to stand watch over him in the living-room with the “little 16-gauge” double-barrelled English shotgun that he takes down from her absent husband’s gun-rack.
If the baddies come, he tells her,
“Aim it in some direction where it won’t do too much damage if it goes off. If you hear anything—anything whatever—push off the safety with your thumb and put your finger on the trigger, like this. Either trigger, but it’s customary to start with the rear. If you have the slightest real intimation of trouble, just pull the trigger.”
“Beth,” I said, “please! I know it’s a little rough on the household furnishings, but we hope you won’t have to do it. But if you should, just follow instructions, do you understand? … Just blow a hole in the wall.”
The baddies do come in, and Beth (“gentle wife and mother”) of course doesn’t fire, and Helm and we feel that she’s rather failed him in his hour of need.
It shouldn’t be that difficult to point and shoot, unless one’s afraid of spoiling the furniture.
But why not? And what about Rae now?
In Hamilton’s own favourite novel Line of Fire (1955) the gunsmith hero, Paul Nyquist, reflects that “There’s something very satisfying about the kick and bellow” of his sawn-off pump-action shotgun as he invades the defended nighttime grounds of city crime-boss Carl Gunderman’s house.
And in the very filmic Western The Man from Santa Clara (1960; aka, Two-Shoot Gun) the photographer-hero Alexander Burdick carries his twelve-gauge double-barrelled Purdey everywhere in the dangerous community, using it lethally against an individual only once, but totally prepared to use it if necessary, and successfully conveying that message to others.
For Williams, and for Rae, things are more complicated.
In contrast to the distributor cap, which has to be brought into being by her, and the spare compass, which she eagerly looked for, the shotgun has in a sense forced itself into Rae’s consciousness.
As the novel keeps reminding us, “choosing” may not be a tidy process, and memory isn’t always at your command. When John Ingram is up the mast at sunset searching yet again for a glimpse of a distant mast or sail, “It was impossible to escape entirely the beauty of it or to seal the mind against all of memory’s infiltration….”
At first the shotgun is a mere flickering and immediately suppressed memory while Rae is still thinking in terms of the marlin-spike: there is a shotgun somewhere in the boat.
Then, with the marlin-spike abandoned and her fullest attempt at getting through to Hughie a total failure—a dangerous failure—it comes back again as three fleece-wrapped parts stowed away in a drawer under the bunk on which she and John used to make love.
“She remembered it too easily this time. Her mind slipped away from it with the same revulsion, but she could still see it.”
And finally, just as she is about to give up her fumbling with the three pieces in the relieved conviction that a piece must be missing, something snaps into place and “She stared at it in horror. It was a complete shotgun. It was all there, and it was assembled.” The “three separate, improbable pieces” had been “suddenly united and frozen into this unmistakable shape of deadliness.”
The deadliness is not merely notional either. Her father and two older brother had hunted quail, and she knew what a shotgun could do to the body of a bird when fired from too close.
The question of whether Rae will shoot, however, isn’t a simple one, and is inseparable from the question of whether she should shoot.
For Williams has swerved away from another familiar thriller and horror-movie pattern.
Faced with the total menace of the absolutely alien and other—whether a hockey-masked machete-wielder, or a monster from outer space, or the obscenely smiling ex-army psychopath Max Cady in John D. MacDonald’s Cape Fear (1958, originally The Executioners)—there can surely be only one possible decision, one possible ethical decision at least.
When MacDonald’s Sam and Carol Bowden, once they understand that no other recourse is open to them, plan, in Sam’s words, to “lay a trap and kill him and dispose of the body” before Cady destroys them all, you feel that what they are doing is right.
And since Hughie Warriner is dangerously insane—insane, very strong, and absolutely unreachable—there would seem to be no very strong reason to be concerned about his fate either, as set against that of the Ingrams.
