From The Archives: Miami Blues – Charles Willeford

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The other day we were contemplating all the other jobs that authors do in order that they can get on with the important business of writing. Charles Willeford had more jobs than most: cook, truck driver, National Guardsman, decorated World War 2 tank commander, drifter, boxer, actor, horse-trainer, professor and artist, among others.

For decades Willeford also toiled as a pulp writer producing novels such as Pick-Up, The Woman Chaser and The Hombre From Sonora. But towards the end of his life he hit pay-dirt with his Hoke Moseley novels. Miami Blues is the first in the series, and it’s a hell of a read.

There’s something fabulously off-kilter and detached about Willeford’s detective novel.  It’s full of deadpan humour and fantastic dialogue.

It’s about a world-weary Miami cop who takes on a ‘blithe psychopath’ called Freddie Frenger. Detective Hoke Moseley crosses paths with the ex-con when he breaks the finger of a Hare Krishna at the airport and the guy goes into shock and dies. Moseley, who lives in a squalid hotel, is attacked by Frenger who steals his badge, gun and his teeth – Moseley’s false gnashers somehow represent his faded mojo, in much the same manner as Tom Reagan’s enigmatic hat in Miller’s Crossing.

When Miami Blues came out in 1984, for the first time in his life Willeford found himself an overnight success, and wrote sequels called New Hope For The Dead, Sideswipe and The Way We Die Now. They’re all just as enjoyable.

The fourth Moseley novel came out in 1988 and that year, with his reputation firmly cemented and his books back in print, Willeford died. Since then, his reputation has grown. Tarantino stated that the droll black humour of Pulp Fiction was inspired by Willeford.

But, amazingly, the series almost ended as soon as it begun. Willeford’s first attempt at a Moseley sequel was called Grimhaven. With suitably black-hearted aplomb, Willeford had his hero strangle his two daughters, and end up on Death Row. His publisher refused to let him publish it and Moseley’s literary reputation remained unblemished. The manuscript of Grimhaven is kept in Willeford’s Florida archive and photocopies are reputedly much coveted by obsessed collectors. Who knows, maybe one day, Grimhaven will be published.

And, of course, there was that terrific movie of Miami Blues, directed by George Armitage, starring Alec Baldwin as Freddie Frenger and the magnificent Fred Ward as Moseley.

Willeford must also be one of the few authors who’s starred in the movie of one of his own novels, when Cockfighter was made by Roger Corman in 1974.

What I liked: Frenger will never live a normal life because he’s a violent maniac, but he aspires to the picket-fence life and settles down in the suburbs. He goes to work every day. It’s just that his work is boosting wallets from pickpockets in Malls.

Frenger wants to live the American Dream. A perfectly reasonable ambition. When I think of crime thriller novels that really work for me, the bad guys all want the same thing as you and me. They want more money and success, or a quiet life, they want to be loved, or they want the voices in their head to stop. They’re flesh and blood people with wants and needs, just like the protagonist – it’s just that in order to get these things, they sometimes do terrible, terrible things.

So what does your antagonist want – what makes them tick?

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