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Don Herron

Don Herron
Dennis McMillan

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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


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