At one point, apropos of what may have happened while Hughie was alone in the water with Estelle, Ingram himself reflects that it would be natural—and self-forgivable—for someone to beat off, even if it resulted in the latter’s death, a swimmer who had panicked, was trying to “climb up out of the water” upon you, and was about to drown both of you.
The “other”, at that moment, has virtually ceased to be human; has become animal, like a panicked cat whom it’s impossible to handle.
But as we learn through Lillian Warriner’s exposition to Ingram, and Rae’s firsthand perceptions, things aren’t that simple.
Hughie is not a monster, and not just because, as Rae puts it to herself early on while struggling to see him as dangerous, he is a “nice, well-mannered, unbelievably handsome boy who might have stepped straight out of a mother’s dream”—a description that, as we all know could apply just as well to a Patricia Highsmith sociopath.
As we learn from Lillian, he had had that lousy childhood—a mother’s boy with a brute of a father—and until disaster overwhelmed him that day in the water he was a normal, agreeable husband to her, if a bit weak, and with some talent as an artist.
And if the TV image of the gun as magic wand is naive, so too, is the idea of a final tidy solution of a problem by means of force.
What we have here, the novel reminds us, is more than just a matter of objects—of a gun, a target, a trigger—, and existence is not divided up in a conventionally fictive manner into units with final closures.
There is no question of seeing a “problem” (Hughie) and a “solution” (the shotgun) and then doing some kind of tidy moral calculation.
Rae does indeed, up to a point, try to reason herself forward and cope with the awareness of the consequence for herself if she uses the gun.
The image of the carnage will remain with her for ever, and there will be “all those nights she’d wake up screaming, and…until the day she died her mind would never emerge completely from the shadow of the unanswered question: could there have been some other way?”
Nevertheless, she tells herself,
In the end it boiled down to a simple act of purchase, didn’t it? If she had no illusions about the price or about the fact she would have to pay it, the terms were clear and understood. For John’s life she gave up her peace of mind for the rest of her own. Why not? People gave up their lives themselves for others, didn’t they? This was the opposite of heroic, and the act itself was abhorrent, but the same love was involved, the same willingness to pay.
But as she herself acknowledges,
There was no sense to any of these arguments. You couldn’t rationalize killing a man with a shotgun, and you didn’t arrive at this deed by any process of thought, of weighing the advantages and disadvantages. If you did it at all, it was after you’d quit thinking, in desperation, when nothing else was left.
And what we see collapsing in her are the processes of logical reasoning. Which is to say, we see in part their inadequacy to her situation
As she moves, or is pushed, towards the final terrible act, it is without any recourse to, or construction of, a higher or more fundamental structure of values that can be opposed to “normal” values: the values of war as opposed to the values of peace.
Her mind is increasingly disordered, as it skitters across all the options again, and finds temporary relief and escape as she notes down “very carefully and precisely” the compass bearing that the boat is on. (“It looked neat and businesslike. And there was the illusion she was doing something.”)
Increasingly things happen to her, rather than being made to happen.
And gaps start opening up in her consciousness.
“Without any remembrance at all of how she got there,” she finds herself standing on the companion ladder shrieking imploringly to Hughie to turn back before something dreadful happens.
Then, again without knowing how she got there, she’s back in the forward cabin with her fingers running over her face and hair. “Something was quivering, either her face or the hand, but she wasn’t sure which, any more than she was sure whether she’d actually gone out there and screamed at him …
Time, as she sees when she looks again at her watch, with a sense of disbelief, “was hurtling past her, and she was beginning to lose whole intervals of it.”
The four-and-a-half pages (in my paperback edition) in which she finally commits herself, as she thinks, to using the gun are the most inward writing that I know of in any thriller:
Then, with the suddenness of a thrown switch, the wildness and despair were gone, and she was strangely calm. It was as if her mind had come into focus at last, with everything else dropping away until there remained only the two simple, elemental facts she’d been groping for all the time, the only two that mattered at all. John was going to die unless she saved him. And she had the means to do so.
But it is a strange calm.
