Wed
Apr 3 2013 12:00pm

Lost Classics of Noir: Hill Girl by Charles Williams

Brothers shouldn’t get involved with the same woman. There could be a whole subgenre or books/movies in which this scenario is involved, and I feel confident stating that tragedy would be a common theme.

Bob Crane (no, not that Bob Crane), narrator of Hill GirlCharles Williams’s excellent work of farmyard pulp from 1951—never had any intention of getting mixed up with one of his promiscuous brother’s victims of love. And he certainly didn’t mean for that to happen with a girl on whom his bro—generally a love ’em and leave ’em type—is actually stuck. But it just happened.

Bob, 22, returns to his family’s Texas farm and estate, after being away at college for a few years (during which time he got more involved in an ill-fated attempt at a boxing career than he did achieving scholarly distinction). He is back to take over the farm, which was left to him by his deceased grandfather, to whom he was always close. It’s a good thing for Bob that he got along with his granddad, because his late father, “The Major,” a stubborn man who was forever butting heads with his youngest son, left this to Bob in his own will: one penny. Bob is built like a defensive lineman and has a face that makes girls run the other way. He’s got his dad’s hardheadedness, as well as his strong set of ethics and of responsibility.

Bob couldn’t be more different from his brother Lee. People are always asking how these two could have possibly come from the same mother’s womb. Lee, 26 at the time of the story, is Hollywood handsome, and he’s a smooth operator who knows how to work people, whether we’re talking about The Major or any number of women who cross his path. The brothers’ personalities are as far apart as are their looks. Where Bob is steady and reserved, Lee is impetuous and restless. Lee is not terribly unlike Hud, the character Paul Newman plays in the movie of the same title, from Larry McMurtry’s novel Horsemen, Pass By. When he was a teenager, Lee once tried to run off with a married woman. In the present, he is wedded to Mary, a lovely and sturdy redhead whom Bob thinks is about the prettiest and truest girl a fella could ever hope to catch. Yet not even Mary can keep Lee from chasing skirts (flour sack dresses?)

It’s not Mary, though, who comes between the brothers, despite how much Bob thinks of his bro’s bride. No, that would be our title character. Angelina “Hill Girl” Harley, 18, is the daughter of a backwoods farmer named Sam, who’s also the moonshiner who provides home-brewed hooch to the Cranes and many other locals. Sam is a simple, dogged man, and a sensationally overprotective father. Angelina, who dreams of wearing the pretty clothes she gazes at in catalogs, and of going off to a teacher’s college, has been all but chained to her bed by her father since birth. And now that she has blossomed into a young woman who has the face and body of a Hee-Haw Honey, Sam is all the more determined to keep her under lock and key.

Here’s how Bob describes Angelina, after seeing her for the first time once he gets back home:

It wasn’t that she had grown so much. She wasn’t big, even now. But it was as if she had received twenty-five pounds or so in the mail with instructions on how to put it on where she thought she needed it most.

She had on an old cotton dress that she had outgrown and overwhelmed it in every direction until it had completely surrendered its cheap shapelessness and lay taut across her hips and breasts in obedient submission, and it was obvious she had on practically nothing underneath that dominated and slavish garment and that she didn’t give a damn.

Her hair was blonde, a little too dark to be called golden, but you could see it was natural, and it was long, thrown back over her shoulders, straight and fine-spun and silky and slightly damp, and it was obvious she had just washed it and had been drying it in the sun in the back yard, for she had an old blue bath towel pinned across her shoulders.

I learned later that her hair was long because Sam wouldn’t stand for her bobbing it. Sam was pretty strong for the Scriptures, aside from his whisky-making, and there wasn’t anything in there about women cutting off their hair. I was to learn that and a lot of other things about this girl before I was very much older.

Lee is less verbose in summing up the all-grown-up Angelina:

. . . don’t ask me what color her eyes are. Anybody who could look at her and notice her eyes is dead and just hasn’t found out yet.

Lee is obsessed with the girl. She’s about the only subject he seems interested in discussing with Bob, upon the latter’s return home. Bob, having seen the kind of tempting beauty Angelina has become, also witnesses the clear pent-up rage she feels at being held captive by her father; and as he listens to Lee go on and on about what he’d like to do with her, he knows trouble is coming. He knows Lee is the kind of guy who won’t stop until he gets himself a piece of this action, he knows his suave brother will be able to charm Hill Girl into giving it to him, and he knows Sam Harley is the kind of man who will put a wagon load of rifle bullets through his brother’s head if this happens.

