Williford's offbeat humor and sense of the macabre were forged in a life that was itself worthy of novelization. He was born in Arkansas in 1919 and soon moved to Los Angeles; by the time he was eight, he had lost both his parents to tuberculosis. He lived with his grandmother until he was twelve, when he decided that the Depression had made it too difficult for her to support him. One day, instead of getting off the streetcar at his school stop, he rode it all the way to the Los Angeles River. He walked straight to the nearby railroad yards and that night hopped an eastbound freight train. For the next two years he was one of the thousands of children who rode out the Depression on the freights, drifting aimlessly across the Dust Bowl. I Was Looking for a Street (1988), one of two autobiographical volumes and perhaps Willeford's best book, narrates this period in his life.
At sixteen Willeford joined the Army, lying about his age. The next four years, with the Air Corps in the Philippines and back in California with the Cavalry, are recounted in the other installment of his autobiography, Something About a Soldier (1986). This book, though filled with sex scenes that are not for the squeamish, is an absorbing account of life in the Army between the wars.
Willeford was in the armed forces off and on for twenty years and was awarded the Purple Heart as a tank commander in the Battle of the Bulge before retiring with a pension at thirty-seven. Between hitches he worked as a flea-circus barker, a professional boxer, and an actor (he would later star in a TV commercial for Hanes underwear). In 1950, while stationed at Hamilton Air Force Base, in California, Willeford began driving down to San Francisco on weekends, where he would check into the Powell Hotel and spend the full two days writing. After a few rejections, the product of his labors—High Priest of California—was brought out by Universal Publishing and Distributing, a paperback house known for such works as Hitch-Hike Hussy and Loves of a Girl Wrestler. UPD would bring out Willeford's next four novels as well. Like his later publishers, the house often changed his titles without even notifying him first: for instance, Willeford simply got a letter informing him that The Black Mass of Brother Springer had just been published under the title Honey Gal. (Years later it was reissued under Willeford's title.) Made in Miami became Lust Is a Woman (1958); The Director turned into The Woman Chaser (1960); and Willeford's one western, The Difference, was released in 1971 as The Hombre From Sonora.
Willeford reached the end of his paperback run with Cockfighter (1962), the least likely pulp novel of them all. It had no sensationalism and very little sex or violence (between human beings, at least). It offered just a straightforward plot, a thorough evocation of the sport of cockfighting, and a protagonist who carried the Willeford hero's laconicism to an extreme: Frank Mansfield vows to remain silent until he wins the Southern Cockfighter of the Year award, and indeed he hardly speaks a word in the entire book.
In the kind of bad break that often befell Willeford's protagonists, his publisher died just after Cockfighter came out; the house went bankrupt, and most of the printing, some 24,000 copies, was never distributed. Willeford published a short-story collection in paperback the next year, but no novels appeared for almost a decade. In the meantime, Willeford moved to South Florida, received bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Miami, and began teaching.
In his early fifties he finally attracted the attention of a major hardcover publisher, and he enjoyed a brief spin in the limelight. In 1971 Crown Publishers brought out The Burnt Orange Heresy to rave reviews (a Crown subsidiary published The Hombre From Sonora, by "Will Charles," that year). The next year Crown published a revised version of Cockfighter, and the producer Roger Corman bought the film rights. The movie, directed by Monte Hellman, came out in 1974, and featured Willeford in the supporting role of Ed Middleton, an official on the Southern Conference cockfighting circuit.
But the books soon went out of print; the movie lost money; and Willeford fell into a second decade-long fallow period.
Then, in 1984, came Miami Blues. At that time Miami was nothing like the gold mine it is now for writers specializing in crime, decadence, and sleaze. In the 1970s South Beach—the southern tip of the island of Miami Beach—was a strip of rundown hotels populated by senior citizens. The beach side of Ocean Drive, which is now jammed with supermodels, nightclub impresarios, and other purveyors of the fast life, was a quiet, grassy area harboring retirees on lawn chairs. The city of Miami, on the mainland, was a wasteland of government offices; when I was growing up, the only time I went downtown was to get my first passport.
Miami Blues and the three subsequent novels featuring Hoke Moseley—Willeford's first cop protagonist—present a Miami in transition, after the 1980 Mariel boatlift that hyper-accelerated the Latinization of the area's population, but before the city was renovated and rejuvenated. Moseley's South Beach is still decrepit and full of old people, but a new sense of danger pervades the streets—a scent of violent desperation among refugees from Latin America and opportunists from the rest of the United States.
Moseley is the typical Willeford hero a bit worse for wear. He's in his mid-forties but, with his false teeth and aching body, seems twenty years older. Moseley is a decent man and a good cop, but he is incompetent at living. A bad divorce settlement has rendered him impecunious and terribly cheap: he uses his police status to avoid paying for drinks and phone calls. He hasn't had a date in years, though he'd like one. And when his daughters come to live with him, he's about as doting a parent as Medea.
Like Willeford's pulp novels of earlier decades, the Hoke Moseley books defy their genre. For detective novels they have precious little mystery or police procedure. There is a smattering of violence, and each book does have a criminal who gets nabbed in the end, but all this seems peripheral to the portrayal of Moseley and his relationships with his detective partner—a Cuban woman—and his daughters. For example, Sideswipe, the third in the series, is primarily concerned with Moseley's midlife crisis, during which he retires to his home town and takes to wearing the yellow jump suits. There is a parallel plot having to do with a criminal, but Moseley gets involved only at the very end, and only by serendipity. He doesn't "solve" the crime at all.
Willeford never wanted to write a series, but after the success of Miami Blues his publisher insisted. In response, he first produced an absurdly violent manuscript, called Grimhaven, in which Moseley murders his daughters to avoid taking custody of them. Luckily for Willeford, his agent refused to send it to the publisher. Willeford then submitted more seriously to the pressure to continue the series, and found that he actually enjoyed it. "He never felt trapped by genre," Betsy told me, "whether it was the pulps or the Hoke detective series. He always tried to write the best he could, and didn't worry about it. And in the end Hoke became a way for Charles to write about a changing Miami."
If Miami Blues was Willeford's breakthrough novel, the fourth Moseley book, The Way We Die Now, took his success to a new level. The popularity of the first three in the series enabled Willeford's agent to sign this book up, with a new publisher, for an advance of $225,000. After a career of paying dues, Willeford was finally getting the big payoff.
He didn't have long to enjoy it. Although he was only sixty-eight, a lifetime of hard drinking and smoking was taking its toll. As he wrote to a friend in 1987,
In addition to my bad ticker, I also have chronic bronchitis, emphysema, blood that doesn't clot, rheumatism, a bad back, caused by a horse kick in the cavalry ... and so I'm in pretty bad shape for the shape that I'm in.
He had difficulty sleeping, remaining seated in one position, even breathing at times.
On March 20, 1988, during one of Willeford's last excursions from his house, he and Betsy saw the first copies of The Way We Die Now in the window of Books & Books. Seven days later he died. A heart attack was the culprit, fingered by the coroner from his long lineup of infirmities. The next day I wrote to Betsy about the last time I'd seen Charles, in January, when my mother and I met him for lunch in a coffee shop near Red and Sunset.
It's fitting that we spent much of the lunch listening to him tell stories of when he came to New York in the forties and fell in with a motley group of transients in the hotel where he lived. Fitting because that for so many of us was the essence of him: the stories he told of the memorable life he'd lived.
Betsy wrote back, "As an aspiring writer you probably should heed this warning from Charles: Just tell the truth, and they'll accuse you of writing black humor." In Charles Willeford's life there was little difference between the two.