I Was Looking for Charles Willeford:
Ray Banks’s reputation as one of the best recent voices in crime fiction has been steadily growing. He is also an intriguing critic of the genre:
“Five Noir Lessons from Charles Williams” – Mysterious Press.com
“Oedipus Wrecks – Jim Thompson’s A Swell-Looking Babe” – Noir Originals
“Trouble’s Braids: Tom Waits & Noir” – Crimespree Magazine (posted on The Saturday Boy)
“Eddie Little: American Outlaw” – Crimespree Magazine (posted on The Saturday Boy)
There are also three significant pieces about Charles Willeford:
“The Transgression of Brother Willeford” – The Crime Factory
“An Appreciation of The Women Chaser” – Noir City (not online)
“Willeford at the Movies” – Grift (not online)
I talked to Ray over grappa in my Edinburgh hotel room this past July. The next night we took a fuzzy photo with another Willeford fan, Allan Guthrie. (I’m in the middle, Guthrie on left, Banks on right.) When I interviewed Allan he said about Willeford, “His name is up there with God.”
Thanks to Len Wanner for transcribing this interview.
Ethan Iverson: As famous as Charles Willeford is with some sort of post-Tarantino notoriety, I believe he’s not understood that well in general.
Ray Banks: No, he isn’t. I don’t think he’s understood at all. I think the Tarantino thing is probably part of the problem, too, because people put Willeford into that “quirky postmodern” camp, thanks to the Tarantino and Leonard blurbs. So he’s stuck in a niche, and while I think he’s utterly subversive within that niche, he’s still kind of stuck there. It’s a shame. “The Godfather of South Florida Crime Fiction” is a nice title, and I don’t doubt that he paved the way for writers like Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen, but there’s more to Willeford than wacky characters and gory gags.
EI: In the Herron book we learn that Kurt Vonnegut offered some advice to Willeford: If he wants his books to sell he should write about the rich and powerful. Of course, that’s one thing that Willeford never really does: write about anyone who has power, money, real sex appeal or any sort of post-Tarantino swagger, that “rock and roll” style.
RB: This is it. Nobody’s rich, nobody’s sexy, nobody’s particularly charming in a Willeford book. Even Hoke Moseley, arguably Willeford’s most likeable character, is a bigot. He’s cheap, he’s toothless, he’s living in a shithole, he hates his ex-wife …
EI: He’s not even particularly smart in some ways.
RB: No, he’s not. Absolutely not. He’s cluttered with facts and beliefs but it’s a really superficial intelligence. The whole point of Freddy Frenger is that he shows up how emotionally and physically vulnerable Hoke is. So when he goes from Miami Blues to Grimhaven, or New Hope for the Dead into Sideswipe, he’s approaching a point in his life where something’s stressed to snapping point. But a lot of readers don’t like to see that, or it’s not what they choose to remember. They fixate on the “quirky”, which is one of those words I see attributed to Willeford all the time, and it makes me a little crazy because it’s not “quirky.” It’s human.
EI: Willeford’s characters are much more deeply flawed than “quirky.”
RB: Exactly. Fundamentally flawed. The thing that keeps coming back to me, especially about Hoke Moseley, is his casual bigotry, not only for black people, but even more pronounced for Cubans, which is understandable (for Hoke) given the time period, his job, his lack of obvious intelligence, and the fact that he’s living in a hotel full of Marielitos. Not to condone it, of course, but it’s interesting to me that his most obviously likeable character is pretty racist.
EI: He’s also sexist.
RB: He’s incredibly sexist. But like his racism, I think his sexism is based entirely on his utter ignorance of the way other humans relate to one another.
RB: And like I said, it’s entirely understandable given his profession, given that he works all the time and he sees the worst of people – he doesn’t really have much in the way of relationships beyond this kind of fractious relationship with Bill Henderson. And so when Sanchez turns up as his new partner in New Hope for the Dead, that’s your double whammy, this Hispanic woman who quickly becomes pregnant and moves in with him. If you look at New Hope for the Dead, it’s almost like a sitcom. You know, Sanchez moves in, Sue-Ellen and Aileen turn up. This guy who can’t relate to anyone on a personal level is stuck in the middle of it all. So yeah, the situation is funny, but the characters themselves, especially Hoke, are pretty tragic and sometimes really quite ugly.
EI: How are we supposed to feel about the leads in a Willeford book? Hoke is the most palatable of a long sequence of male leads who are hard to understand.
RB: I think Hoke’s made more palatable because of his supporting cast; he has this family unit that don’t hate him, so we accept that there’s something worth liking there, even if it’s not terribly obvious. Hoke is also more palatable because the psychos are even more disgusting. Freddy Frenger is … not Alec Baldwin, let’s put it that way. Baldwin did a fantastic job, very charming, very energetic, but I’m not sure he’s the Frenger of the book. You know Fred Ward was supposed to play Frenger? That’s why he bought the rights. He was supposed to play Frenger and they wanted Gene Hackman for Moseley, which I think would have been way more interesting. But no, Alec Baldwin came along and blew everyone away and they went, “Oh, fuck it. We’ll do it with him.” Might be apocryphal, that story, but I’m sure it’s true.
Anyway, Freddy’s a nasty piece of work, Troy in Sideswipe is even more unhinged and the guys in the last novel, the Redneck slavers, are utterly repulsive. So, you know, Hoke benefits from that kind of company. It helps that he’s unwittingly pretty funny, too.
But what’s dangerous about Willeford as a writer is that he’s very, very persuasive. I mean, he understands psychopaths completely, and he portrays them so vividly, so that there are times when it’s difficult to fault his characters’ logic, even if it leads to violent ends.
EI: And they sound convincing when they’re lecturing you. I had a quasi-stepfather that would sit and tell me all this advice, just this male advice. And when I read Willeford I always think of him. In all the Willeford books there are these men who don’t necessarily have the answers the way they think they do.
RB: Exactly. It’s that superficial knowledge. And in Hoke’s case, it’s completely inappropriate, even if it’s correct in context. The sex talks that he gives his daughters in New Hope for the Dead is …
EI: Justifiably famous.
RB: Yeah, infamous. “AIDS you don’t have to worry about. That comes from anal sex. If you avoid anal sex, you won’t get AIDS.” And, well, yeah that particular fact is total nonsense – though I’d imagine it’s the kind of nonsense propagated at the time – a lot of that sex talk is kind of okay, even if it is entirely inappropriate for teenaged girls. Or maybe I’m just being a prude.
