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 But the book was rejected because of this audacious move and remains, to this day, unpublished, with hard-core Willeford collectors offering considerable dinero for fourth-generation photocopies of the manuscript.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.

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17 Comments

  1. Great take on Willeford, Ed, but check the first page of “Miami Blues” again — I think the description of Frenger is “blithe psychopath.”
    After you’ve read the other Hoke Moseley mysteries, you’ll want to check out COCKFIGHTER and THE BURNT ORANGE HERESY, and perhaps his autobiographies, I WAS LOOKING FOR A STREET (about his youth in the depression) and SOMETHING ABOUT A SOLDIER, Army life and depravity in the Philippines shortly before Pearl Harbor.

  2. Tom: Would you believe I could have sworn I typed in “blithe” when I typed in “benign?” Thanks for the callout and I’ll definitely be checking out the other Moseley mysteries.

  3. Criminal anthropologists? Behavioral ironies? Cultural and economic forces disrupting Miami? Connotes? I think Willeford might be amused at you, dude.

  4. Then why don’t we just say that the cat cuts a serious rug?

    Why not try to figure out why literature, which includes mysteries and popular novels, works? Or is this something reserved solely for literary fiction?

  5. Don’t forget to check out Pick Up, one of the best-written benders I’ve ever read, complete with a bang-up ending. I agree with you wholeheartedly, our job is to figure out why these books work–I can talk about this sort of thing all day…

  6. Why not try to figure out why literature, which includes mysteries and popular novels, works?

    Why not indeed but you seem more interested in tripping through the pages of your own well-ordered mind than through the pages of literature, however defined. Your piece should more properly be called In Praise of Me and My Expensive Education–Willeford seems like a sidebar to the main story here, you.

  7. Noddy: Thank you for your penetrating comments about my narcissism. Who knew that writing passionately about a writer and trying to figure out why his novels work was the apotheosis of self-absorption? I shall rest easy now, knowing that this blog post, the fellatio I demand from all female readers, and the six personal assistants I berate on a daily basis are clearly the mark of someone who is all about Me, Myself and I. Thank you for your courage in extending all of your spare time to condemning the real criminals and godless heathens of the United States of America: those terrible literary bloggers who are no less pernicious than an secret al Qaeda operative. I salute you, sir! George Bush salutes you, sir!

  8. Actually I’m just condemning you dude, but if it makes you feel better to be included in some type of national group, hey, knock yourself out.

  9. Congrats on having discovered Willeford, who makes Jim Thompson look like Mister Rogers. He wrote several novels, IMO, even better than Miami Blues: some are mentioned above, and others include The Woman Chaser, The Black Mass of Brother Springer, and The Shark-Infested Custard, a charming tale of the swingin’ Seventies that was repeatedly rejected as “too bleak” during his lifetime and only published in its entirety after his death.

  10. Good luck. I have been an avid fan of Charles Willeford for many years. I own a photocopy of “Grimhaven” and have spent many hours on the internet trying to get his out of print work. I bought an old “girly” magazine because it had a (not so good) short story by Willeford.
    He’s an adiction. His work is amazing. He’s one of the few writers that rarely disapoints.

  11. I’m dying to read Grimhaven. I don’t see myself ever going to Florida to be able to read it in the library. Praise Dennis McMillan for printing so much great CW stuff over the past decade!

  12. Mr. Golomb has Grimhaven. I’m not the first to say this but any advice about acquiring this story would be appreciated. I’m one of those saps who wants to read the MS not get his hands on it for financial gain. Is there a secret society of Hokeites out there?

    Jamie

  13. I’ll add my voice to the chorus that’d love to see Grimhaven published. Or see one of those photocopies of course…

  14. I tried for years to read Grimhaven. Have never succeeded. Every chance has ended in failure. Someday I might have to go to Florida for it. But I really can’t afford it now. Drat.

  15. Grimhaven is absurdly easy to find in epub or pdf format online. It’s like 140kb too. GEEZ.

  16. Maybe so, AC. But this post was written seven years ago, when GRIMHAVEN wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous. Believe it or not, there was an online world before social media.

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