Showing posts with label Charles Willeford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charles Willeford. Show all posts

Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Shark-Infested Custard

A few years after crime fiction author Charles Willeford’s 1988 death, his estate released The Shark-Infested Custard, an unsold trunk novel written in the 1970s. It’s a polarizing novel of Florida male hedonism that remains available today.

The book is set in a Miami singles-only apartment complex with a pool where four dudes — each around age 30 — hang and drink vodka martinis from Dixie cups. In short, it’s a great town to pick up chicks in a target-rich environment. Each of the four main characters gets a featured section of the book, which consists of four largely stand-alone noir novellas about these swinging guys.

Our first narrator is Larry Dolman, an ex-cop working in the business office for a big PI firm. He and his horny rat pack spend a lot of time strategizing about how to get laid most efficiently. One of these excursions opens the door to a real dilemma when one of the fellows picks up an underage girl and she dies of an overdose in his car. The guys then bumble into a murder they are generally unequipped to handle. All of this is played for laughs in a dark, comedic tone - think Donald Westlake meets Weekend at Bernie’s meets Quentin Tarantino.

The second narrator is a pharmaceutical salesman named Hank, who has been seeing a married woman. When someone takes a shot at Hank, he can only assume it’s her husband. As the attempts on Hank’s life escalate, we get an interesting look at the job of a legal drug dealer and the nuances of the career. It’s another great story with a tidy ending that brings all the plot threads nicely together.

The third novella follows mostly Don, the Florida sales rep of a British silverware manufacturer, in his attempt to heist his employer’s inventory and get away scot-free. It’s a story that could have been slightly edited to fit in quite nicely with Manhunt or any other purveyor of edgy crime fiction.

Lastly, the boys are back together again reflecting on the drama of the other stories and the fallout of their decisions when a sexual encounter takes a very dark turn.

I was completely delighted by these four stories, yet the consensus among reviewers is that is a below-average effort for Willeford. Let’s be clear: I’m right and they’re wrong. These are four dark, humor-filled crime stories about guys whose inability to control their libidos get them into hot water. Willeford’s writing is predictably awesome, and he’s funny as hell. Okay, the book’s title is staggeringly stupid, but the contents inside are four aces. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

High Priest of California

Charles Willeford (1919-1988) began his career authoring novels while serving in the U.S. Air Force. His most popular literary work starred Miami Police Homicide Detective Hoke Moseley. Before that series, Willeford concentrated his efforts on crime-fiction novels that blur the genre's boundaries. Fans and scholars point to Willeford as an author that doesn't necessarily write “genre”, similar to science-fiction author Philip K. Dick's novels that defy a specific genre. The most striking evidence to support this theory is Willeford's first published novel, High Priest of California. It was published by Royal Books in 1953 as a double with Talbot Mundy's Full Moon. Later, it was published by Beacon as a double with Willeford's Wild WivesHigh Priest has been reprinted by Phocion Publishing as a $2 ebook.

Russell is a San Francisco used car salesman that embraces his bachelor life. He owns 50 suits, lives in a small apartment, and spends his time reading highbrow literature, deciphering chess movements and translating long, archaic words into modern use while playing stacks of classical music and jazz records. But, Russell has another hobby. He toys with vulnerable women.

At a nightclub, Russell meets Alyce and asks her to dance. He can sense that she's not comfortable under the loud music and lights, so he suggests they go someplace quiet and talk. Russell learns that Alyce was married for several years, single now, works as a cashier and lives with a roommate named Ruthie and several cats. She's an odd bird, but she's slightly attractive. 

As the days go on, Russell begins a strained relationship that seems one-sided. Alyce enjoys Russell's company, but refuses intimacy. Things become weird when Russell notices she won't let him inside her apartment. On some dates, he has to drop her off a block away. One night he surprises Alyce and forces his way inside. He's shocked to find that she may have been lying to him the whole time. A man is in her apartment, sitting comfortably in front of the television and behaving like a small child. What's Alyce's secret?

Willeford constructs High Priest of California as a character study. Russell isn't a lunatic, but he has a number of mental issues that are catalysts for his disturbing behavior. While Alyce should be the faulty, deceitful character, Willeford flips the narrative to see which bizarre character can outdo the other. There's a sense that right and wrong are somehow contained in the same scenario, a challenge to the moral code and a misdirection for the moral compass. Willeford plays the characters to tilt, warring them with each other with a type of psychological jousting. Other than Russell's innocent housekeeper, every character has a dark side that either elevates or suppresses their otherwise meager existence. 