And the stuff that he says in Grimhaven to them, when he’s trying to get them to go out and have a job and stuff like that. It’s the little things like: “We’ve got some sleeping bags down at the hardware store. There’s two kinds; there’s a brown one and there’s a blue one with a Pepsi logo on it. You better make sure that you pick the right one because we’re not changing it.” This kind of very hard-arse way of dealing with his children because he has no concept of dealing with anybody but himself, his colleagues and some guy he just arrested. He’s that kind of guy.
But, yeah, even if what Willeford’s characters are saying is complete bollocks, it’s very persuasive because the details are correct or the details feel right. Like when Hoke is talking about how to tell what street you’re on in Miami because the letters go one way and the numbers go another way. I never knew that. It might be utter rubbish, especially now. But it kind of makes sense. If it’s a lie, it’s a good one.
EI: Miami Blues was a surprise bestseller. My own feeling about Miami Blues is to question whether it’s a serious crime novel. The book begins with this absurd coincidence …
RB: Even more absurd in the book than the movie. It’s not mentioned in the movie that the Krishna at the airport is Susie’s brother.
EI: Right, so the blithe psychopath kills the brother then checks into a random hotel and the sister is the prostitute.
EI: And that’s the sort of thing that people are justifiably upset in detective stories, when there are massive coincidences just to make the plot go. And here Willeford sort of like sticks this banana pie in our face right out the gate. To me, it’s sending up the form at that point.
RB: I think so. It’s a “fuck you” banana pie rather than a straight-out comedy one, though. He’s sending up the form because he knows the form so well and because he’s an absurdist writer, I think. I don’t believe it’s a comedy twist on the detective story that, say, someone like Carl Hiaasen would do later on. It’s more like, “fuck the form.”
EI: If you step away from it for a second, you can see the whole thing as the idea of a police procedural just sort of stripped of all common sense, just merely as a vessel for these ideas and characters.
RB: And almost entirely stripped of procedure! In the four books there’s little to no real police work done. I mean, in Sideswipe, he’s not even a cop. In The Way We Die Now, he’s undercover and stuck out in this farm or in the swamps. The only one that comes close to being a police procedural – you know, with a mystery at its core – is New Hope for the Dead. Even then, he spends most of his time trying to move in with the widow.
I think Miami Blues was Willeford desperate to write something commercial, but on his own terms. He’d just come off the back of Off the Wall – the Son of Sam non-fiction book – and so the idea of a cop chasing a psycho was probably right at the front of his mind. And I think that’s where the similarities end. Frenger isn’t a serial killer. To be fair, his crimes are pretty minor in the grand scheme of things – he kills the Krishna by breaking his finger, but that’s manslaughter at best. Then there’s forgery, impersonating a police officer, the pawn shop robbery that goes awry at the end. He’s hardly Moriarty, this guy. In fact, I’d say that Willeford’s more interested in Frenger trying to build this bizarre perfect home with Susie than he is in Frenger’s crimes. And with Hoke, well, it’s more a quest for him to get his teeth back. You know? Because he paid good fucking money for those teeth.
EI: It’s incredible.
RB: It’s brilliant. It’s subversive. It’s one of those books where the plot really, really doesn’t matter. It’s all about those two characters, these two guys. And those two characters are so unbelievably compelling that they could be doing anything and you would be quite happy to read about it. So Miami Blues is a really odd commercial hit, but you can kind of see how it spawned this wave of off-beat Floridian crime writers, just with its newness. Other than Willeford, I don’t think there were that many at the time.
EI: His followers ran with this idea that it’s so interesting that a dumb thief that goes in to rob jewels and someone shoots off his hand: this garish sort of violence with these dumb-asses, you know what I mean? That was sort of a dubious gift from Mr. Willeford. Because the interpretation is “rock and roll violence,” but that wasn’t where he was coming from.
I want to read this quote from The Shark-Infested Custard:
“This murder of Wright, as necessary as it was, and I would always remind myself that it was necessary, and not a gratuitous act, had changed me forever. To kill a man, whether in anger or in cold blood, is the turning point in the life of an American male. It made me finally a member of the lousy, rotten club, a club I hadn’t wanted to join, hadn’t applied for, but had joined anyway, the way you accept an unsolicited credit card sent to you through the mail and place it in your wallet.”
RB: That’s a pretty good summary of every single Willeford novel right there.
EI: Willeford was in that club.
RB: Oh yes.
EI: He killed a lot of guys.
RB: He was very, very good at killing lots of guys. He was a tank commander. Highly decorated, I believe.
EI: A lot of our best crime fiction after WWII was informed by those catastrophes.
RB: Absolutely. And Willeford was really open about saying that these guys, these blithe psychopaths, were guys he knew in the army, otherwise normal guys who just somehow took to killing. And he always wondered what would happen to them after the war was over. Well, what happened was they became Willeford characters, and they became Jim Thompson characters and they became David Goodis characters. They became these guys who were sick, psychotic malcontents on the inside, but had to project an aura of Eisenhower respectability in order to go about their day-to-day. So as a result there’s this kind of amoral pragmatism that flavours Willeford’s work. Sometimes it’s played for laughs, sometimes it’s terrifying, but it’s consistent. And it’s consistent because Willeford understands that mind-set, which is again why he’s such a persuasive writer, even when he’s dealing with absolutely absurd topics.
On that level, I think he can be something of an acquired taste. It’s perhaps why people don’t really read him as deeply as they should, and why it’s easier to take the superficial quirk and “rock and roll violence” and leave the actual darkness behind, because that’s too difficult, too personal, to process.
EI: The tone is so odd at times. After Hoke Moseley kills a couple of guys in The Way We Die Now, he says that one was a mercy kill because this guy wouldn’t get work: he had been blinded in the fight. It’s a very hard sentence to parse in any conventional way. You’ve got this black-hearted killer that is a slaver and the worst sort of man imaginable. And Hoke has been in a fight-to-the-death situation and finally killed this killer, and he thinks, “Well, it’s OK that I killed him because the way he was injured he wouldn’t be able to get any more work.”
RB: It’s the justification of a maniac, really.
EI: Yeah. There’s no way a normal human can make sense of that statement.
RB: Unless they’d done it. And that’s the key thing, because all of Willeford’s protagonists justify their crimes, and these justifications are just another part of their day-to-day. Something like Shark Infested Custard is full of justification for abhorrent behaviour, to the point where it’s kind of a pitch-black joke at the end. That nightmare sitcom fadeout where they’re all “Oops! Looks like we have to get rid of another dead body!” Cue theme music and “You Have Been Watching”… Tell you, as deviant as some of his antagonists are, you wouldn’t find that in an Elmore Leonard novel.
