The Unlikely Father of Miami Crime Fiction

Although his detectives do precious little detecting, Charles Willeford sparked the modern South Florida mystery craze

Not long after I met Charles Willeford, he told me the secret to writing. "Never allow yourself to take a leak in the morning," he said, "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." Here was Willeford in a nutshell: the crudeness, the humor, and above all the love of the lie. One doubted whether he followed any of the advice he was so fond of dispensing.

Willeford, who died twelve years ago this spring, might be called the progenitor of the modern South Florida crime novel. John D. MacDonald had put the region on the mystery map in the 1960s, with his Travis McGee novels, but that was an older, sleepier South Florida. Willeford's last four novels (1984-1988) spanned Miami's metamorphosis from vacationer and retiree haven to the nation's capital of glamour, drugs, and weird crime, and these inspired the post-Miami Vice group of Miami writers, including Carl Hiaasen and James W. Hall. "Miami Blues [1984] launched the modern era of Miami crime fiction," Mitch Kaplan, the owner of Books & Books, Miami's leading literary bookstore, told me recently. "There's a direct line from Charles through just about everyone writing crime fiction in Miami today."

When I first knew Willeford, in the late 1970s, he had only a small cult following. He hadn't published a book in seven years, and his twelve novels to that point were all out of print. He was teaching at Miami-Dade Community College and reviewing mysteries for The Miami Herald. My mother was a student in his creative-writing class, and he and his future wife, Betsy, became good friends of my family's.

Willeford was soon a fixture at my parents' parties, skulking by the kitchen door to the patio with a cigarette in one hand and a bourbon in the other, telling dirty jokes or stomach-turning anecdotes from his years in the Army. After growling out the one about eating dog in the Philippines, or the one about the coed long-distance-urination contest, he would drag on his cigarette, the glow illuminating his great white moustache and waggish blue eyes. Then he'd exhale, his ample belly undulating with laughter as if he'd just heard the story for the first time himself.

As a very young man, Willeford considered himself a poet, and he continued to write poetry throughout his life. His real writing career, though, began with a series of eight novels published as pulp paperbacks in the 1950s and early 1960s. In them Willeford fashioned his own brand of hard-boiled prose. But he was not writing for the pulp market; that was simply where he was able to sell his work. In his first book, High Priest of California (1953), a used-car salesman goes to great lengths to seduce an innocent woman for sport, gravely disrupting her life. But the writing is hardly lurid, and the protagonist is anything but what you might expect. He listens to Bartók while reading T. S. Eliot aloud, and as a hobby he rewrites Ulysses in contemporary American vernacular. Willeford's books also offer lots of practical advice: the reader of Pick-Up (1955), the story of two down-and-out alcoholics keeping each other alive in San Francisco, learns how to fry a steak properly, how to reuse coffee grounds, and how to keep ants out of a dresser.

The novels did, on occasion, work in issues of real import. The Black Mass of Brother Springer (1958) is about a white writer who abandons his wife to accept a fake ordination and assume the ministry of a black church in a northern-Florida city. Sam Springer is a characteristically Willefordian amalgam of selfish mercenary and well-meaning drifter. He bounces through life like a pinball, responding shrewdly to the moment and giving little thought to the future. But Black Mass is also an early depiction of the civil-rights revolution in the South: one subplot, paralleling the Rosa Parks incident, follows the city's reaction to a black woman's refusal to give up her seat on a bus.

The true earmark of these paperbacks, however, was humor—a distinctively crotchety, sometimes raunchy, often genre-satirizing humor. The very first lines of High Priest of California are a send-up of the dime-novel tough guy.

I slipped a dollar under the wicket and a sullen-lipped cashier asked me for a penny.

"You're making the change," I told her.

A similar playfulness pervaded Willeford's later, more mainstream novels. The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971), for example, is one long satire on art (a favorite topic—Willeford studied painting in France and Peru after World War II), art criticism, and art collecting. It's the story of James Figueras, a bachelor, cad, and freelance art critic in Palm Beach, and his fascination with the (fictional) French artist Jacques Debierue. A murder occurs, but the real violence is Willeford's attack on artistic pretension: Debierue is supposedly the founder of the Nihilistic Surrealism movement—the missing link between Dada and Surrealism—who retires into famous seclusion after the creation of one work, No. One, an empty frame mounted around a crack in a wall. According to Figueras, "The fact that he used the English No. One instead of Nombre une may or may not've influenced Samuel Beckett to write in French instead of English, as the literary critic Leon Mindlin has claimed." Willeford also has fun with his hero: "But I wasn't getting my work done. Work is important to a man. Not even a Helen of Troy can compete with a Hermes. No matter how wonderful she is, a woman is only a woman, whereas 2,500 words is an article."

The funniest thing in Willeford's books, though, may be his characters' clothing. He loved to present outlandish fashion as everyday wear. In The Shark-Infested Custard, written in the early 1970s but published only posthumously, in 1993, he described a protagonist thus: "In his new white sharkskin suit, red silk shirt, with a white-on-white necktie, red socks, and white alligator-grained Ballys, he looked like a friendly giant."

And then there were the jump suits. Another description in Custard reads,

The [yellow] poplin jump suit was skin tight, bespoken, probably, and then cut down even more, and he wore it without the usual matching belt at the waist. It had short sleeves, and his sinewy forearms were hairy. Thick reddish chest hair curled out of the top of the suit where he had pulled the zipper down for about eight inches. He wore zippered cordovan boots, and they were highly polished.

Years later, in Sideswipe (1987), Detective Hoke Moseley, temporarily retired, pares his wardrobe down to two yellow-poplin jump suits.

No one I know in Miami can remember seeing men in jump suits, yellow or otherwise. Willeford once wrote that "Poe was a bullshit artist." He couldn't have written a better epitaph for himself, unless it was what the crime writer James Crumley once said of him: "He's kidding when he's not kidding."

Willeford never found humor and violence mutually exclusive. (Perhaps that's why he proved a source of inspiration to Quentin Tarantino. "[Pulp Fiction] is not noir," Tarantino has said. "I don't do neo-noir. I see Pulp Fiction as closer to modern-day crime fiction, a little closer to Charles Willeford.") I remember him roaring with laughter while telling my parents about the opening scene of his novel-in-progress, which would become Miami Blues. In it Freddy Frenger, a haiku-writing psychopath, brutally breaks the finger of a Hare Krishna in the Miami airport. Frenger goes on his merry way, and the Krishna collapses in shock—and dies. "His humor was often gruesome," Betsy admitted recently in the dark, air-conditioned living room of the South Miami home they had shared. She did not speak without admiration; sick humor, often displayed on gaudy T-shirts, was one of the many passions they had in common. "Miami was the perfect place for Charles to live. And it was getting more and more interesting. When I see a headline like 'DEAD BODIES IN CAR CAUSE RUBBERNECKING DELAY,' I really miss him."

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.