High Priest of California might be the strangest novel you will ever read. But, at the same time, it could be the one of the most compelling. Russell proves to be one of the most complicated protagonists in my recent memory - a multi-layered, mentally bent character with no empathy blessed with an uncanny power of persuasion. It's Willeford's main ingredient, and the main reason to read this unconventional crime-noir. If that's your thing, this book is a necessity. Buy the eBook HERE.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 62

On Episode 62 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, Eric and Tom discuss the life and work of Charles Willeford. Also: Tom’s Dallas Book Tour, Richard Stark, Ron Goulart, Warrant for a Wanton, Nick Quarry, Hoke Moseley, William Fuller and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 62: Charles Willeford" on Spreaker.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Hoke Moseley #01 - Miami Blues

Beginning in 1953, the novels of Charles Willeford pushed crime fiction boundaries with his distinctive plots and genre-bending conventions. Thirty years later, Willeford concluded his career with his Hoke Moseley series of hardboiled noir thrillers, novels that would prove to be the author’s best-selling works. The series ended after four installments coinciding with his 1988 death. Willeford originally titled the first book Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, but the publisher insisted on the more benign title of Miami Blues for the 1984 release.

Miami Police Homicide Detective Hoke Moseley responds to an airport crime scene involving a dead Hare Krishna who bothered the wrong traveler and paid the price. We also meet Freddy Fenger Jr., a freshly-released ex-con ripped with muscle and responsible for killing the Hare Krishna. The story basically toggles between Hoke’s investigation and Freddy becoming an established resident of Miami with an expertise in strong-arm robberies.

The characters in Miami Blues are colorful and vivid. In Florida, Freddy quickly finds himself a girlfriend - a dimwit prostitute named Susan (professional name: “Pepper”), and watching their relationship quickly slide into dysfunction made for fascinating reading. As the orbits of Hoke and Freddy began occupying the same airspace, things become both violent and, at times, hilarious. Miami Blues isn’t a mystery at all but rather a propulsive thriller that sets up a violent confrontation at the novel’s climax and delivers the goods when the time is right.

There is a gritty and raw feel to Willeford’s early work that is replaced with a smooth readability of Miami Blues. It’s clear that the veteran author sought to emulate a quirky Elmore Leonard vibe, and Willeford achieves that goal with additional edginess, political incorrectness and hardboiled violence. Miami Blues far outshines Elmore Leonard’s Florida crime novels in quality despite the fact that Leonard made more money with his inferior products. Make no mistake, Willeford is the real deal.

In short, Miami Blues is one of the best books I’ve devoured this year. It’s a quick and breezy read, and I can’t wait to enjoy the rest of the series. Don’t sleep on this one. Highest recommendation.

Addenda:

The Hoke Moseley Series:

1. Miami Blues (1984)

2. New Hope for the Dead (1985)

3. Sideswipe (1987)

4. The Way We Die Now (1988)

In 1990, I saw the film adaptation of Miami Blues starring a young Alec Baldwin. I recall enjoying the movie although I remember nothing about it 30 years later. Despite this utter gap in my memory, I’m comfortable saying that the book is way better than the movie. It always is.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Pick-Up

In 1955, Charles Willeford (1919-1988) was in the U.S. Air Force stationed in California and later Newfoundland. That was the year that his second published novel, “Pick-Up,” was published as a paperback original from Beacon Books. Since then, the novel has been reprinted several times, so finding an affordable used copy should be a cinch. Moreover, it’s also currently available as a $6 eBook.

Narrator Harry Jordan is a short order cook in a San Francisco diner working a quiet night shift when Helen Meredith arrives to have a cup of coffee at the counter. She’s very pretty and very drunk. Harry’s also a prolific boozer, so they hit a bar together after work. Helen has just arrived in town, and it’s clear that being shitfaced isn’t a rare thing for the girl.

Harry and Helen fall madly in love, and the reader is treated to a dysfunctional romance between two hard-core alcoholics with room-temperature IQs. It’s a lot like a David Goodis novel, but Goodis always thrusts his hard-luck losers into crime-fiction dilemmas fairly early in the novel. Willeford appears to be taking his time getting to the point until it finally occurs to the reader that there is no goal here other than bearing witness to the protagonists’ descent.

“Pick-Up” isn’t a much crime novel, and other than a couple bar fights, there’s not much action. Technically, there’s a killing but not the kind we normally see in paperbacks from this era. As expected, it’s rather well-told, but the book is basically just a prose blues song about two suicidal drunks in a doomed romance.