EI: You’re always sympathetic to the hero.
RB: Yeah, exactly. And there aren’t any heroes. Not in real life, and Willeford knew this from experience.
EI: Leonard’s characters – or any another popular thriller writer’s heroes – are also good with women. Usually they’re slick. They’re movers and shakers. They’re powerful, cool people.
RB: Yeah. Anyone who isn’t that slick is usually comic relief. It’s aspirational crime fiction.
EI: And they have fun doing lots of drugs and stuff like that.
RB: Does anyone do drugs in a Willeford novel?
EI: They get sad drunk and they do other stuff but it’s not that world.
RB: They jerk off gloomily in the shower. Nothing is going to make Hoke Moseley feel better, but he tries … he’s drunk all the time in his little hotel room, living off his TV dinners and masturbating gloomily in the shower. It’s a rough life.
EI: Let’s go back and talk about the canon. We may disagree about certain books.
RB: We might.
EI: One of the reasons that I’m interviewing you and Don, rather than just do my own take, is because Willeford is so extreme and so varied. And if you care enough about Willeford to read him deeply, you’ll form your own relationship with his convoluted and uneven canon.
There’s that book of poetry, Protelarian Laughter, with some incredible “Schematics” in it. I don’t know if you have a relationship with Willeford’s poetry?
RB: Not at all. I know very, very little about his poetry.
EI: Fair enough! Neither do I. So, anyway, we really begin with The High Priest of California.
RB: Yes. High Priest is a difficult one because it’s essentially half a book. It’s about Russell Haxby and this woman that he’s attracted to simply because she’s not putting out. And then he gets it to a point where he has her and that’s it. That’s all, folks. It’s a very short book – it’s only about 30,000 words. A novella, really.
EI: It’s kind of a theme of the early books that the second he finally sleeps with a woman, he’s disenchanted and turns his back on her.
RB: Yeah. I don’t think it stands up as well because the modern world isn’t so shocked by one-night sport fucks. The only thing that really interests me about the book is that Haxby is kind of a proto Richard Hudson. The book could feasibly work as a prequel to The Woman Chaser. Certainly, there are a lot of character nuances and a lot of character back-story that return in The Woman Chaser, but other than that … I mean, look, it’s written very well. I don’t see any major problems with it. It doesn’t seem to have that level of darkness or that level of humour that he’d display later on. It feels like a quickie.
EI: I guess for me I need a little more reason to understand why the characters are doing what they’re doing.
After High Priest there are several books of varying quality. Some of them are hard to find, some of them are very easy to find. There’s Wild Wives, there’s Pick Up, there’s others.
RB: There are the two smut books, Understudy for Love and Lust is a Woman. Lust as a Woman was reprinted as Made in Miami – I’ve not read it. And Understudy for Love only exists in its paperback form. I’m not sure if it was ever reprinted. Both of those books, as far as I’m aware, were Willeford stories with smut every other chapter. They were like his soft-core books, and as such they’ve not really been at the top of my “get-to” list. And there was also The Whip Hand or Deliver Me From Dallas, which isn’t technically a Willeford book, it’s a W. Franklin Sanders book, which was apparently written with him, or Willeford wrote Sanders’ idea and they then heavily re-wrote it at the publisher, I don’t know. I get the feeling there’s a long story behind that one. Anyway, I’ve tried to read that book many times and I just can’t get into it, possibly because doesn’t feel like Willeford. I’m sure there are Willeford moments, but it’s a tough one. I may have another go at some point when I’m in the mood for some sub-Caldwell Hixploitation.
EI: The two that I judge as “canon” for sure are Pick Up and Wild Wives. What’s your take on those?
RB: Those are definitely canon, yeah. Wild Wives I actually quite like. A lot of people don’t, I know, but I do. There’s more of a story than High Priest even though again, it feels like another one of these quickie books, and it feels like he’s commenting on that subgenre, that kind of P.I. subgenre, rather than writing in it.
EI: They say it’s his private eye novel.
RB: Yeah, but he’s kind of subverting it and taking the piss out of it, and I’m not entirely sure it’s successful at all. It reads like he started off with a private eye novel and then got bored with the idea, but he was contracted to finish it. And it kind of metamorphosed into something else that wasn’t nearly as interesting. There are certain aspects of Wild Wives that he uses again. He’s a big self-plagiarist. He’ll take all sorts of key ideas and rework them in much better ways later on. But there are moments in Wild Wives that make me smile.
I remember really liking Pick Up, but it’s never my first choice for a re-read. I remember thinking it went on a bit too long and a bit too depressing. For me, Pick Up is his David Goodis novel. It’s the portrait of an artist as an alcoholic, hooking up with another alcoholic and the two of them tearing each other apart. Standard stuff, then. It’s notable mostly for its ending, especially that last line.
EI: For that matter, the ending of Wild Wives is quite drastic too. He’s definitely experimenting at this point with the darkest or most surprising endings he could find.
RB: The ending of Pick Up is astounding in the sense that it does completely change the whole tenor of the novel. Neither are particularly astounding novels, though. So you could argue that they’re just 150-page build ups to a couple of killer endings.
EI: To go with sort of the idea of misunderstanding Willeford: The Library of America book of fifties noir represents Charles Willeford with Pick Up. I just feel like this is not right.
RB: It’s not. It’s nonsense. It’s not representative of Willeford’s work at all. I don’t think it’s particularly representative of fifties noir fiction, either. The Black Mass of Brother Springer would’ve been a better choice, I think.
I think you could easily stick Pick Up next to John Fante or Charles Bukowski novel. There’s no crime in it. Even in his more obviously genre novels, I’d argue that they’re less mainstream crime novels than they are modernist or absurdist novels. They just happen to have been published by sleaze merchants like Beacon Books.
EI: So you just mentioned the next important one, The Black Mass of Brother Springer.
RB: I love that book. For me, it’s the first important novel. It’s quintessential Willeford in that it has this protagonist who is essentially pathological and engaged in a creative endeavour which ultimately proves destructive. It also has that superb eye for detail.
EI: Lecturing from such a certain place. He’s so certain of his facts.
RB: This is how you write a sermon. This is how you keep them entertained while you’re teaching them. You do this, then there’s a hymn. Then you do this, then there’s a prayer. It’s religion from a very secular, pragmatic point of view: God is rarely mentioned as anything other than a tool in that novel. He’s a hammer used to beat poor communities into submission.
EI: The cynicism is breathtaking.