There was a faint rushing or ringing sound inside her head, as if she had been taking quinine. It was like being enclosed in some huge bubble that protected her from all extraneous sound or thought or interference. It was cold inside the bubble, and there didn’t seem to be enough air, because her breathing was rapid and very shallow, but she was invulnerable to everything beyond. She went over and picked up the shotgun.
And when she figures out how to load it, and drops two shells “into the ends of the tubular air columns of the barrels,”
This was strange too, with some feeling that she’d done it before and knew exactly what she had to do. It was as if, while her conscious mind was recoiling from it in revulsion, some far level of the unconscious had already accepted the gun with complete fatalism and calmly planned its use.
But that “natural” instinct for self-preservation that Lillian Warriner spoke of is another of those concepts that is looking less four-square now.
There is nothing berserk about Rae’s state of mind, no comforting “seeing red”—comforting because when that happens it’s as if someone else altogether has taken over, a pre-“civilised” self, an “animal” self, perhaps (in theory) a truly “natural” one.
The roaring in her head was louder now, so she could scarcely hear the engine. She was cold all over and wasn’t sure she was breathing at all; there seemed to be some tremendous weight pressing on her chest. She walked with a stiff-legged artificial gait, like a mechanical toy …
In effect, far from the “animal” taking over, this is the terminal stage of a process in which she has tried her uttermost to find some other route, only to be driven back to the present one, with vivid unsought intrusions of memory and futurity intensifying the process—John’s beloved face, in all its details, there before her as Orpheus goes down.
And it is her hunger for a non-terminal solution, combined with that human warmth that Ingram recalls in her during his conversations with Lillian Warriner, that in fact saves her.
When her finger, feeling like “some great unwieldy sausage,” refuses to pull the trigger, Rae returns to the cabin, drained, with the knowledge that at this moment at least (though she has no idea how she will behave at the point of no return), she cannot, even to save John, cold-bloodedly kill “a boy who didn’t know what he is doing.”
But this isn’t simply a recoil or a negation—a surrender, another instance of “feminine” weakness.
While she was hunting through the drawers for shotgun shells,
It was only for a minor part of a second, a fleeting but inexplicable hiatus of movement that was noticeable at all only because ever since she had accepted this thing and committed herself she’d been going forward with the inevitability of some machine running downhill on rails.
Poised there in the dark center of this almost imperceptible hesitation, with the feeling that somebody was pounding on the wall of the bubble, trying to get in or to attract her attention, she’d looked down into the drawer, wondering what had caused it.
And when she comes back down and wearily unloads the shotgun, the message gets through and she is able to act with a suddenly released flow of self-confidence.
Her ability to respond with an unforced maternal and forgiving calm, and to find in a successful act of communication, exactly the right tone of voice, had saved her earlier from the potentially most lethal of Hughie’s terrified rages.
Now it enables her to decisively outwit and immobilise him, very much to our relief. (I won’t say how. You may be reading the novel yourself.)
In actuality, or so I have been told, what she does wouldn’t have worked.
But though the design flaw, coming from so knowledgeable a writer, is a puzzling one, it is less serious than the Three-Stooges-like chaos that would have ensued in Polyphemus’ cave when Odysseus and his men tried to assemble those frenziedly bleating sheep and lash them together (with what?) in threes.
If, with the point of no return upon her at last, Rae had finally, desperately pulled the trigger, as I think she would have done, the rest of the novel’s basic action could still have gone forward.
And she would, truly, only have turned to violence as the last resort.
In a conventional thriller, that would pretty much be that.
Rae would turn Saracen 180 degrees around, as her surrogate does in the movie, and head back along the same bearing to Orpheus, accompanied by appropriate head-music. And there would be a blissful reprieve of the three people aboard the foundering yacht, saved by an authentic heroine.
But Dead Calm is not a conventional thriller, and Williams has grasped something fundamental about the way in which conventional thriller attitudes and conventional “existential” ones overlap.
