Lawrence Block on Charles Willeford

Lawrence Block is a crime fiction legend and the hugely popular and prolific author of, among others, the Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery series. Here he reflects on his first and subsequent encounters with the extraordinary Charles Willeford and his wife Betsy.

In the summer of 1985, Lynne and I moved from New York to Fort Myers Beach, Florida. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. After we’d been there a few months, I got a phone call from Dennis McMillan, the small press publisher. He was in a car, he said, with Charles and Betsy Willeford, and he wasn’t far from Fort Myers, and he thought they might stop by.

That sounded good to us. We were starved for company down there, and I welcomed the opportunity to spend a little time with a writer whose work I very much admired. Dennis showed up with Charles and Betsy in tow, and the five of us sat around talking and then went out for a meal.

At some point during our lunch, Charles fixed an eye on me and began talking about people who ate cat. There was, he said, an informal worldwide society of men who had eaten cat, and they looked for and acknowledged one another. One man might look at another and say something along the lines of, ‘You eat cat, don’t you?’ And the other might smile and nod in acknowledgment, or raise an eyebrow.

‘Now you,’ Charles said, ‘you look to me like a man who has eaten cat.’

Now at the time I was a vegetarian, so I hadn’t eaten so much as a tuna fish sandwich for seven or eight years, never mind a pussycat. But all I did was say that I hadn’t in fact ever eaten cat.

Charles seemed to find the admission disappointing. ‘I’m surprised,’ he said. ‘I thought you might well be a man who has eaten cat.’

I wonder what he meant. Was there a sexual undertone to all of this? Was ‘eating cat’ a faintly veiled euphemism? That occurred to me at the time, naturally enough, but I didn’t think so then, nor do I think so now. I just did a Google search and learned more about the subject of human consumption of cat meat than I ever wanted to know, and my guess, after all these years, is that Charles found the topic interesting enough to toss into the conversation, just to see what came back.

And did Charles ever eat cat? I suppose I should have asked him when I had the chance. But I didn’t, and so I don’t know, and don’t need to know.

But I’ll say this much. I wouldn’t put it past him.

I saw Charles two or three times after that – at the Miami Book Fair, and again in Key West, where we both took part in a literary symposium in January, 1988. The topic was ‘Whodunit? The Art & Tradition of Mystery Literature’, and there were enough interesting writers participating to offset the academic tone set by the sponsors. I ran into Charles and Betsy several times in the course of the weekend, and sometimes I’d catch him eyeing me speculatively, as if wondering whether I’d ever eaten cat.

The Key West event was just about the last thing I did in Florida before taking leave of the state. Within a month, Lynne and I had closed our house and took off for two years without a fixed address. Finally, on St. Patrick’s Day of 1990, we returned to New York.

Meanwhile, Charles Willeford had died – in Miami, on 27 March 1988. We were out of reach in that pre-email, pre-cellphone era, and so it was months before I learned he was gone. I’d known Charles was not in the best of health; he didn’t talk about it, but it was evident. So in that sense the news was not unexpected. But it was shocking all the same; when one meets with so clear and distinctive a voice, one expects it to be around forever.

Not long after Charles’ death I began to hear the rumours. Charles had left a fifth Hoke Moseley novel, an impossibly dark novel, in which either Hoke killed his two daughters, or died himself, or both. And the book would eventually be published, or was deemed too dark to be published, or . . . well, various rumours advanced various possibilities.

Five or six years after its author’s death, someone sent me a photocopy of the manuscript of Grimhaven. I read it right away, and saw at once that it was not intended as a fifth Hoke Moseley book but as a sequel to Miami Blues, a sequel Willeford did not at all want to write.

Miami Blues, which introduced Hoke Moseley, got a very strong and favourable response from the critics, drew a lot of attention to its author, and sold well. The publisher, not too surprisingly, wanted Willeford to write a sequel, and indeed to make Hoke a series character.

Should it surprise us to learn that Charles Willeford, whose characters constantly exhibit quirky, contrary, self-defeating behaviour, should balk at the notion? He really didn’t want to write another Hoke Moseley book, and his publisher really wanted him to write that and nothing else.

So Charles knocked out a book designed to nip the series in the bud. Because in its pages Hoke, this wonderfully interesting and sympathetic hero, murders his daughters, gets arrested for the crime, and looks forward to being confined to a prison cell for the rest of his life, thus fulfilling the book’s epigraph quote, from Blaise Pascal: ‘All human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room by himself. Hoke is destined to do just that, and the likelihood of our reading further about him would seem remote at best.

Do you think I should have prefaced this with a spoiler alert? Well, too bad. The spoiler’s intentional, because I’d prefer to discourage you from seeking out and reading the manuscript. Betsy Willeford would rather you didn’t, and I’m with her on this one. And, let me assure you, it’s not a very good book. But then it wasn’t really trying to be.

I wasn’t privy to the conversations and correspondence that followed the submission of Grimhaven, but I can imagine, and so can you. The publisher had his way, and Grimhaven went back on shelf, and soon enough Charles had produced an eminently successful sequel to Miami Blues, with the magnificent title of New Hope for the Dead. (That’s from an old joke, incidentally, in which it’s cited as the ultimate Reader’s Digest essay.) Then came Sideswipe, with The Way We Die Now following in the year of Willeford’s death.

Charles Willeford took writing very seriously, and applied himself to it wholeheartedly for some 40 years. He started out as a poet; his first book, Proletarian Laughter, was a collection of poems. He began publishing paperback fiction while serving his second hitch in the military, and kept at it, and worked hard at it.

With the Hoke Moseley novels, he got a taste of the commercial success that had for so long eluded him. When I learned of his death, I was struck by the irony of it; he was just beginning to get somewhere, and the Fates took him out of the game.

Later, when I learned about and read Grimhaven, and realized how hard Charles had worked to keep success at bay, I saw the irony to be vaster than I’d guessed. You could even call it Willefordian.

Not long ago I finally got around to reading I Was Looking for a Street, Willeford’s memoir of his early years. It made it very clear to me how the man was able to consistently create wildly idiosyncratic characters. He came by it honestly; their quirks were his.

It was at the end of the memoir that I found what seems to me to be the key to Charles Willeford and his work. He supplies a sort of coda to the work, a poem in which he takes to task his absent father and blames him for making him grow up a sociopath.

Willeford a sociopath? Really?

To be sure, literary ability is no guarantee against a sociopathic personality, as Norman Mailer found out to his chagrin after he’d championed Jack Henry Abbott. But does a sociopath ever recognize himself as such?

And can a self-diagnosed sociopath be at the same time an intensely moral person? Can one be a sociopath, virtually unaware of socially prescribed morality, and yet be consumed with the desire to do the right thing?

That strikes me as a spot-on description of just about every character Willeford ever wrote. How could he come up with characters like that? My God, how could he help it?

I haven’t re-read any of Willeford’s work since I came upon that revelation in I Was Looking for a Street. I intend to. I think it will illuminate the work, and thus shed a little more light on the man himself. I’m grateful that I knew him, however briefly and superficially. I wish I could have known him better, and longer.

 

From a chapter on Charles Willeford in The Crime of Our Lives, Lawrence Block’s new collection of observations on the crime-fiction genre.

Lawrence Block was awarded the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger in 2004. He is also a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America. The author of many novels and short stories he has won numerous awards for his mystery writing. The long-awaited eleventh novel in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, is available now in paperback and ebook. He lives and works in New York City. To find out more, visit www.lawrenceblock.com.