RB: It is. It’s great.
EI: And the protagonist is this unrepentant cynic who gets away with it all in the end. It’s very hard to understand what we’re supposed to do with our emotions when we’re confronted with these books.
RB: Especially considering how it was sold as Honey Gal. This whole “Lust in the South” kind of thing, giving you the idea that it’s a red-hot tale of interracial sex – “He was white! She was black!” – and fire and brimstone religion when it’s really so much colder than that. Even the civil rights aspect of it, political hot potato that it was at the time, isn’t addressed in the way you’d expect. Willeford doesn’t care about that stuff. He doesn’t care about being topical.
EI: Race is a central element of the book. Since the lead cares so little about it, you almost have to wonder what author himself cared about it. Of course, we know Willeford loved Chester Himes.
RB: Himes was a contemporary and Willeford was a massive fan. The title of Willeford’s first memoir, I Was Looking for a Street, is the same title used by two of Himes’ writer characters in Lonely Crusade and The End of a Primitive. I can’t believe that was a coincidence. I think there are a lot of similarities in their worldviews, too.
EI: So he loved one black artist, but at the same time there seems to be room for Willeford himself to be like Archie Bunker: “I came home from World War Two and I know my thing and my thing is correct and to hell with any Jews, blacks, women or Hispanics don’t see that’s just the way it is.” It’s hard for me not to believe that Willeford himself wasn’t like that on some level.
RB: Perhaps, because he does those characters so well. But I think it’s less bigotry than it is general misanthropy coupled with an extremely opinionated nature. There’s always that one character, you know? The sententious son of a bitch. In Brother Springer it’s the guy who ordains him and tell him all this stuff about being a pastor or being a reverend or whatever it is he ends up being. And it’s incredibly funny stuff because it’s delivered, as it were: “This is your job now.” It’s done with so little emotion and it’s so deadpan.
EI: It’s what sells it, but also makes it so impenetrable unless you’re alert to the music.
RB: Yeah, absolutely.
Throughout his entire canon the voice is pretty much the same. It’s kind of a flat, unemotional, vaguely cynical, incredibly technical, slightly wry voice. And it shocks me sometimes because I like reading for voice, I like reading for voicey characters, you know? I’m a big fan of James Cain. You sit James Cain next to Charles Willeford and Willeford looks dull. But then, like you said, you pick up on the music.
EI: The next one is The Woman Chaser from 1960. I know you love this book.
RB: I do love this one. One of my favorites. For me, The Woman Chaser is almost perfect. Again, you’ve got all this wonderful technical detail about the nuts and bolts of making a movie, and it’s also an absolutely brilliant view of Hollywood as a place that’s as demented as its protagonist. It’s not a cute demented, either. It’s completely destructive. And it’s the first – you could probably say Black Mass has this too, actually – but it’s one of the first times you see Willeford equating a creative personality with an utterly pathological one. Richard Hudson is the archetype for that. You know, he’s going to make this movie by hook or by crook, it’s going to be his idea, his direction, he’s going to get his rangy blues guy to perform this industrial guitar on the score, it’s going to be sixty-three minutes long and to hell with anyone who says different. Utterly quixotic, very funny, but … The thing is, if the movie had been terrible, it would’ve been funny. A good, solid Hollywood comedy. But by virtue of the fact that the movie he makes is probably a masterpiece, Hudson is justified in his methods. Kind of. Ish. It skews the whole book.
EI: That’s why they’re so hard to understand; these characters and our relationship to them. They’re not always completely wrong.
RB: Exactly. They’re not dribbling maniacs. They’re normal human beings with the odd misfiring synapse, you know, just one bad decision away … Hudson becomes manic and destructive, yes. But there’s inevitability and truth to that, if you’re of a mind to empathize. What else could he do? He’s put his entire being into this movie. He’s a true auteur. And you know, ultimately, he is betrayed. That Rouault clown goes back on the wall.
EI: Now the title of the book was supposed to be The Director, which is a much better title, don’t you agree?
RB: Yes, certainly. On a very basic level, he doesn’t chase any women. If anything, they chase him. Of course, like many others, Willeford was prone to title changes, most famously The Black Mass of Brother Springer. “No, we can’t use that, Charles. Can you give us another?” “All right, what about Nigger Lover?” “Uh, I think we’ll just call it Honey Gal. Thanks for your input.” In fact those multiple titles are one of the main difficulties with the Willeford bibliography; the other is that he had a habit of reusing titles, Kiss Your Ass Goodbye in particular.
But yeah, The Director is a much, much better title.
EI: The little thing where he talks about the Toastmasters is, for me, the first time in the canon where I give it the gold star: This is as good as it gets.
RB: It’s great, isn’t it? Spot on.
Also, I tend to recommend The Woman Chaser for the simple reason that it has the best writing advice in it, that bit where he’s talking to Bill because he’s having trouble with the script. And he says, “How do you do it, Bill?” And Bill, who’s been in the army, says, “Well, I don’t know much about writing, Mr Hudson, but I do know one thing. In order to re-write something you’ve got to have written it first.” And he talks about the time where he was a staff sergeant and he had to bounce people out of the army. And he said, “Well, I was time-precious there and you just had to write something. That’s the thing. You’ve just got to write something.” And that’s the best writing advice ever. Just write something.
Something else I love about it is the tiny character things that resonate – the moment in the job interview where he gives Bill a couple of coins to get some sodas and Bill uses his own money, and Hudson knows that this is the guy for the job. I love that. Little tests, little facts, a peek into another industry and another mind. The Woman Chaser is the one I always suggest as an introduction to Willeford. The characters are there, as are his main themes. There’s also the odd, nasty stuff with the step-sister.
EI: Yeah, that’s shocking.
RB: But again, the justification is interesting: “Well, if I don’t do it, some boy is gonna do it, so I’m just preparing her for boys.” And the thing with his secretary where he punches her in her stomach to save her the embarrassment of a child. Awful, terrible, horrific things. But you’re too far into the guy’s head to toss the book. And he justifies everything so beautifully – so like a salesman – that by the end of it when he’s, you know, out of his fucking mind, dressed as Santa and being hauled away in handcuffs, you’re kind of with him.
So yeah, I love The Woman Chaser. Or The Director. I love it. Great book.
EI: Again, it’s ludicrous that this is categorized now as a crime novel.
RB: Yeah, there’s no crime in it, really. A bit of arson at the end. Possibly fraud.
EI: The next book is one that Willeford was especially proud of: Cockfighter.
RB: So we’re talking about the ’62 Cockfighter, not the ’72 Cockfighter?