The final line of the book has a plot twist of sorts that probably knocked readers on their asses in 1955, but isn’t nearly as shocking 65 years later. In any case, I found “Pick-Up” to be a well-written slog that doesn’t hold up to brilliant Willeford works such as “The Woman Chaser” or “Wild Wives.” Your time is better spent elsewhere.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, December 16, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 24

It’s the end of the year and the last episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast for 2019. In celebration of our inaugural year, we are revisiting the greatest books we read this year along with lots of edgy vintage paperback talk. Stream below or at your favorite podcast provider for our “Best of 2019” extravaganza. Download directly HERE Listen to "Episode 24: Best of 2019" on Spreaker.


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Woman Chaser

By 1960, author Charles Willeford (1919-1988) had already been an orphan at age 8, a school dropout at age 13, a U.S. Army combat veteran, a U.S. Air Force airman, a published poet and novelist. His writing always seemed more literate, humorous, and philosophical than his hard-boiled fiction cohorts. His seventh novel was submitted with the title “The Director” and was published in 1960 as “The Woman Chaser.”

The novel is narrated by a smooth-talking Los Angeles used car salesman turned lot owner named Richard Hudson, and it is written in a first-person narrative style in which Hudson regularly breaks the literary fourth wall to explain to the reader that he is writing this book using flashbacks and narrative hooks he learned from watching movies. At times the hilarious meta-narrative style begins to resemble Kurt Vonnegut which I really like, but your mileage may vary. There’s also lots of sexist content that makes the book a true throwback to its era: “Women are made for bed, and men are made for war,” a character observes. They certainly don’t write them like that anymore. You get to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Anyway, the book is so much fun to read, you almost lose track of the fact that the plot doesn’t really get off the ground until about halfway through the paperback. Richard is a fan of movies and decides that he’s got what it takes to write and direct a feature film. His step-father is connected within the industry and finds a studio that will back a production based on Richard’s harebrained plot synopsis. Anyone with an interest in film-making will find the paperback utterly fascinating.

“The Woman Chaser” is a great read but not much of a crime novel. It’s written in a hardboiled style, but it’s ultimately just the story of a schemer trying to get a movie made and released. To be sure, it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, but it’s not the kind of gun-fighting bloodbath we normally cover here. It’s just a damned interesting paperback by a crime novelist adapting his noir style to a mainstream plot with a dark ending.

Despite the publisher’s title, there’s really not much woman chasing happening within the pages. To be sure, the narrator gets laid, but not much cardio was involved in making it happen. Overall, “The Woman Chaser” was an excellent novel that I can highly recommend without reservations. But you should know what you’re getting before you purchase a copy for yourself.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Wild Wives

Charles Willeford (1919-1988) was a heroic and decorated U.S. Army veteran who served in World War 2, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He continued with his military career after the war, and began writing in his free time while still enlisted. “Wild Wives” was released in 1956 and was his third published novel - originally packaged by Beacon Books as a double along with his 1953 debut, “High Priest of California.” Over the past 63 years, “Wild Wives” has been reprinted several times and is available today as a one-dollar eBook.

The short novel is a narrated by a low-rent San Francisco private eye named Jake Blake. His new client is Florence Weintraub, the voluptuous and promiscuous daughter of a prominent local architect. Daddy has hired a couple of goons to tail Florence and ensure she stays out of trouble. She hires Jake to help her shake the surveillance for a couple hours of unsupervised living. The prospect of a $25 daily fee is a payday too tasty for Jake to decline, so he accepts the gig.

While working the assignment, things abruptly shift gears from a remarkably-good private eye novel to a simply-amazing femme fatale noir story. If you read enough of these books, you learn the basic formula, but I never knew where this sexually-graphic story of action and violence was headed. In fact, I’m trying to remember the last crime novel I’ve read that was this awesome.

I recall reading “High Priest of California” years ago, and I’m comfortable saying that “Wild Wives” is a superior novel in every way. Willeford’s writing is excellent and it’s clear he was having a lot of fun with the tropes of the hardboiled detective genre (“She clung to me like jello in a molding tin.”). It’s difficult for me to recommend this short paperback with more enthusiasm than I already have. I wish I had enough dollars to buy the eBook for all Paperback Warrior readers and assign this to you as mandatory reading. For the love of all things holy, drop what you’re doing and read this novel. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE