FLORIDA WRITERS

 

Searching the web turned up no stand-alone Charles Willeford website.  I feel that is a misfortune for several reasons, chief among them being--in my opinion--that Charles Willeford is the writer most responsible for what has been called the "Miami Murder School."

I think a good claim could be made for three other writers, John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen, as the Headmaster of this establishment.  Probably I should be up front with the fact that Charles is the only one of the four I knew personally.  That fact should never be overlooked when weighing claims.  Nevertheless, even after discounting that, I feel Charles is the Man. 

Let's first briefly discuss the various contenders.  The leading candidate--because he came first and was probably more "popular" than any of the four--is John D. MacDonald.  MacDonald was slogging through the Florida literary swamps long before Charles or any of the other three.  He's a legend in mystery fiction; nevertheless he came out of the pulps and it shows in his style.  I don't think stylistically he left much of a Florida legacy. 

Elmore Leonard is not so easily dismissed.  The lead essay which I wrote for Crime Fiction and Film in the Sunshine State made the claim there was no such thing as a peculiar Florida mystery school.  When I produced that essay in the mid 90s that appeared to me to be true.  However, with the advent of a new wave of Florida writers such as Tim Dorsey, it is apparent there is a Florida school, and many of the elements in Leonard are characteristic of the group.  These elements include quirky characters, absurd situations, extremely clever dialogue, all of which Leonard has in abundance.  The same can be said for Carl Hiassen, but since he is the youngest of the bunch--even if he started publishing Florida novels about the same time Leonard and Willeford's Moseley series came out--I don't think he should be regarded as the daddy of the school.

My feeling is that Charles Willeford was the most influential--from the point of view of other Florida writers.  I make that judgment on the basis of talking with Florida writers and from reading their work.  Charles's first Florida novel that I am familiar with was The Burnt Orange Heresy.  It came out in 1971, and if I have my facts right, appeared briefly on bestseller lists around the country.  This novel was Charles's first hardcover, but he had published up to a dozen paperbacks for which he received about $500 per book.  The Burnt Orange Heresy exhibits all the features we love in Charles's work, the drollery, the absurd sometimes even grotesque humor, the weirdly sympathetic characters.  It is about an absolutely minimalist artist--a guy who makes frames and doesn't bother with canvases--and a con artist who forges him.  Is that droll?  Is that absurd?  That sort of thing, I believe, has come to characterize the best of Florida mystery writing--as anyone who has read Leonard, Hiassen, Dorsey and others can attest--and now I think you can see why I credit Charles as being the grandfather of the genre.

Another reason that I think he should be regarded as pere is because he was widely known by writers in south Florida.  He took an unobtrusive interest in them and hence was admired by those writers and to some extent emulated.  I include myself as a very minor member of this group.  I remember Charles lending me copies of his books to read--something few writers do, as they hope to exhort a sale (no joke, many do).    He also lent me encouragement.  At the time I didn't realize that many successful writers regard younger writers in exactly the same way a tom cat regards kittens, a by-no-means-necessary evil, which the world would be better off without. 

Charles's abundant strengths as a crime writer stemmed in part from his early background.  As a youth he had the great fortune (from the point of view of a nascent crime writer) of being left to shift for himself at a tender age.  He rode the rails during the Depression, enlisted in Army, was booted out for being underage, jungled up in hobo jungles some more.  During WWII he was back in the armed services, now as a tank commander in Europe.  Somewhere he says he figured every other man in his outfit was a psychopath.  A resume like this may not be exactly enviable, but it ensures you know that of which you write if you are producing crime novels.   

A crime writer was not the way Charles thought of himself.  Crime writing did not interest him--really--and that is too bad because had he set his mind to it his four Hoke Moseley books may well have been one of the all time classic series.  They may be anyway, but only the first one was a real crime novel.  It centered on Freddy Frenger, "the blithe psychopath."  The last in the series, The Way We Die Now, I believe, was the least satisfying to me when I read it.  I was looking for a crime novel, but what I got was a study in the pathology of loneliness.  I actually remember that book much better than Miami Blues, the first and best of the series from a crime point of view.   The Way We Die Now is a very good book, but it is not really a crime novel.  It just happens to have some criminals and a crime or two in it.   

I have mentioned here Charles's series novels (New Hope for the Dead and Sideswipe were the second and third ones), and The Burnt Orange Heresy.  I suppose I should also mention his Sharks in the Custard which has some outrageously funny crime writing, and perhaps too his segment in our Orange Pulp, "The First Five in Line," which someone said--truthfully--was worth the price of the book.  He produced at least one true crime book too, on the Son of Sam murders in New York.  He published two volumes of autobiography, both of which are darned interesting.  Also, many of his various early novels are abroad in paperback reprint:  High Priest of California and The Black Mass of Brother Springer are a couple of titles that spring to mind.   At least two of his novels inspired movies, Miami Blues and Cockfighter.  The latter starred Warren Oates.  The Miami movie is a classic which I watch at least once a year.

A good biography page including chronology of Charles can be found at:   http://www.dennismcmillan.com/charleswillefo/biograp.htm

The photo is by David Poller; it appeared on the dust jacket of Something About a Soldier.   The term "Miami Murder School" was coined by Ed Hirshberg, the dean of Florida mystery critics.

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