EI: Well, I’ve never seen the ’62.
RB: No, I don’t think anybody has. I think they were remaindered almost immediately.
EI: I don’t think the content was that different?
RB: There are some differences, yes. I tell a lie, I think I do have the ’62 version because it was on the Munseys site, which is probably dodgy, but there you go. As far as I’m aware, after the first publisher was killed, he had the chance to re-write it for hardcover publication, which he did.
EI: Well, I only know the ’72 version, so…
RB: Yeah. So do I, to be honest. I really like Cockfighter. It’s not an easy read, per se. It’s not as quick or as immediately gratifying as his best work. I mean, if you have no interest in cockfighting, you’re probably going to hate it, because at times it reads like a manual in how to breed and fight gamecocks. Mind you, if you have no interest in cockfighting, I would wonder why you’re reading a book called Cockfighter.
EI: He must have done an extraordinary amount of research.
RB: He must have done. Because he always said that if they’d put an advert for the book in cockfighting magazines it would have sold way more than it did. And as far as I’m aware, the detailed information he gives in the book is accurate. I honestly don’t think you can make that level of detail up, that there has to be something there to begin with. Because he talks about their diet, he talks about exercising them, he talks about what length of spur is best for them. He’s got that whole thing about sticking fingers up their arses to get them that little bit, kind of, more energetic. The rules of cockfighting… it’s all in there.
The thing that worries me most, or the thing that just completely confuses me about Cockfighter, is the way that he always said it was based on The Odyssey. I really don’t see it. Could be him having a laugh, or it could just be my ignorance of Homer, but I can’t quite get to grips with that. Generally, it’s another odd book. There are some really weird bits. Like when he goes off and becomes a guitarist…
EI: Yeah, I can’t stand the guitar bits, frankly.
With Cockfighter, Willeford is taking on James Joyce and the other serious fiction writers of the 20th Century. “I’m going to play at the big table with the big boys, and to do so I’m going to write this book about this guy who decides to remain mute until he becomes the winning cockfighter.” I mean it’s absurdity to the highest.
RB: That’s what it is. You’re absolutely right. It’s an absurd novel. It’s a novel that, were it not so much in the American vernacular and written by a so-called crime writer, would be seen as an important addition to the American absurd. It was something he was fascinated by. He wrote “New Forms of Ugly,” his master’s thesis about the immobilised hero in modern fiction, which I have tried to read numerous times but it’s so academic in places, it just … you know … my eyes cross and I pass out. But he was one of the best read of those crime writers. He used that, too.
EI: He used it, but he knew that he had to take that literary interest and work with his life experience of being a hobo and a soldier. He didn’t get that highfalutin’ with it, he knew that it had to be this folkloric type of book while trying to play on the high academic table.
Cockfighter is a book that I need to return to, it still eludes me on some level.
RB: I’ve read it a few times now and I still don’t think I have the measure of it. It’s an opaque book. I feel as if I’m never going to understand certain aspects of it because it’s a very American story in many ways. But I will always cherish it just for the cockfighting stuff. And the balls of doing a book about cockfighting and being completely non-judgemental about it. People hate that book just for its subject matter – there were letters of complaint when it was excerpted in Sports Illustrated – but it isn’t gratuitous in any way, shape or form. Again, it’s justified as part of that way of life. Even his vow of silence is justified. Because, you know, he was mouthing off.
EI: The next proper novel in the canon is a few years later, his first hardback, The Burnt Orange Heresy.
RB: Which is his masterpiece, as far I’m concerned. It’s an almost perfect novel. You’ve got your quintessential Willeford protagonist in James Figueras – psychotic, obsessive, terrible to women, has a borderline ascetic home life – sprinting through a bloody good shaggy dog story that also happens to be a blistering takedown of the modern art world.
EI: Conceptual art lies on the floor beaten and bloody after this book is finished. I once read someone say that the point of true satire was to actually kill the object being satirised.
RB: The precision of it is amazing. Again, he knows his stuff. Plenty of literary types have tried to write something like that and they’ve failed because they fundamentally misunderstand both the creative and critical instincts, or they become too self-conscious in the telling. The Burnt Orange Heresy is a fucking genre novel! It’s a personal, intelligent, satirical crime thriller! I can’t tell you how mind-blowing that was to me when I first read it. Just great, great stuff.
EI: There’s another book around the time of Burnt Orange Heresy that I quite like, The Difference.
RB: Also known as The Hombre from Sonora. Again, another hardcover. Yeah, I like The Difference, too. 1971 or 1972 – whenever it was – was a very good year for him. The idea of writing a Western in the early seventies is bizarre, even though they were doing it on the big screen quite a bit. For my money The Difference better than any of those movies, because it skewers The Western and The Western Myth and the idea of The Western Hero in under 200 pages. Your main guy, Johnny Shaw, he’s such a … Actually, you expect him to be the hero, don’t you? He’s certainly set up like that.
EI: It’s a rare case where the hero sells out and kills his mentor in cold blood and walks away. That’s very strange. I can’t think of another case where that happens.
RB: Neither can I. Again, I love the mentoring scene, where Dover teaches Shaw how to fast-draw and how to aim; these fantastic technical details …
EI: You feel like you could become a gunfighter after reading this book. Just like you feel like you could become a cockfighter or a professional art critic after reading the earlier books.
RB: You do. And the beauty of it is that it uses that technical detail later on. At the end Johnny Shaw pulls two guns at the same time, and he and Jake Dover are the only ones that realise he can’t possibly fire both guns, so he has to drop one. Shared knowledge is key.
You know, Willeford wrote an inscription for one of his students that said, “Read this as quick as you like, but don’t try to understand it too quickly.” That’s something I keep in the back of my head whenever I read it. It feels like a fable or something. I think it’ll grow on me more over the years. The book has a way of sucking you in because you know that the wealth of detail is all there for a reason. That’s why I don’t mind it when Willeford goes on about how to treat your horse or whatever. But yeah, The Difference is … I don’t know if it’s a great book, because I don’t fully get it yet, but I certainly think it’s up there with his best.
And it has that weirdness. The idea that a gunfighter with a moustache and long hair can just shave his head and grow a beard and become like the photo-negative, hair-wise, and just blend in. And the way he taught himself to walk because a gunfighter walks in a certain way. The devil’s in the details. And the details are absurd.
EI: And again, we know Willeford saw plenty of those absurd details in real life.
After those two marvellous books there is quite a break in his output.
