“Nothing in Her Way” is a 1953 novel by Charles Williams concerning confidence games and femme fatales. If you are interested in books about long cons, short cons, horseracing, and gambling, this is the book for you. The central plot in the book is about a couple of complicated long cons that Mike Belen and Cathy Dunbar pull on two men (Goodwin and Lachlan) who ruined their fathers years earlier, making off with the dough and leaving their fathers to take the blame.
Mike and Cathy grew up together, playing cowboys and Indians, and other games and, after they matured, becoming lovers and marrying for two years before divorcing. Mike is still haunted by the redheaded Cathy and is surprised to see her when he is convinced to join a con game and is introduced to her by another name. Even when she is not around and he is sitting in a bar, he looks at a girl at the other end of the bar who had red hair, “But it wasn’t quite the same shade of red, . . . it never is.” He wonders if he would “ever break himself of it.” But Cathy- “her hair was the color of a bottle of burgundy held up to the light.” And Mike explains, “The only catch was that her name wasn’t Ms. Holman. I was reasonably sure of that. I’d known her for twenty-three years, and I’d been married to her for two.”
What’s great about this book is Williams’ terrific prose which moves the story along. One of the conmen Mike deals –Charles Wolford or Charlie- with “looked as if he’d got lost from a conducted tour of something.” “He looked like a cherub, or an overgrown cupid. He had on a blue serge suit too tight under the arms, a shite shut too tight in the collar, and a cheap hand-painted tie with a can-can dancer on it.” “Charlie was a pro; he’d dealt in flim-flam all his life; he had a mind like a steel trap; and he’d been around so long he wouldn’t bet you even money you didn’t have three hands on your left arm unless you’d let him take it home first and look at it.”
The best prose is saved for Cathy- the femme fatale of legend. Mike narrating the story explains: “In Salem, they’d have burned her - - or they would have if there’d been enough women on the jury.” She was “the same loaded little girl with the short fuse.” But, the question Mike faces throughout the entire story and throughout the long cons that the two pull off together is whether or not he can trust Cathy- “it boiled down to that same question: Just who was bamboozling whom?” Throughout the book, Mike keeps harping about the warnings- the buzzing noises that are there “when you’re playing cards with strangers and get an almost perfect hand, and it’s always smart to listen to it.” Cathy is good, though. “If she got the knife in you, don’t think she wouldn’t turn it. She despised people she could walk on.” She was a “redheaded hellcat” and “a whirlpool” he “was trapped in.”
Other descriptions are just as good. Lachlan (the mark) shows up at a cocktail lounge with a date, who “was a brown-eyed blonde who overflowed her gown to within a short drool of being arrested for blocking traffic.”
The con games that they pull on Goodwin and Lachlan are almost too complex to be believable, but Williams is a master storyteller and he makes the story work. Against the backdrop of these cons was the doublecrossing, the paranoia, the distrust between Mike and Cathy and the host of other conmen and grifters that she had doublecrossed and that were on their tails throughout the story, threatening to louse up one con after another.
The writing is smooth and it is fantastically easy reading, particularly once the story gets going. Highly recommended.