Then it happens. Except, Sam doesn’t catch Lee and Angelina in the act exactly, he only witnesses certain sounds coming from a certain hiding place on his land, and notices a certain car parked nearby. Lee flees when he knows Sam is closing on him, and he runs to his brother for protection. With Sam running around about ready to shoot up the entire town, Bob quickly hatches a plot. He intercepts Sam before he can get to Lee and tells him it was he, rather than Lee, who was making whoopee with Angelina out in the corn crib. He further informs Sam that they are about to become father- and son-in-law, as he and Angelina are off to get married come sunup. Sam knows Bob is lying and that it was actually Lee who had his daughter squealing in ecstasy, but Sam sees the wisdom in accepting this concocted arrangement, as a way for all to save face and maintain respectability, as well as to keep him from being put away for murder.

I’d spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it if I told about what happens over Bob’s and Angelina’s wedding and honeymoon, and all that occurs when they, as a wedded pair, come back home. But trust me when it say all of it makes for a great noir read; something like God’s Little Acre meets East of Eden.

Hill Girl, which was Williams’s first published novel, when he was 42, is not his finest work. That would be Hell Hath No Fury, from 1953. In fact, apart from Ted Lewis’s GBH and my very favorite titles from the likes of Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, and David Goodis, I don’t know that any hard-boiled crime novel has ever dazzled me as much as Hell Hath No Fury. If you’re a crime fiction/noir enthusiast and you haven’t read that book, your life is incomplete. I thought about covering that title for this series, but then I thought about how it had been reissued by Black Lizard the same year (1990) that its film version appeared on the big screen, as The Hot Spot, directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Don Johnson. And then I thought about Hill Girl which, to my knowledge, can still only be found in its original Fawcett Gold Medal edition, which is a classic of noir fiction in its own right, and which is certainly much more lost than the other book. Read ’em both. And don’t fuck around with your brother’s girlfriends!

We’ll close with some ruminating from Bob. This is him just before the wee-hours storm hits, when Sam finds out about Lee and Angelina playing doctor on his land. Little does Bob know that the present state of malaise he’s contending with, is a lot easier to manage than the life-changing events about to erupt around him. This same kind of oppressively sultry, moody atmosphere is very skillfully evoked in Hell Hath No Fury:

It was the first week in July and we had almost finished laying the cotton. There were only about two days’ work left, plowing out the middles, and then we would be through with it until picking time.

It was a hot night. Jake and Helen had gone across the road to their house at about eight-thirty and I had taken a bath out in the mule lot and gone to bed. But I was restless and had a hard time getting to sleep. The work had been slacking off the past week and I was getting that old feeling of being overtrained and stale and wasn’t even comfortably tired when night came. I had been staying too close to the job and away from dances and girls too long, and as long as the work kept up at that grueling pace and I was worn out at night it was all right, but now it was beginning to catch up with me.

I awakened and reached for my watch on the table beside the bed. It was one o’clock. The room was stifling and I was sweating, and I lay there a few minutes savagely restless, hating the waking up and knowing I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.

I cursed and got up and went out on the back porch, still naked, the way I had been sleeping, and went down to the well. I drew up a bucket of water and had a drink of it and marveled at the coolness of it and then upended the wooden bucket over my head and poured the whole thing over myself. It felt deliciously cold as I stood there in the hot blackness with the short grass springy under my feet. I could hear the mules walking around down by the corn crib and heard one of them kick at something and thud against the planks of the barn. I felt that way myself. I wanted to kick at something.


Brian Greene writes short stories, personal essays, and various things about books, music, and film. His articles on crime fiction books and authors have also been published by Noir Originals, Crime Time, Crimeculture, Paperback Parade, and Mulholland Books. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books and CDs.

Read all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Individual - You will receive an alert for each comment added to this post.
Digest - You will receive an end-of-day alert for all comments added to this post.
3 comments
Brian Greene
1. BrianGreene
And if you like novels that are set at sea, Williams's run of sailing noir titles might work for you, particularly Scorpion Reef and The Sailcloth Shroud.
Scott Adlerberg
2. ScottAdlerberg
Didn't he write the novel the movie DEAD CALM was based on? Australian film with Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman. I never read the book but the movie was a really tense thriller set at sea.
Brian Greene
3. BrianGreene
Yep, Scott, that's one of his. I need to see the movie.
Post a comment