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.’

Here it might be worth pausing for a word about the anal sex in the Moseley novels. It’s a handy primer to the Willeford worldview. In Sideswipe, a hardened ex-con offers it, not unkindly, to his patsy as a cure for insomnia. In The Way We Die Now, Moseley is nearly raped by a giant Mexican criminal and terror allows him to summon the strength to beat the man to death. In New Hope for the Dead, Moseley demands anal sex from an unsuspecting suspect in order to confirm that she has haemorrhoids and is therefore the murderer. And in Miami Blues:

‘Go into the bedroom, take off your clothes, put two pillows under your stomach, and lay face down on that big brass bed. I’m gonna have another beer and then I’ll be right in.’

‘You’re going to do it to me the back way whether I want to or not, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘In that case, I’d better get another San Miguel for you, and some Crisco for me.’

At the age of 13, at the peak of the Great Depression, Willeford ran away from home, boarded a freight train and spent the next year as a hobo, riding the rails like an extra from The Grapes of Wrath. During his year on the road he managed to lose his virginity in a Mexican whorehouse (at the second attempt), see a teenage boy killed by a mistimed jump for a train, spend some time in an abandoned prison, and meet a fellow hobo who asked him to whip him with a cane in return for some bacon. Willeford was happy to oblige but balked when the bacon ran out and the man asked for another beating as a favour: business is business.

In 1935, he joined the California National Guard and a few months later the air corps. He tried to join the regular army first but its quota was full. The recruiting officer asked him if he could read and write. ‘I write poetry,’ Willeford told him. ‘The infantry don’t need poets. What you should do is get into the air corps’ was the response. He would be in and out of the military for the next two decades. He spent two years in the Philippines as a driver of fire engines and petrol tankers, and as a chef. In 1939, he joined the US cavalry, and was stationed in Monterey, in line with his Steinbeck leanings. He learned the art of horseshoeing, served as a horseholder in a machine-gun troop, and earned a marksman qualification. In 1942, he was posted to Infantry School in Fort Benning, Georgia. He got married there and then it was off to Europe and the war. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, collecting a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and the Luxembourg War Cross. After VE Day, he stayed on in France and studied at the Biarritz American University until he was shipped back to the States and discharged. He enlisted again and spent three years in Kyushu, Japan, running the army radio station. His first book of poetry, Proletarian Laughter, a chapbook, was published in May 1948. The next year, he got divorced and left the army. His mailing address was General Delivery, Dallas. (Later he wrote a novel called Deliver Me from Dallas, so it seems unlikely he had a good time there.) He moved to Lima and enrolled in the graduate programme in art and art history at the university. He was kicked out when the administration discovered he had neither an undergraduate degree nor a high-school diploma. He joined the air force, got married again, and published his first novel, High Priest of California, an existential tale of California sleaze, about a Joyce-quoting used car salesman trying to bed a married woman. He finally left active duty in 1956. He was 37.

He worked as a boxer, actor, horse trainer and radio announcer. He lived in France and studied painting, wrote reviews for the Miami Herald, and was an editor at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. He finally collected his degrees: University of Miami, bachelor’s and master’s. He published his second novel, Cockfighter, in 1962, with a hero so wilful he has taken a vow of silence that he will lift only if he wins Cockfighter of the Year at the Southern Conference Tournament in Georgia. In 1965, Willeford finally settled down. He took a teaching job, published a couple more books, self-published a collection of his poetry entitled Poontang and Other Stories – sex and death mostly. He saw Monte Hellman direct the movie of Cockfighter, got divorced again, appeared as a bartender in Thunder and Lightning (like Cockfighter, it was produced by Roger Corman), remarried once more and, in 1984, published Miami Blues, the first of the Hoke Moseley novels. He wrote three more over the next four years. He died in 1988.

The Moseley novels can’t be called mystery novels in the traditional sense. For a start, there isn’t any mystery. Miami Blues, the first and best of the books, opens with a murder. ‘Frederick J. Fenger Jr, a blithe psychopath from California’, as the opening line describes him, has just landed at Miami Airport and, with no clear destination in mind but three stolen wallets in his possession, is accosted by a Hare Krishna disciple asking for money. The disciple puts his finger up to Fenger’s chest. Fenger bends it back, breaks it and walks away as the onlookers applaud. The Hare Krishna dies of shock. It’s not entirely clear that it’s murder; breaking someone’s finger might well be manslaughter. That’s the crime without which the book doesn’t happen, yet it need not have happened. It’s a completely motiveless and pointless event. That the victim’s sister is a prostitute, recently impregnated by her brother, and that she takes up with Fenger as he goes off on a one-man crime wave, is secondary.

