“Just tell the truth, and they’ll accuse you of writing black humor”
–Charles Willeford (1919-1988)
Conjure up the stereotypical novelist in 2021. What is their background? Odds are that they grew up in a fashionable suburb outside of a major American city. Likely candidates include D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Sometimes their parents stayed together; sometimes they divorced. In the end, the writer went to a prestigious college, did an internship, and then wound up getting an MFA or graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This completed, they publish a novel with a social conscience that wins applause from the “New Yorker,” the “New York Times,” and all the rest. From here it’s film, TV, and a new career writing snarky, elitist journalism for the same rags that championed their first novel.
Charles Willeford followed the opposite path to greatness. Although little known outside of hardcore crime fiction aficionados, Willeford churned out classic detective and crime novels from the 1950s until his death in the late 1980s. His work combines black comedy with the philosophy of cool detachment. Most of his characters are psychopaths who try to turn a profit in the modern world. Sometimes these psychopaths are the bad guys, and sometimes it is hard to tell. Through it all, Willeford managed to attach himself to several sub-genres, from the hardboiled to the Southern gothic. He is also one of the co-founders of South Florida noir, as his detective, Hoke Moseley of the Miami Police Department, stars in a string of excellent police procedurals. One novel, 1984’s “Miami Blues,” became an excellent film in 1990 starring Alec Baldwin and Fred Ward as the aforementioned detective.
As engrossing and exciting as Willeford’s novels are, the man’s life trumped it all. According to “Crime Reads” author Craig Pittman, Willeford was born Charles Ray Willeford III in Little Rock, Arkansas. Tuberculosis first claimed Willeford’s father before taking his mother in 1927. At that time, he lived in Los Angeles, and Willeford would later write (and biographer Don Herron would confirm) that he considered L.A. his hometown. But he did not stay in the City of Angels for long. Worried that his aging grandmother could not feed him during the Great Depression, Willeford took to the roads and rails and became a hobo. Willeford was a member of the bum fraternity for a year. He made signs, avoided railroad cops, and slept out in the open with other bums.
At fifteen, Willeford lied about his age in order to join the California National Guard. The ruse worked. Willeford eventually joined the regular army and was stationed in the Philippines (then a protectorate of the United States). Here Willeford learned to cook and drive trucks. When his first contract expired in 1938, Willeford re-enlisted. His new contact placed him in a cavalry unit stationed at the Presidio. His biography, 1986’s “Something about a Soldier,” speaks of his cavalry days as blissful, with Willeford learning how to properly train, ride, and shoe horses. Willeford also learned marksmanship as a member of a machine gun unit.
When the U.S. joined World War II, Willeford was shipped off to Fort Benning to learn how to be an infantry grunt. Eventually he became a member of C Company, 11th Tank Battalion, 10th Armored Division. Created in 1942, the 10th Armored Division got its first taste of combat after D-Day when it was assigned to General George S. Patton’s Third Army. The 10th got its baptism of blood at Mars-la-Tour, and from there battled veteran Wehrmacht and SS units during the capture of Metz and the fighting along the Siegfried Line. Willeford saw all of this as a noncommission officer.
The division’s true test however came at Bastogne. The division’s Sherman tanks, tank destroyers, and half-tracks were outnumbered by the Germans and their Panzer IVs, and yet the Americans managed to hold the line and counterattack. In the end, the Americans won the Siege of Bastogne, and would go on to defeat the German counterstrike known as the Battle of the Bulge. For his actions during the battles, Willeford received a Silver Star, Bronze Star, the Luxembourg War Cross, and a Purple Heart with a single oak leaf cluster. Pittman notes in his article that Willeford kept mum about the war throughout his life. Even his last wife Betsy knew little about his combat experience.
Despite the horrors he had seen, Willeford stayed in the Army. He obtained the rank of master sergeant while stationed in postwar Japan with the 24th Infantry Division. It was around this time that Willeford began showing his artistic side—he ran a military radio station in Kyushu, he left the Army to attend art school in Lima, Peru, and after being expelled for falsifying his academic record (Willeford was a dropout who never spent a day in high school), Willeford washed up in New York City. The former vagabond found stability again when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. From 1949 until 1956, Willeford served on active duty as a non-commissioned officer in Alabama, California, Florida, and Newfoundland.
While modern writers bellyache about “writer’s block” or the limitless distractions of social media, Willeford went through two wives and all the bureaucratic nonsense of the Air Force and still wrote his first books. “Proletarian Laughter,” a book of poetry, was published during the swan song of Willeford’s Army career, while “High Priest of California,” Willeford’s first novel, “Wild Wives,” and “Pick-Up” were all published during the last years of Willeford’s Air Force stint. And what novels they are—“High Priest of California” is the story of an amoral car salesman who lusts after married women in San Francisco; “Wild Wives” is a slim and efficient private eye tale centered around a potentially insane woman; and “Pick-Up” is a beautifully written caper featuring a mixed-race couple trying to get their slice of the pie in underworld San Francisco.
Willeford’s paperback originals sold well enough, but not so well that he had to give up his day job. After the Air Force, Willeford returned to his roots as a working-class bohemian. He worked as a boxer, actor, radio announcer, and horse trainer. He lived for a spell in Paris as a painter. He finally got around to finishing his education, earning both a B.A. and M.A. in English literature at the University of Miami. Willeford went almost a decade without writing between 1962 and 1971. During this time Willeford focused on teaching English at Miami-Dade Community College. He would hold that position until 1985. Three years after retirement, a heart attack ended the bold and adventurous life of Charles Willeford.
For those who know, Willeford’s work ranks up there with the best in American crime fiction. While his Hoke Moseley novels get most of the acclaim, some of Willeford’s best work transcends the confines of mere crime fiction. “Cockfighter” (1962), which was made into a film in 1974 starring the great Warren Oates, is a surreal story of a mute cockfighter who stoops to brutal lows in order to be the best cockfighter around. “Cockfighter” is almost Greek in portrayal of the anti-hero’s journey. Another Willeford classic, 1960’s “The Woman Chaser,” is a pitch-black study of a used car salesman and formerly successful songwriter who winds up inhabiting a world of infanticide, incest, and nonstop betrayal. (“The Woman Chaser” was made into a film in 1999, with Patrick Warburton was the cold protagonist.) 1971’s “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is often considered Willeford’s finest work, and its story deals with art critic Jacques Figueras, who is not above murdering his rivals to further his career. It too was made into film in 2019, with big names like Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland taking part.
Willeford dedicated his life to writing sparse, dangerous, and deeply masculine novels. Hollywood has shown its appreciation from time to time, and yet Willeford is still something of a cult phenomenon. This is unfair considering the quality of his writing. Willeford’s story is also a reminder that the best artists are men born and bred in the arena. Like Dante, Cervantes, and Camoes, Willeford was a soldier before a poet, and like fellow American modernist Ernest Hemingway, Willeford saw the ugly side of combat before he ever set pen to paper. In sum, Willeford lived a masculine life, and this animated his fiction.
We have lost such men over the course of time, but there are some signs of change. The cultural energy is now on the side of the dissidents and there are still enough men to go around. Fortune favors the next Willeford.