If anyone thinks writers are bookish, unadventurous souls, here’s Charles Willeford, born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1919. Aged 13, he boarded an LA freight train during the Great Depression and travelled along the Mexican border under an assumed name, becoming a role model for rebellious children everywhere. After being stationed in the Philippines as a US Army fire engine driver, he became a tank commander, won awards for bravery at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, and enjoyed a long military career, but also became a published poet. He lived in Peru, then re-enlisted and served for two years in Japan.
Upon leaving the military this self-styled sociopath, with absent-father issues, moved to Miami and made his name as a noir novelist, creating five Hoke Moseley novels, each better than the last, including the wonderfully titled New Hope For The Dead.
One of them remains unpublished because it was “sold to collectors”, although mystery still surrounds this volume, called Grimhaven. Willeford wrote other successful noirs, including the twisty Pick-Up (cover line: “He holed up with a helpless lush!”), but what really set Willeford apart from the pack was his off-centre approach to the genre. Plotting was secondary to the quirky characters, and (especially in Miami Blues) there’s a sense that Willeford wasn’t taking himself too seriously.
That’s not to say he was trivial; his novels touched on class, civil liberties, and survival. Quentin Tarantino cites him as an influence, but so do many others including Elmore Leonard. His work is jazzy, punchy, hard-boiled, precise, but leavened with an amused understanding of the sheer awfulness of human nature.
Three fairly entertaining films were made from his work, but none of them really captured his style. Miami Blues is the essential Miami novel, and sparked the craze for wacky but inferior Florida mysteries. It’s a mean, lean read; squalid and racy, based around the sort of freeform existential narrative that you usually only find on very good jazz albums. Willeford is confident enough to start his tale with a champagne-swilling psychopath forging signatures on a flight, and takes off from there.
The average street price for a Willeford paperback currently stands at around £400. Even though he only died in 1988, and was hugely influential and successful, most of his works are already out of print, but the Hoke Moseley novels are back. The original editions are highly collectable, partly because of their terrific covers.