In Sideswipe, the protagonist is neither a murderer nor a detective but rather the patsy, the murderer’s fall guy. Stanley Sinkiewicz is a recent retiree, a paint striper from Detroit, who – and this is incidental – is killing all the local dogs with cyanide pellets delivered from his cane. As he takes a nap one afternoon, his neighbour, a nine-year-old girl called Pammi Sneider, comes by and wakes him up by putting her tongue in his mouth. She then takes off her shorts and tells him he owes her five cents for a look. Stanley is horrified by this behaviour; he tells the girl to stop and tries to put her shorts back on. She giggles and resists. Stanley’s wife, Maya, shows up. Pammi starts to cry and within the hour, Stanley is locked up in the Palm Beach County Jail. His cellmate is a sociopath and Stanley gets involved in a botched armed robbery and a triple homicide. He ends up killing the sociopath with the cyanide he uses to poison dogs; the novel ends with him handcuffed to the D-ring in the back of a police cruiser. If Pammi Sneider hadn’t bothered him that afternoon, none of it would have happened.

Moseley sits very clearly in the Hammett camp. ‘It is not a fragrant world,’ Chandler writes of Hammett, ‘but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.’ The Moseley novels are clear-eyed and unsentimental, their plots made up of seemingly random elements with no evidence of authorial oversight and not that much use of coincidence. The prose is far from dazzling. There are none of the pyrotechnics of American noir, none of Chandler’s ‘I was as hollow and empty as the space between stars’, or Ellroy’s benzedrine-driven hyper-kinetics, or James M. Cain’s rat-a-tat ‘let’s get stinko’ hard-boiled self-consciousness. Flatness is Willeford’s style; metaphor is mistrusted, so is interiority, both the author’s and the characters’. At the end of The Way We Die Now, the last Moseley book and so the last thing Willeford published, Moseley explains that the reason he doesn’t miss his former partner is the way she ate a Cuban sandwich: taking off the bread and eating the ham slice first with her fingers, so that she no longer had a Cuban sandwich but a pork and cheese one. On hearing this, his daughter Aileen bursts into tears.

‘What’s the matter, why are you crying?’

‘Be-because,’ she said, finally, still sobbing, ‘Because you can’t.’

That, in the Willeford oeuvre, is about as big as it gets. Three words to describe Moseley’s problem and no proof at all that he takes her point.

Chandler’s problem with Hammett is that his books lack ‘a quality of redemption’. Chandler isn’t as good a storyteller as Hammett (the prose is too showy and the plotting a little tricky), but in Philip Marlowe he invented the hero he claims detective stories need: ‘A man of honour – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it and certainly without saying it’. Moseley is all taciturn honour, the perfect avatar for Chandler’s idea of a detective hero. We are granted hardly any access to his inner life; his thinking doesn’t concern Willeford. But we see him cope admirably, if unconventionally, with his daughter’s bulimia. We see him look out for his partner. We see him work very hard to resist any kind of praise or promotion, and we see him solve crimes with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of attention to detail.

*

Willeford didn’t much like modern writing; unsurprisingly, he found it static. His master’s thesis is called ‘New Forms of Ugly: The Immobilised Hero in Modern Fiction’. In antiquity, he argued, a character’s stasis derives from circumstance: Hercules is immobilised when he has to take over holding up the world from Atlas. ‘“How,” the reader asks himself, “is Hercules going to get out of this nasty situation?” But the reader knows that Hercules must resolve the problem.’ This, according to Willeford, is the pleasure of literature. The trouble begins with Notes from Underground – ‘surely one of the most unpleasant tales Dostoevsky ever wrote’ – and continues all the way through to Herzog, by way of Kafka, Beckett, Camus, Salinger and Kerouac. The gist of Willeford’s complaint:

When the modern hero is immobilised, his inactivity is caused by his mental state, his environment, his personality, or the overwhelming crush of modern civilisation; he is never Grail-hungry and he rarely, if ever, blames either a personal God or the gods at large for his inactive state. If he is unsound in mind, he is usually sound of wind and limb, and if his thinking is often distorted when compared with the thinking of the so-called adjusted, or average, man, he himself considers his mental state far superior to the run-of-the-mill average male who lacks his perception and prehension of the real nature of the world and universe.

His contempt for Kafka is out of the ordinary; ‘Kafka,’ he writes, ‘is representative of the meek prewar Jew who allowed himself, because of inaction and misunderstanding, to say nothing of a naive belief that this was not happening to him, to be led away to 26 concentration camps and gas chambers.’ Willeford links Kafka’s subservience to the letter to his father in which he variously ‘cajoles, accuses, goads, contradicts himself, wheedles, blames himself as much as his father and then limps to a trailing unconvincing inconclusion that negates most of what he had to complain about in the first place’. Willeford thinks Kafka compounded his pitifulness by not having the guts to give his father the letter himself, instead handing it to his mother to give it to him, which she didn’t.

This all seems like standard Europhobia; American novelists come off better: ‘One turns with relief to the lively writing style that characterises the immobilised hero in American contemporary fiction.’ But that is about as far as it goes. Dean Moriarty in On the Road is ‘a moron, a sociopath, and a chronic auto thief … who has failed to profit from a single experience’. Herzog is a ‘beguiling immobilised hero novel’ whose central character ‘is probably doomed to an eventual collapse into the ultimate refuge of insanity under the weight of the modern world and its insoluble problems’.

No wonder he wrote detective stories. Chandler again: ‘The story is (this) man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.’ Detective stories require their hero to be a man of action. Mycroft Holmes is much smarter than his younger brother but can’t be a detective because he’s too lazy. And so Moseley, though not particularly interested in his life as a detective, cannot be immobilised: there’s always something that needs doing. At the beginning of Sideswipe, Moseley is so immobilised that he falls into a sort of conscious coma: ‘burnout’, the doctor says; ‘combat fatigue’, his partner says. He leaves Miami and takes a job managing a rental property for his father. He buys two yellow poplin jump-suits which is all he plans to wear. He resolves never to return to Miami. So far, so immobilised. Only there’s crime in the building: a theft of art and jewellery. Moseley, despite himself, solves the crime.

All this may make the books sound a little austere – if that’s the right word – and Willeford’s thesis does verge on the ascetic; all that time in the army isn’t necessarily good for the sense of humour. But in fact the novels are very funny in a savage and dark way. Sideswipe has a disfigured hooker with a singular business plan: you have to sleep with her or her feelings will be hurt. In New Hope for the Dead, Moseley checks out a combined pet/housesitting gig where the only condition is you have to jerk the dog off once a day. On a more cosmic level, The Way We Die Now ends with Moseley’s former partner and current housemate married to a sworn enemy – someone he got convicted of murder who said he’d kill him when he got out. Willeford doesn’t tell us whether it’s a happy marriage. It’s more in keeping with the spirit of the books to assume it is.

Kindness is just as perverse as cruelty. In I Was Looking for a Street Willeford tells the story of his friendship with Billy Tyson, a young drifter from Harlan County, Kentucky. Tyson is desperately homesick but can’t go home until he has procured a cowboy hat. He told all his friends he was going out west to become a cowboy. He has the boots, blue jeans, leather gloves, a denim jacket and a sheepskin vest, but none of it means anything without the hat, and hats are hard to come by. Cowboys, Tyson says, are buried with their hats on. Willeford comes across a cowboy hat in a pool hall in Dalhart, Texas:

It was the archetype of all cowboy hats: the cowboy hat. The colour was a rich tobacco brown although it was encrusted with dirt and dust. The brim, about four inches wide, was pinched in front to a nippled point. The sides were curled into rakish arabesques – just enough but not too much. There was an inch-high rattlesnake headband, and there were jagged peak and valley sweatmarks above the band. These glittering sweatmarks were salty white against the dark tobacco brown. There was a round hole in the crown. A bullet hole?

Willeford steals the hat, crushing it as flat as he can, shoving it under the back of his shirt and covering it up with his slicker. The hat fits him beautifully. He doesn’t want to give it to Tyson. Maybe, he thinks, he’ll get the rest of the outfit himself, the boots etc, and return to Los Angeles and tell all his friends that he’s a cowboy. He finds Tyson down by the tracks. Tyson gives him a piece of cake, which he eats – the hat still hidden under his clothes. He reaches into his shirt, pulls out the hat and pushes out the crown so that it regains its shape: ‘Here’s your fucken cowboy hat.’