I am referring to the question of justice and fairness in a godless world.
With or without a god, thriller readers still want to see some governing principles or patterns in the way things are.
Virtue—the right kind of person doing the right things at the right time in the right way—is rewarded in some fashion (the innocent man on the run is exonerated, the bank is successfully robbed by the properly professional robbers).
Or viciousness, to use an old-fashioned shorthand term, carries with it its own punishments, as in depressing novels like James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, or the even more depressing novels that Williams himself developed out of them, about unpleasant characters on the make who are not as smart as they think they are.
(“I wonder how long that veneer of toughness would have lasted,” Mrs. Cannon remarks to John Harlan in Williams’ The Big Bite, “if you’d ever had the intelligence to see, just once, how many ways there are in this world you can be utterly destroyed by random little sequences of events that look as harmless as marshmallows.”)
Or again, another pattern: virtuousness is inevitably and inexorably defeated. As Lieutenant Henry famously puts it A Farewell to Arms,
If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.
Reading or viewing, we want to be able to settle down into a secure pattern of rewards and punishment.
We want to be able to share a character’s pleasurable feeling of accomplishment.
Or to keep ourselves at a distance emotionally because what he or she is trying to do is essentially pointless, since it is doomed to failure.
We veer between the belief that if you comport yourself with full concentration and commitment it will pay off, and the counter-belief that there is no point to subjecting yourself to those internal pressures because they won’t pay off.
Which has its own advantages, since it diminishes that nagging suspicion that if you fail it is because you haven’t tried hard enough or aren’t the right kind of person.
In effect, we look more or less for validations of our own commitments when we are committed, and of our ironical and/or pessimistic withdrawals when we aren’t.
And a belief in the idea of fate, or destiny, or chance, or luck can be oddly hard to shake free of.
Some coincidences, as Thomas Hardy knew, can be a little too appropriate to seem merely the result of chance.
But the dynamics in Dead Calm are human dynamics, not mechanical ones (machines, electric circuits, failing safes), or organic ones (dry-rot), or quasi-supernatural ones (the sea as card-sharp), as in Lillian Warriner’s remark to Ingram, “No doubt you remember the old ploy of crooked gamblers, letting the sheep, the intended victim, win the first few hands in order to increase the stakes. It was as if the Pacific Ocean, or fate, did it deliberately.”
When she explains how Hughie and Estelle had come to be left behind in the water, “Ingram nodded. He could see the tragedy already beginning to take form, like the choreography of some death scene in a ballet, where every movement had to fit.”
But it is not a coerced fatality that he discerns, nor is there some mysterious “innate” human wickedness that needs to be evoked.
The dynamics of the deteriorating relationships between the Warriners and the Bellews as Lillian Warriner outlines them are perfectly clear—Bellew increasingly annoyed by Hughie’s incompetence, Hughie increasingly incompetent in consequence, Lillian”s exasperation with Hughie leading to her pass at Bellew, Hughie turning for sympathy to the childless forty-year-old “maternal” Estelle …
And though it was simply by chance that Saracen came upon Orpheus in the first place, the ways in which, after their separation, Ingram and Rae make or form their own destinies have nothing arbitrary or weightless about them.
Hughie’s account of the deaths by botulism aboard the Orpheus is demonstrably false, and his theory about the “abandonment” of himself and Estelle is untrue literally, though not simply made up out of nothing.
But the accounts that John Ingram and Lillian Warriner give each other of past events are plainly not false in that way, any more than their hypothesizings about what may be going on aboard Saracen are merely arbitrary.
In fact, as we see with the back-and-forth cross-cutting, they are reasonably close to what in fact is going on.
There is no implication in the novel that human endeavours and constructions, and the means that we use to make sense of and perhaps influence what is happening to us, are meaningless.
True, the requisite person-to-person communication with Hughie has been shown to be impossible.