RB: We’re well into the seventies now, aren’t we? The wilderness years. There are a number of books that he tried to write that didn’t get picked up. There was the 24-hour novel set in the air force base or the army base. And there was the one about the game show.
EI: The most significant one was only published in full posthumously, which I quoted from before; The Shark-Infested Custard. You told me before that it was a really a divisive book; that people loved it or hated it.
RB: It is divisive, and I’m not sure it’s totally successful. I understand why it didn’t get picked up. It is a vicious, vicious book. And it’s vicious about men, because the men in this book are just animals. It’s like having four Richard Hudsons in one book. And for some people that’s a bit much. Tarantino really liked The Shark-Infested Custard – I think he blurbed it. That says a lot because for me it’s almost that next level of grotesquery that I have reservations about. I still like it. I still think it’s a fantastic read, and there are bits, as always, that I really like.
It’s probably the most voicey of his books. There are slight changes in the voices between the four guys. The ending is fantastic because it’s like this loud, hollow laugh at the end, and this poor hooker standing there going, “What are they? How can they laugh like that?” And it also marks the first appearance of the infamous yellow jumpsuit that makes an appearance in Grimhaven and Sideswipe. In fact, one of the characters was supposed to be called Hoke Moseley. Fuzz-O Dolan – Larry Dolan – was supposed to be called Hoke Moseley. Then again, the same names keep cropping up. Jacob Blake, Richard Hudson, Russell Haxby …
EI: This passage about how the cop doesn’t have taste buds has always just blown my mind:
Part of Larry’s personality problem, although Larry was unaware of any problem, was this inability to taste anything. Something was awry with Larry’s taste buds. He was unable to tell the difference between sweet and sour. Everything tasted just about the same to him. One night when we were both at Don’s house, Larry took two bites out of a wax pear, picking the pear out of a bowl on the side-board and biting into it without asking Clara if he could have it. The point is he took a second bite before complaining, “This is the worst god-damn pear that I ever ate.”
Where it’s really becomes Willeford is when he keeps going with this thing. There’s going to be two more paragraphs dealing with this issue:
The fruit looked realistic alright, and anyone could have made the same mistake in the dim dining room. But no one with any taste at all would have taken the second bite. Larry would have gone on and, in all probability, and eaten the entire pear if Don and I hadn’t started to laugh. Clara, of course didn’t laugh. The wax fruit was quite expensive. She had purchased it from Neiman Marcus’ Bal Harbour store. On another night, he ate a coloured soap ball in Don’s bathroom. There was full glass of these pastel soap balls in there, and he thought he was eating a piece of candy. He didn’t stop to consider that it would be peculiar to keep a jar of candy on a shelf beside the bath tub.
At any rate, Larry’s lack of sensuous taste extended into tastelessness on other matters; in the clothes he wore, in his speech, and even in women. But there was nothing wrong with his olfactory organ. He had a keen sense of smell, which is unusual when something is wrong with your taste buds, and in a way, somewhat baffling when you consider that if he could smell the soap and recognise the smell, why would he eat it under the impression that it was a piece of candy? All he could come up with in this instance was: “It smelled good enough to eat, so I thought it was candy.”
Who else could write those three paragraphs?
RB: There’s so much to love there. You make me want to read it again. I love it that for all these four guys profess to be friends, they have real trouble liking each other. I also love the idea that there’s just something non-specifically “wrong” with Larry’s tastebuds in a novel populated by know-it-alls. That second bite to make sure. The fact that the fruit is from Nieman Marcus, that it’s luxury soap, cracks me up for some reason, I don’t know why. Eating soap because it smells like candy, even though all the evidence points to it being soap. Just one of the ways in which Willeford has his male characters act like dogs. There’s this recurring thing in Willeford’s novels where a character has something wrong with his teeth, and he ends up having to chew with the side of his mouth like a dog. It happens in The Difference. I’m absolutely sure it happens in one of the Moseley books, too. His men are frequently animals, amoral and dumb.
As for the pushing it, I think it shows remarkable confidence. The joke gets a laugh, there’s a pause, and Willeford builds it up to push for a follow-up. Marvellous sense of rhythm. He was a great comic writer.
EI: For sure. Simple declarative sentences, of course. Very specific but basic vocabulary, really. Just common English. Subject, verb, no complex constructions.
RB: His dialogue is the same, which is odd. His dialogue rarely has any dialect or inflection or anything like that. Hoke Moseley’s daughters talk like Hoke Moseley. It’s brilliant. I find it incredibly funny but couldn’t tell you why.
EI: Is it because they sound so confident? They sound very confident about what they’re saying, but they shouldn’t always have that confidence.
RB: Yeah, it’s this kind of blank, flat kind of way of viewing the world that I know Willeford found really funny. He had a weird sense of humor. Apparently he used to tell these really off-colour stories at parties, knowing full well that they were offensive and then just playing completely innocent. If you read the Herron interview in the back of the biography, he comes across as that kind of deadpan.
EI: I wish I could have met him. At least he did write the memoirs A Guide for the Undehemorrhoided, Something About a Soldier, and I Was Looking for a Street. I rank them with anything he’s written. I’m profoundly touched by those books.
RB: And they read like novels, almost. The weird thing about them is that they shouldn’t exist. There was never any market for them, was there? I get the feeling that he wrote things because he just wanted to write them. It’s an artist mentality. And the memoirs were that as well, that he just went “I’m going to write about being an orphan and riding the boxcars.” I don’t think anybody said to him, “You really want write your memoirs. Everybody’s really looking forward to hearing about your life.”
EI: But Don Herron told me that they’ve also never been out of print.
RB: Is that true?
EI: He seems to think that they’re always sort of lurking around in print somewhere. There’s an omnibus edition of them. But Herron doesn’t make enough a deal out them in his book for my taste, especially Something About a Soldier, and I told him that in our interview. For me, they are truly essential Willeford.
Herron tells us that Willeford taught crime fiction for a decade or more. He taught average crime fiction, nothing special: Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, other famous names. So after being sort of categorized as a crime writer, incorrectly, for years and years, and then teaching crime fiction for years and years, he finally produces his first piece of crime fiction, Miami Blues.
RB: Yeah, at the age of what, sixty-three?
EI: Something like that, yeah.
RB: Well, it was a long time coming, but I think the Moseley novels are the closest he came to the commercial mainstream. You know, he was a writer who’d had a lot of bad luck, publishing-wise. He was re-written, consistently critically underrated, had a twenty thousand run of Cockfighter remaindered after the publisher was killed by a car … He never quite managed to break out, and after about a decade of not publishing, I think he just went, “Right, I’ll give you something commercial.” And Miami Blues is pretty straight. There’s a good guy, there’s a bad guy…
EI: You can read it in a superficial way, without reaching in there to see the subtext.
