In Praise of Charles Willeford

Thanks to the coercive efforts of a certain someone, I have begun reading the works of the late Charles Willeford. I’m now almost done with Miami Blues, the first of Willeford’s Hoke Moseley books, and I’m kicking myself for not having heard of the guy before. (I was familiar with the 1989 film based on the book, which I enjoyed, but I had no idea it was based on a source. Willeford is best experienced on the page.)

Willeford was a mystery writer, but, unlike other criminal anthropologists, he dared to venture down some pretty batty avenues of human behavior. Consider the opening of Miami Blues, where “blithe psychopath” Freddy Frenger breaks the middle finger of a Hare Krishna at an airport simply because he is bothered by him. Much to the surprise of Frenger (and you have to love the way that this name connotes “finger”) and all concerned parties, the Krishna ends up dying of shock. And detective Hoke Moseley is on the case. But Moseley, while having a shrewd instinct for spotting an ex-con, is a terribly lazy man in denial of his investigative talents. He prefers to park his car on the lawn than find a parking spot.

What makes this book so good isn’t just these great behavioral ironies or the way that seemingly inconsequential violence transforms into a grand mess. Willeford is equally concerned with a batty precision for details, which reminded me very much of Murakami’s work. Having stolen a suitcase with a size 6 dress, Frenger then has the hotel clerk call up a prostitute who will fit the dress, so that he can use this dress as a commodity.

Also, I haven’t read any other novel that’s dared to reveal a character who can’t copulate through the usual orifice because he was so used to sodomy in the joint. Anyone who could whip up this scenario is both a ballsy and entertaining writer, a gleefully warped mind who deserves your attention.

This forthcoming approach to grit, which feels lived in and genuine, together with Willeford’s concentration on the cultural and economic forces disrupting Miami (and his characters’ oft racist reactions to it), is what makes Willeford’s work substantial enough for those who hover between that troubling threshold between mystery and literary fiction.

Incidentally, Willeford had initially penned a second Hoke Moseley book called Grimhaven, where Moseley killed his daughters. But the book was rejected because of this audacious move and remains, to this day, unpublished, with hard-core Willeford collectors offering considerable dinero for fourth-generation photocopies of the manuscript. Willeford would end up writing more Moseley books (Miami Blues was, after all, a strong seller), but I’m hoping that some indie publisher (Akashic, are you listening?) might find a way to get this published today. I think Willeford might be amused that even from beyond the grave, he still has the power to shake things up.