True, too, encased in her bubble, Rae passes beyond language and ratiocination in a situation in which there is no one right course. And yet action is inescapable, since doing nothing (so long as there is any hope left) is still doing something.
But there is no undercutting of language, communication, and reason as such.
Which is to say, of the human community, as existing in this space where there is nothing, except for sea, sun, and wind, that is not a human construction.
If Ingram and Lillian have a dislike for “mere” talk, it is talk that is a mode of distraction or evasion, talk that distorts things.
When Lillian remarks that “Bellew, of course, is a pig; and I’m an arrogant and insufferable bitch,” Ingram
paused in his pumping. “Do you have to do that?”
She wondered herself. She’d always held a dim view of the therapeutic value of catharsis or confession and regarded all breast-beating and mea culpa as being more vulgar exhibitionism than anything else. If you’d bought it, you lived with it as well as you could and with as little fuss as possible.
But this is nevertheless a novel about people trying to communicate with each other, people telling each other narratives, or asking each other questions, or challenging each other’s assertions, or being obliquely ironical, or using the radio, or desperately waving their arms, or using other body language.
Even Hughie talks freely and seriously with Rae about art, the female figure, and the like, in the expressed conviction that the two of them do indeed “understand” one another.
And part of his madness is precisely that language, as he uses it, doe not fit things:
“Do you always have to ruin everything by becoming hysterical? He won’t drown.”
“But that boat is sinking!”
“Why do you keep saying that?”
“You said it was. You told us yourself.”
“I did?” It was obvious he didn’t believe it. He glanced into the binnacle, dismissing the whole thing as of no importance. “I don’t know why I would have said a thing like that.”
When Lillian Warriner persuades John Ingram to talk about what kind of person Rae is, it isn’t just sentimental chat.
She is concerned with estimating Rae’s chances of handling Hughie, and for the same reason tells Ingram about Hughie’s temperament and background and about the events leading up to his break.
Rae Ingram too has been trying to “see” things, grasp them, understand their dynamics.
And if under the strain of irreconcilable imperatives her mind tacks and veers, her exclusionary bubble is not the result of a despairing collapse but of a willed and precarious maintenance.
The external world is still out there, threatening to implode the bubble, and speaking to her, even though she may not always hear what it says.
(She is lucky, we are told, not to have used a shotgun before, so that the characteristic sound of the shells dropping into those columns of air, and the click of the closing breach, do not carry their full charge of associative meaning for her.)
The possibility of failure, total failure in her endeavours, has been all too real, of course, as she faces, after Hughie’s subjugation, “all the problems clamoring for attention, calculations of time and distance and the unknown factor of direction and the need to do everything at once.”
She is not comfortably reading the thriller in which she herself figures. She has no assurance of a happy outcome.
During the subduing of Hughie,
Saracen had come to rest and was rolling forlornly on the groundswell, completely becalmed and helpless on a sea as unruffled as glass and achingly empty in all directions to the far rim of the visible world, where it met the converging bowl of the sky. With John there, it was privacy, but now it was a loneliness that screamed.
And as she plots a course back the way that they have come, and figures out how much time is left to her, she reflects that
Orpheus had to be in sight by then, because there would be no second chance. If she weren’t there, she’d already sunk, or the course had been wrong, and with no compass the latter was as irreversible as the first. Within a half-hour she’d be helplessly lost herself, with no idea where she was going or where she’d been.
But she doesn’t panic, nor does she torment herself with the thought that since she no longer has instruments of precision to aid her, and is not herself a skilled navigator, what she attempts will be impossible.
There is no feeling that she is somehow now the “wrong” kind of person.
She’s been aware all along that navigation even with the aid of the boat’s binnacle will not be risk-free.
When, earlier, she was unable to get a glimpse of the binnacle and had taken her own bearings down below with the spare compass, “There was no certainty, she knew, that this reading of 226 degrees was anywhere near the actual course, the one he was steering in the cockpit; they might even differ by as much as 20 or 30 degrees.”