RB: You can read it as an Elmore Leonard novel if you want – that’s how superficial it can be read. You have your protagonist, your antagonist, they’re stalking each other, they’re going to meet at the end and one of them is going to kill the other. But on top of that you’ve got your antagonist writing haiku – pretty good haiku, actually, not bad. It’s also one of the few hard-boiled novels that has a recipe in the back. That god-awful sounding vinegar pie…
But it’s a really strange, rather wonderful novel that’s also subversive in its own dark little way. Freddy Frenger isn’t just a criminal, he’s a career criminal. I seem to recall someone mentioning that the whole thing with Frenger hunkering around his meal as a sign that he was in prison wasn’t plausible – but then it’s not a sign of him having done prison time, it’s a sign of him having done reformatory time. Freddy is a “Junior” all the way. He’s a spoilt, vindictive, nasty little child in a dangerous man’s body. It’s a fantastic way of stopping him from being “cool.”
What I also love about Miami Blues is the DNA it shares with both New Hope for the Dead and Grimhaven, the two immediate sequels which have a huge impact on how you can read Miami Blues. Those two sequels are two fully realised ways in which Willeford could have taken the series. Both equally brilliant books, I think, but diametrically opposed in terms of commercial viability. I wish Grimhaven was available for people to buy. It’s a fascinating book.
Let’s talk about New Hope for the Dead, which is actually my personal favorite of the four Hoke Moseleys.
RB: Yeah, it’s mine, too. It’s the one where everything comes together. It’s the closest he ever got to a proper commercial novel.
EI: That doesn’t stop it being one of the most fucked-up police novels ever.
RB: Isn’t it, though? I don’t know of any other author that could’ve written something like that. Like I said, it’s almost a sitcom. Hoke’s daughters turn up. He’s incapable of dealing with them. He gets a new partner in Ellita Sanchez …
EI: She’s arguably the least offensive female character in the Willeford oeuvre.
RB: Yeah. She’s a capable human being, at least. She’s not some sex- and romance-obsessed idiot. And the female characters help to highlight Hoke’s gross inadequacy as a human being. He’s a walking joke, really. Even as a cop, the idea is that the rest of the cops laugh at him, but he doesn’t care. He’s gruff, single-minded and unbelievably selfish. When he’s told that he can’t live in that hotel anymore because he needs to live in a certain district, the first thing he thinks of is bagging that divorced woman so he can move in. He’s got it all planned out. Hoke Moseley’s plans are some of the funniest things I’ve ever read, you know? So minimal – from A to B to C. No more letters after that. I kind of admire that single-mindedness. Even in Grimhaven, there’s lots to admire about the way just strips everything down and lives this new, kind of easy, simple life.
EI: The Moseley books are now available with introductions by Lawrence Block, Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, and James Lee Burke. With all due respect to four great writers, none of them seems willing to acknowledge how perverse Willeford is in dealing with their supposedly shared genre. They all want to embrace him as a colleague, or imply that they somehow played on the same team. But I must say I just don’t see it that way.
RB: Neither do I. I don’t think many of his contemporaries had much in common. Maybe someone like Himes or Vonnegut, in that they had something very specific to say about the world, and said it with this scabrous sense of humour, but not Leonard or those guys. With all due respect, I find it difficult to think of those guys as quote-unquote “artists.” They’re all fantastic craftsmen and great writers, but I’m not sure they come from the same place as Willeford. They all had their series characters that were very much series characters. They didn’t necessarily change that much; they had their one-off adventures and came back and came back. Fantastic books, some of them, but very commercial, very much of the genre. Hoke changes drastically through the four books. I can’t think of another series character who changes so much in so little time, actually.
EI: What you’re talking about is very clear in Sideswipe. Hoke isn’t even in two-thirds of the book. It’s all about Troy and Pop and this other sort of stuff, which is all lifted from a book written thirty years before.
RB: Again, one of the most palatable and ostensibly sympathetic characters, Pop Sinkiewicz, kills dogs. He poisons dogs on a regular basis! And again, he’s got that great career; that life spent painting lines on cars by hand. That obsolete talent that we’re supposed to respect.
EI: It’s this masculine energy. Like men are supposed to do something.
RB: Yeah. They’re supposed to do something. They’re supposed to have an obsession.
EI: The psychotic is married to professional.
RB: The good professional is psychotic! And the psychosis breaks the man, so either he ends up this completely demented killer like James Figueras, or he turns it on himself like Hoke does in Sideswipe.
EI: You can’t imagine any other famous detective being uncared for in urine-stained jockey shorts.
RB: He’s been sitting there for three days!
EI: Everyone else is sort of like looking at him like: “Come on, Hoke.” It’s incredibly undignified. You can’t imagine another detective in the canon being so casually humiliated.
RB: You can’t imagine Raylan Givens sitting there in his own feculence. “We don’t know what’s wrong with him. He won’t move, he won’t eat.” Imagine if Leonard did that … What a great book that would be. Imagine if Jack Reacher had a complete nervous fucking breakdown! Spent 500 pages dribbling and staring at the wall. Wouldn’t happen, would it?
And I love that. I love it that Willeford has the balls to do that with his biggest cash-cow to date, just ruin Hoke like that. Boom, how d’you like your series protagonist now? Cool enough for ya? Yeah, catatonia’s the new drinking problem.
It’s nice to see Ellita Sanchez take up the police slack, and again we have this odd family unit with Troy and Pops and the rest. Still, it’s lacking a cohesive plot, and with Sideswipe, I get the feeling we’re moving into quirkier territory.
EI: How do you feel about the last novel, The Way We Die Now?
RB: I wish I liked it more.
EI: I have to agree with you there, Ray.
RB: It’s a shame.
EI: It’s certainly got great stuff in it.
RB: Yeah, the only funny attempted rape scene I’ve ever read. Very broad humour, though. A lot of anal stuff. There’s a lot of anal stuff in Willeford’s work. A lot of his characters have a fixation with anal sex.
Again, though, the plot is dancing into Hiaasen territory. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not Willeford to me.
EI: The opening, before Hoke enters, feels like it could be in a normal crime novel.
RB: Yeah. It’s conventional. It’s a change. Having said that, I still would’ve loved to read the follow-up, Nobody Walks, for no other reason that I love the idea of Hoke sniffing out dirty cops. And the title. I like the title. I’ve nicked the title for stuff of my own.
