Crime novels are an exceptionally popular genre in the publishing world. James Patterson, Janet Evanovich, and Alexander McCall-Smith are authors that often work in this genre that nearly everyone has heard of and all of whom have an enormous following among readers around the world.
One of my favorite crime novelists is Elmore Leonard and when I discover an author whose work I really enjoy, I like to seek out the authors and books they found to be influential.
On occasion, this search may lead down the rabbit hole and open up a literary world that I never knew existed. This was certainly the case when searching for Elmore Leonard’s literary forefathers.
I was led to an author by the name of Charles Willeford with the quote below.
No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford. - Elmore Leonard
Charles Ray Willeford was a teenaged hobo during the Great Depression, a tank commander in World War II, a professional boxer, a painter, a horse trainer, a poet, an English professor, a book critic for the Miami Herald and one of the most twisted and acerbic crime writers to ever put pen to paper.
Willeford’s first book of poetry Proletarian Laughter was published in 1948 and he went on to write several lurid (yet literary) pulp novels in the crime genre in the fifties with titles such as Wild Wives, The Woman Chaser, and High Priest of California. By the sixties, Willeford was churning out dark masterpieces such as The Burnt Orange Heresy and Cockfighter -- a book about man with an unhealthy obsession with the underground sport of fighting roosters that was later made into a film produced by Roger Corman and starring Warren Oates.
|Charles Willeford and Warren Oates in a scene from Cockfighter|
By the eighties, Willeford had settled in Miami and the outrageous violence of the booming cocaine black market and the massive immigration of Haitians and Cubans provided ample fodder for Willeford’s creative writing process and the author created his most successful books -- a series of novels about a Miami police detective named Hoke Moseley.
Miami Police Detective Hoke Moseley is not your usual crime novel protagonist-- by a long shot. Mosely was born for hard luck. He is a single father, middle-aged, and wears dentures (which are promptly stolen in Miami Blues - the first book in the series). Mosley is constantly broke due to his low pay, teenage daughters, and crippling alimony payments to his ex-wife. He is not well liked on the police force and criminal psychopaths seem to be drawn within his orbit on a regular basis. He is a competent police detective though he generally makes a break in a case only after bending the rules -- usually quite far.
On second thought, the above description does sound like the hard boiled protagonists of most crime novels.
The main difference between Hoke Moseley and any other crime novel detective is that Charles Willeford is running the darkly comic show here. Willeford’s villains are not arch criminals nor are they evil geniuses. They are desperate characters that are broke and busted and seeking the path of least resistance. Hoke Moseley is not much different from the villains in this regard; however, Moseley does adhere to his own moral code, twisted though it may be.
Several of Charles Willeford's books are available through the library. I would recommend starting with his semi-mainstream Moseley series (Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, and The Way We Die Now) before tackling some of his darker tomes such as The Black Mass of Brother Springer or The Machine in Ward Eleven.
If you do check out any of these books, let me know what you think.