But she also assumed that when the time came, if it did come, she would be able to correlate the two.
And here we are back to the moral dimension of reasoning about the physical world, and acting upon that reasoning with a principled “existential” commitment.
When the movie-makers came up with their all-too-predictable, Carrie-esque, post-finale assault by the monster, they were in a sense transposing, albeit in comic-strip terms, what was there in the book.
For just when it looks as if Rae has won without losing her human decency, Williams gives the screw a further turn.
In another of those utterly unfair moves that can make you feel that fate is implacably against you, that you have been judged and found wanting, and that like Hardy’s poor Tess of the Durbervilles, you are doomed, the staggering Hughie smashes the second compass too before he passes out.
In the abrupt and almost terrifyingly lonely silence as Saracen slowed and came to rest she could only cling to the handrail of the ladder in defeat, and for a moment she wished she had killed him when she had the chance.
So now Rae must find her way back to Orpheus by means of a rough-and-ready bit of home computation involving shadow lines.
And the image of her keeping the boat running steadily for four and a half hours during which “her eyes encountered nothing but the empty miles of water and the far rim of that circle in which they seemed to be forever centered” could easily become a paradigm of absurdity.
The slightest error now can mean that when she believes that she is going towards the closure of an established and longed-for place, the place where she really belongs, she is in fact heading towards empty and non-humanizable space, without bearings of any kind, and the horrors of an ultimate solitude, with “no idea where she was or where she’d been,” and nowhere further to go, and a tied-up homicidal madman on her hands.
At every moment, in such a situation, there is the temptation to feel that perhaps you should be changing course slightly in one direction or another, like a gambler at the roulette table hesitating between putting her final stake on 23 or 24.
The physical gap between them is tiny, but one of them may contain impoverishment and disgrace, the other a blessed, a miraculous plenitude.
Rae is not superstitious. She does not panic, she makes and keeps to the best decision available to her, and her reaction to the loss of the second compass is not mere wishful thinking.
After what she’d been through this far, nothing was going to stop her. She had no idea how she was going to find her way back across all those miles of open sea with nothing to guide her, but that would have to wait till she could get to it.
And her hope isn’t dependent on the fictive plenitude of a yearned-for image of future happiness—a deserved reunion with John.
Though the minds of each of them have at moments been invaded by almost unbearable memories of the other—unbearable because emphasizing the possible totality of their loss—they have been doing their best to exclude that kind of imagining, let alone an imagining of what it would be like to be together again.
Rae’s hope rests, rather, on her growing consciousness of her step-by-step-ability to cope in a focused way as each new problem comes along, and of the physical world as “readable.”
“Apparently after four hours of improvising and feeling your way along the rim of disaster, you began to develop a belief there was always another handhold just beyond.”
But even so, the logical, the natural, the odds-on fatalistic end appears to have arrived at 7.05 p.m. when, as the sun sets and “just for an instant the defenses of her mind gave way and she remembered sunsets she had watched with John here in the cockpit,” she scans the horizon with her binoculars “and there was no sign of Orpheus anywhere.”
She and John aren’t destroyed, of course, any more than Odysseus is destroyed in the cave of Polyphemus.
But with its frightening distances, its tenuous glimpsings, its fragile communicatings, and the indispensability of various pieces of equipment, the process has been charged with the possibility of failure at every point.
And it is only the focused intensity, the single-mindedness of their joint commitments and alertness, unweakened by corrosive self-doubtings or a sense of malign fatality, that makes their salvation possible.
For there have been, all along, two hoping consciousnesses in this drama, not just a solitary figure facing a hostile universe and the increasingly likelihood of defeat and death.
If, by an act of provisional faith, Rae assumes, in the absence of any other knowledge, that Orpheus can still be there, and that if it is, her glasses will pick it up, Ingram too has continued to assume that she can still get back.
So that he in turn keeps scanning the horizon with that seeking intensity, that projection of the self to the farthest reaches of vision, that is only possible if you believe that something can be there to be found, a belief encouraged in him by the evident fact that Hughie is not a monster.
And eventually he sees, far, far away, the streak of Saracen’s mast, with a sudden intense awareness of Rae there in her fullness—but ignorant of where he himself is—below that tiny sign.
I won’t go into the details of the explosive act of will—the hurling of the self towards communication—by which he gains her attention in a final, dangerous, all-or-nothing throw of the dice. I will only say that their coming together is a profound demonstration and reaffirming of value and valuing.
As Ingram draws near to Saracen, Rae
slid down into the cockpit seat with one hand still feebly clutching the lifeline above her, unable even to raise her head, and her diaphragm began to kick so she couldn’t exhale. Every time she would try to breathe out, it would kick and she would inhale again.
And as Ingram, before she has been able to explain anything, grasps what an extraordinary feat of navigation she has accomplished, there is an immense flooding in of value, a sense of the even greater rarity and preciousness of their relationship than had obtained before their separation.
She has done it for him, she has done it for them, and her own trust in their relationship has made it possible.
Then, just before she disappeared entirely into the mist [of unconsciousness], she heard her own voice say something at last.
“Did you have any lunch?” she asked.
“No,” he said. He swallowed and rubbed a hand across his eyes. “I guess I forgot.”
Holding the compass from Orpheus very carefully, he “went below and stowed it in a drawer. It was beyond price now, and nothing was going to happen to it until he could get it secured in or on the binnacle.”
Dead Calm does not end there, however. This is as much a novel about remembering and recollecting, and about responsibility, as it is about hoping and willing.
It is not just the success story of John and Rae Ingram.
It is also the story of the Warriners and the Bellews, and that story is a story of error, and failure, and a hunger for “justice,” meaning punishment, including self-punishment—a subject for a much darker novel.
If Rae and Ingram are relatively free spirits, their attentions bent constantly upon the future but grounded on a secure sense of the past, their past, there are other ways of being human-all-too-human.
The dynamics of the others’ story haven’t suddenly stopped.
Bellew and Lillian Warriner are still locked into their relationships with each other and with Hughie.
Bellew still hates the pampered darling whose incompetence brought ruin on them all and who (in Bellew’s all-too-plausible reading of what had gone on in the solitude of the water) had killed his wife.
Lillian still refuses to blame Hughie and despises herself for her own responsibility for the disaster—for Hughie’s madness and Estelle’s death, and for “the spreading shock wave of disaster” that engulfed “two other people whose only crime had been the fact that they were in the same part of the ocean.”
Honourably clear-eyed in terms of the stoical code that she had tried to live by,
The guilt was still hers, and she accepted it, though it seemed a terrible price to pay for the pursuit of an impossible dream, a few minutes of arrant and unforgivable bitchiness, and an accident. There were beckoning avenues of escape: the accident couldn’t have been her fault because she’d been asleep at the time, and she’d been goaded into the bitchiness, but these were sleazy evasions and technicalities for which she had nothing but contempt.
At bottom, for her, “the real responsibility from which there would never be any escape” had been “the pursuit of the impossible dream, while she knew it was impossible.”
So though Ingram himself now craves to be able to withdraw from something that simply isn’t his and Rae’s affair, he is compelled to intervene, not only because the dynamics of those relationships have the power to destroy them all, but because of his own sense of human responsibility and of the very real worth of Lillian Warriner.
Though he hates speechifying, he is compelled into physical action, and into offering his own reading of what had gone on during that other pleasure cruise, based on what Lillian has told him and what he himself has inferred.
In all this he is only partly successful, and the possibility is now there that, as could have been the case for Rae had she pulled the trigger, he too, in his turn, will become a prisoner of the past.
After the final disaster in the book, the final explosive outcome of the relationships between the Bellews and the Warriners,
He knew that for years it would keep coming back, leaping out at him in odd moments and without warning to haunt him with that unanswerable question: Would something different, some other way, have worked?
