In 1984, the publication of Miami Blues, the first of four
Hoke Moseley police procedural novels, brought Charles Willeford
some much deserved recognition. Until that point, although he had
been writing for more than thirty years, he was still a virtual
unknown, teaching an English course at Miami-Dade Community
College and reviewing mysteries for the Miami Herald. Now, ten
years after his death, many of his books are back in print, but
unfortunately he still hasn’t achieved the household-name status
of say Chandler or Hammett. This is probably no one’s fault but
his own. Early on in his career, despite critical success, he was
unwilling to sell out, gleefully experimenting with style and
creating psychopathic anti-heroes, rather than committing to a
commercial formula. However, this diversity in his work is
exactly what makes him a unique and compelling literary figure,
and his novels worthy of analysis and rediscovery.
Charles Willeford really had three careers as a writer. His early
pulp fiction from the fifties and early sixties, such as The
Woman Chaser and The High Priest of California, are as good as
anything Thompson or Cain ever wrote. His novels from the late
sixties and early seventies, Cockfighter and The Burnt Orange
Heresy, are noir classics. Finally, he gave in and wrote a
commercial crime series, and the Hoke Moseley novels are worthy
of comparisons to Elmore Leonard. He also wrote a post-humously
published novel, The Shark-Infested Custard, that is a literary
Pulp Fiction written twenty years before the film.
Billed as “the first critical appreciation” of the writer’s
life and work, Willeford is must-reading for all Willeford fans.
The detail-rich narrative touches on Willeford’s army career, his
first attempts to get his novels published, his trials and
tribulations as a writer of pulps. The book is probably best for
its description of some hilarious “Willeford moments.” A natural
prankster, it easy to see how his quirky, unpredictable
characters evolved. There is particularly funny story of how he
broke into the apartment of a woman he was dating to defrost
steaks for dinner. Also memorable are Willeford’s description of
a non-traditional way that a woman can get pregnant and how he
once wrote an episode of Miami Vice with a homosexual theme.
The script was rejected.
Willeford also had a strange idea of what made a good title.
A title of an unpublished novel was A Necklace of Hickeys and he
wrote a self-published book called A Guide for the
Undehemorrhoided – an account of his hemorrhoid operation.
Readers who are only slightly familiar with Willeford’s work
will be bored by Willeford, since the book is more a fan’s
appreciation than a true biography or critical analysis. The book
also has major flaws which may put some readers off. There is
disappointingly little insight from points of view other than
Herron’s, and much of the historical information is extracted
from Willeford’s published non-fiction or biographical works
rather than from interviews or new research. Willeford led an
incredibly diverse life, working as an actor, horse trainer,
boxer, and radio announcer, but these experiences are either
touched on briefly or ignored. In addition, structure of the book
is disjointed and confusing, and the last half of the book is
padded with interviews between Willeford and Herron.
But for fans there is still much to like about Willeford, a
bumpy, occassionally insightful, and often hilarious trip down
memory lane. If you aren’t a fan, start with Cockfighter then
read the Moseley series.
Reviewed by Jason Starr