Futzing Around

Will Frears

  • Miami Blues by Charles Willeford
    Penguin, 246 pp, £8.99, August 2012, ISBN 978 0 14 119901 6

Charles Willeford is in a category all of his own in the annals of American crime writing. He is neither glamorous nor pulpy; he didn’t write airport fiction and he didn’t write bestsellers with aspirations to literature. He simply wrote crime fiction as though reporting real life. Hoke, a TV series based on the four Hoke Moseley books he wrote in the 1980s, has just been announced in the US; it will star Paul Giamatti, the shlub from Sideways. It’s really good casting. Willeford is adored by his peers and big-deal crime writers like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block praise his work. ‘Nobody,’ Elmore Leonard said, ‘writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford.’ Quentin Tarantino cited Willeford as one of the major influences on Pulp Fiction. There can be something a little suspect about being so well respected by fellow practitioners: the appeal may not extend to ordinary readers. And this is the danger with the Hoke Moseley books: so little seems to be happening that the straight-ahead pleasures of crime fiction are lost. Crime fiction is so dependent on suspense and momentum that Willeford can seem flat, more Carver than Chandler. As a teenager hooked on Chandler, I was given a copy of Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please for Christmas and was baffled by how different it was from Farewell My Lovely. Reading Willeford resolved that particular difficulty.

Murder, according to Chandler, doesn’t really belong with the rest of literature: it lacks the element of uplift. The murder novel ‘has a depressing way of minding its own business’, he says in ‘The Simple Art of Murder’, ‘solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss.’ Yes, ‘the hero’s tie may be a little off mode and the good grey inspector may arrive in a dogcart instead of a streamlined sedan with siren screaming, but what he does when he gets there is the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.’ That is, until Dashiell Hammett: Hammett ‘gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons’. ‘Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street … He put these people down on paper as they were and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes.’ Hammett, Chandler says, ‘took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley.’

Willeford’s alley is Miami, and it isn’t what our imagination wants it to be. Neither Miami Vice nor Scarface, or even the wild grotesque of Carl Hiaasen. There’s nothing mythical about its depiction of lower-middle-class American life. The crimes are committed either for prosaic reasons – life insurance features prominently – or they are motiveless and shocking acts of violence: an 18-month-old baby is killed after being accidentally kidnapped during a routine car theft. There are no machine-guns; there’s no cocaine, no honour among thieves. Violence is committed routinely both by cops and by robbers: it’s the quickest way to get whatever you want, and sometimes it’s a real treat. But the central notion in these novels is that crime is nothing special, just another everyday thing. Moseley is a cop, and a very good one, but he doesn’t spend a lot of time being a cop. He mostly worries about his life: his relationship with his daughters, or his father, or money. He lives rent-free in a flophouse in exchange for providing security; the other guests (inmates?) are retirees and Cuban refugees. His salary is $34,000 a year, which should be enough, except he has to pay half of it in alimony. He’ll be suspended from the force if he doesn’t move downtown but he can’t afford to. He opens cans of beef stew for supper. One of his daughters has dropped out of school and is working at a car wash. He has false teeth. He has a difficult time getting laid. He also solves a whole bunch of murders, but that’s incidental.

Willeford was born in 1919 in Little Rock, Arkansas. By the time he was eight, both his parents had died of TB and he was living in Los Angeles with his grandmother, at least on weekends. Monday to Friday, he was sent to live in a boys’ home, where ‘the top job’, he writes in I Was Looking for a Street (1988), the first volume of his autobiography, ‘was taking care of the cows, breeding them to the bull, milking them, and working in the pasteurisation plant. This privileged work was reserved for boys 16 and older, and was much sought after because they could go to the dairy any time the supervisor wasn’t around and fuck the calves.’

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