But he answers his own question: “No. Nothing could have changed it. He’d done everything he could, and in the only way it could have been done.” And in this he is not being smug or self-deceived.
Dead Calm is a book about errors—multiple errors, at times disastrous or near-disastrous ones—and the feelings of guilt that they can create. Even Rae, at the beginning, was almost fatally wrong in her belief in Hughie’s story.
But it is also a book in which true perceptions and reasonably accurate readings of the past are possible, just as accurate navigation is possible, and with them true judgments.
If Hughie is destroyed by his inability to see things as they are—“I don’t think it’s a feeling of guilt that made him crack up but just the refusal to accept the blame,” Ingram tells Lillian—and if Lillian comes close to being destroyed by her more complicated romanticism, both John and Rae are saved by their undeluded and holistic intelligence.
And because of John Ingram, Lillian Warriner, too, while remaining a tragic figure, is to some extent released from the grip of the past.
This is also, I am sure, the book in which Williams resolved to his own satisfaction the kinds of problems that I sketched at the outset, with its demonstration of the experiential shallowness of the fashionable “existential” model, and the dangers—dangers, not just theoretical errors—in a tout comprendre romanticism.
Hughie Warriner, and the destruction that he caused, had been created as much by the overly generous and forgiving nurturing of the women in his life, as by the bullying of men.
And where survival is concerned, the truest, or at least the most profitable model (though Williams himself doesn’t invoke the analogy) would appear to be, not the old-style positivist image of nature as tooth-and-claw bloodiness in an echoing empty space, but the newer ethological one of animal communities grounded in their environment and governed in their interactions by principles of order that it can be lethal to ignore.
The author of this humane and intelligent philosophical novel—epistemological, phenomenological, ethical—died by his own hand, I do not know from what demons.
Was Dead Calm, particularly in the figure of Rae Ingram, the ultimate defining of things that had given meaning to his writing career, and that were increasingly slipping beyond his grasp, like Saracen sliding away beyond the horizon, leaving him struggling and alone there in the water, with no prospect of anyone’s coming back for him?
In any event, let us salute him.
Ajijic, Jalisco, 1990
Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2001
For a bibliography of Williams, see www.246.dk/williams.html. I notice that over the years I have read (for pleasure, not as research) at least sixteen of the titles.
For a list of his works translated into French, see http://www.sdm.qc.ca/txtdoc/pol/adu/WILLIAMSCHARLES.html
Geoffrey O’Brien warmly praises Williams’ writerly qualities in the two-and-a-bit pages that he devotes to him in his wide-ranging Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir (1981; expanded edition, Da Capo Press, 1997), which I have finally read. He prefers Williams’ bleaker works, with their challenge to the Fifties version of the American Dream, and there is a substantial factual error in his eight lines on Dead Calm. But his book valuably brings out the strength of the vein of depressive and too often alcoholic nihilism in a number of American thriller writers that Williams himself struggled against. There was more love there in the genre than he allows for, however, particularly in the Gold Medal books, and the nihilism requires more explanation than he attempts.
For categorizing and recategorizing in Crane, see John Fraser, “Crane, Norris and London,” American Literature, vol. IX, New Pelican Guide to English Literature.”
My source for Line of Fire being Donald Hamilton’s favourite novel is a reply by the novelist to a fan letter from myself in 1994.
Since writing the foregoing about Williams’ death, the details of which I was ignorant of, I have clicked on http://www.bleekerbooks.com/Books/Authors/CharlesWilliams.asp.
There one reads, “A sensitive man who was unwilling to change with the demands of the marketplace and unable to face failure, Williams drowned himself in 1975.”
However, according to the Wikipedia entry “Charles Williams (U.S. Author)”
Ultimately relocating to Los Angeles, Williams committed suicide in his apartment in the Van Nuys neighborhood in early April 1975. . . . Many sources continue to repeat the false rumor that Williams died by drowning in the Gulf of Mexico or in France.