Willeford didn’t always have very good titles. Some of them weren’t his fault, some of them were. I really don’t like The Way We Die Now. I don’t like Sideswipe and I don’t like New Hope for the Dead. Not even that keen on Miami Blues, actually. I suppose that’s the Moseleys out of the way, then.
EI: I always get confused between The Way We Die Now and New Hope for the Dead.
RB: They’re so generic.
EI: And while I was just claiming that Willeford didn’t play on the team of Block and Leonard and Westlake and James Lee Burke, perhaps The Way We Die Now is a bit more in their territory.
RB: Yeah, I would definitely say there are bits of Burke in there, just in the setting alone, maybe some of Leonard’s characterisations and humour. It is much more conventional overall. And I know I just smacked Sideswipe for not having a plot, but this one has perhaps too much.
EI: This elaborate caper, “The top brass sets up Hoke Moseley,” isn’t really Willefordian.
RB: Yeah, it’s not. The top brass don’t tend to exist in Willeford novels. Although, you know, maybe we’re being unfair. He might’ve wanted to move in that direction. We know he loved more plot-driven mysteries, like John D. MacDonald and people like that.
EI: In his biography Herron asks Willeford about various authors of straight-up crime fiction. You can tell that Don Herron doesn’t always like these authors, but Willeford accepts or even praises them.
According to Herron, there must be hundreds of book reviews that Willeford did over twenty, twenty-five years that are out there somewhere for someone to collect. Maybe even have blurbs be pulled for re-issues of stuff, you know?
RB: That would be great. He’s one of the few authors where his miscellaneous stuff is genuinely interesting. He nailed the allure of The Maltese Falcon in a paragraph, so I imagine his reviews are pretty perceptive. His essay on book dedications is really good. And I like the essay about Herzog blue, where he talks about the Saul Bellow cover … but the thing is, when he’s telling you all this, when he’s just pontificating like this, you don’t know how serious he’s being.
EI: You can’t tell.
RB: And this is the one reason why I love Willeford so much: he is so dangerous like that. It’s like he robs you of your common sense; you can’t tell whether he’s making a joke or not. He’s dangerous in that he completely subverts your expectations, and he will play on that, and he will take his characters to a point where you can’t possibly like them. And I know I’ve written and talked about this at length, but Grimhaven is the prime example of that because I still like Hoke. And he does this awful, awful, awful thing, and he’s an awful, awful person. He’s even more awful in Grimhaven than he is in any of the other books. He’s ruined by the self-knowledge that he’s killed Freddy Frenger and he has the capacity to kill again. The bit where he’s talking to his neighbour and his neighbour lets on that Curly Peterson is black, and he’s like “Oh, I wish you hadn’t told me that.” Like that, just, is gonna gnaw at him for no good reason. He’d rather be ignorant, living like a monk in a rent-free apartment.
EI: It’s incredible how he’s willing to have unsympathetic black characters in his books. I mean, it’s really unbelievable.
RB: Yeah, he doesn’t care, though.
EI: Most people would tread a little lighter, you know? Instead, Willeford just writes the black assholes just like he writes the white assholes, boom.
RB: Which is brilliant.
EI: Yeah, it is brilliant. Curly Peterson is terrible person, just like any of those Willeford men.
RB: I just wish that Willeford had had that one critic or conspiracy that really did something for him like Ross MacDonald had. MacDonald always said it was Eudora Welty’s great review in The New York Times that gave him credibility. And I don’t think Willeford ever had that credibility, otherwise he wouldn’t have struggled so much. And it’s a shame because his greatest books are up there, man. They’re well up there.
EI: The more I get acquainted with his canon, the more I understand how to read it. He teaches you how to understand his books.
The first Willeford book I tried was probably the worst one to start with, The Way We Die Now. I couldn’t understand the first thing about it.
RB: My first Willeford book was Sideswipe. So yeah, what the … where’s the cop? Is that the cop? Jesus Christ. What’s going on? Why is the old guy living with the psycho, the disfigured stripper and the painter? Why is the lead clinically catatonic?
EI: It’s not funny until you realize it’s funny.
RB: Yeah, it’s not. And even when it’s funny, it’s not funny, you know? It’s like laughing at some silent slapstick movie and then hearing that they died on-camera during one of the funniest bits. It’s hilarious and terrifying at the same time.
Go to The Saturday Boy to discover more about Ray Banks. Here’s what I wrote before on DTM about his Cal Innes quartet, Saturday’s Child, Donkey Punch, No More Heroes, and Beast of Burden.
Innes periodically calls himself a private investigator. But the only thing Innes shares with Philip Marlowe is that they are both eminently quotable, especially when they are being funny:
He looks at the card and the smile turns upside down. “You’re a private detective.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A private detective solves the case. A private investigator just looks into it. I’m not the type to gather suspects in the drawing room. I’m the poor bastard who follows cheating husbands, wives, runaways. I’m the one sitting in the car with fuck all else to do. And I’m the one who’ll slip you a wad if you can point the finger, George.”
He blinks. “You practice that speech in the mirror?”
“Twice a day. But the deal stands.”
(From Saturday’s Child)
The Innes quartet are best read in order, since the tensions between certain characters resolve with a tough finality in Beast of Burden. The Starbucks scene in Beast is pretty astonishing, that was one of my favorite things in the quartet. In Donkey Punch the interpretation of Los Angeles by a tough Manchester boy is amusing. But my top pick overall is No More Heroes, which somehow actually ends up being a successfully done murder mystery despite the best efforts of the author to keep conventionality at bay.
In an interview with Vince Keenan, Ray says,
The P.I. is the happy medium between the amateur sleuth (which is incredibly difficult to do with any kind of realism) and the police procedural (which requires far too much research, is too crowded a market, and didn’t hold much interest for me). Besides, while I loved the American P.I. novels, I thought there was something decidedly lacking in their British counterparts, notably a sense of how strange and untenable the American P.I. archetype was in a British setting. So I decided to do something about it, and along the way mess with some of the more egregious clichés. It’s a pretty negative starting point for a series, I know, but I hope it led to some positive results.
Most authors try to make their P.I.’s heroic, powerful, or somehow sympathetic. Likable, at very least. Ray tosses that tradition completely out of the window: Rarely does Cal Innes come across as more than a miserable and self-involved bundle of trouble. His lacerating adventures gives one pause about the worth of the human race.
Sounds like Willeford a little bit! It’s good to know that some of today’s authors are understanding Willeford’s complexity, not just the “quirky.”
I Was Looking for Charles Willeford: