Monday, August 6, 2012

(No.210) Charles Willeford & Hoke Moseley

"Charles Willeford and Hoke Moseley: no leak in the morning until you've written a page"

by Alastair Rickard

I was reminded recently that favourite fiction of mine hardly evokes universal agreement. Someone told me his wife picked up a book I had reviewed favourably in a column but put it down part way through because she so disliked it and wondered how I could possibly have recommended it. I was not surprised. As the bishop said to the actress, tastes differ.

And that brings me to what, for some people at least, may turn out to be an acquired taste.

Charles Willeford served in the U.S. Army between the wars and was a decorated World War II tank commander in the American Third Army. He did a variety of jobs on civvy street over the years and worked at becoming a full time writer.

He was full of stories he delighted in telling based on his interesting and adventurous life: from being a 12 year old drifter riding the rails during the dirty thirties to a flea-circus barker to an actor. Some of his followers think his two volumes of autobiography are his best books. By the time he died age 68 in 1988 he had written twenty novels (most out of print).

Willeford, who later in his life taught writing at a Miami college, once told a young would-be writer that the secret to writing was  to "never allow yourself to take a leak in the morning until you've written a page. That way you're guaranteed a page a day, and at the end of a year you have a novel."

Near the end of his life Willeford created a continuing character he named Hoke Moseley, a Miami homicide detective. Hoke was living and working in 1980s Miami, a city in transition especially after President Jimmy Carter's Mariel boatlift of Cuban 'refugees, many of them criminals from the prisons Castro took the opportunity to empty.

Hoke is an ordinary man only occasionally competent at living. He struggles with family and financial fallout from an unsuccessful marriage with two adolescent daughters, and with the changing nature of big city policing as well as the changing racial and ethnic profile of both Florida and the Miami police department.

For most of his time as a published writer Willeford had only a cult following but he became and still is much admired by other American crime fiction writers. Probably his best fiction is the four Moseley novels. This quartet has been republished in softcover editions, each one introduced by one of Willeford's contemporary crime novelists and admirers: Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke.

During his life Willeford never achieved anything approaching the success as a novelist that any of these four American writers have had. But the republished Hoke Moseley novels are posthumously elevating his reputation as a writer and enlarging his readership.

As Donald Westlake said: "Charles Willeford wrote very good books for a very long time without anybody noticing.... And then along came Hoke Moseley."

Hoke tries to be a good detective but tougher and meaner people often get the better of him. He is lied to and betrayed and often is discouraged by the apparent futility of what he does as a policeman. But he keeps on keeping on and sometimes he is successful.

If you like quirky crime novels in which there's not much mystery but a fair bit of grit; or you prefer so-called police procedurals in which the 'procedures' are mostly ignored; or you find absorbing a detective who, while basically a decent person. is hardly politically correct, then you are likely to enjoy the Hoke Moseley novels. Too bad Charles Willeford wrote only four before he died.

Because Hoke's life in this quartet of novels moves ahead chronologically from novel to novel, the reader will get more out of each of them if they are read in the order they were written and published (all are now in print):

Miami Blues (original publication date -1984)

New Hope (1985) 

Side-Swipe (1987)

The Way We Die Now (1988)

There are very distinctive elements of plotting, character and dark humour in Willeford's Moseley stories that make me think of novels by Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. But he is unique and I like this series. So did that old master Elmore Leonard who is now in his 80s and still writing novels that are not just bestsellers but great, well-written stories.

Charles Willeford, wrote Leonard, "was an original, a natural, with talent that reached far beyond the crime-novel genre .... What he did, no one does better."




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