My Life In Crime

PrintPrintEmailEmail Charles Willeford (1919-88).

In one of his Hoke Mosely mysteries, Charles Willeford supplied a character who had retired after a lifetime spent painting pinstripes on the sides of automobiles. He now lived in a development in South Florida where he liked to walk through his neighborhood with a kind word and a cheerful smile for everyone he met. He carried a walking stick, its hollow interior stocked with poisoned meat pellets; the affable old boy delighted in poisoning every dog that crossed his path.

I can’t think of anyone else who could have created that little man, let alone made him work. Willeford kept coming up with quirky characters and put them in wonderfully quirky books. A career soldier in the horse cavalry and a highly decorated tank commander in World War II, he wrote a variety of books over the years, all of them providing a skewed vision of the universe.

For mysteries, these are the good old days. The genre is in its Golden Age right now.

It was in the Hoke Mosely novels, starting with Miami Blues , that Willeford came into his full powers as a writer. He wrote four of them, each better than the last, and was just beginning to win the wide readership and critical recognition he deserved when he went and died. It was the sort of joke he would have appreciated.

I am told he left the rough first draft of a fifth Mosely novel, darker than dark, unpublishably dark, with Hoke rounding things out by murdering his own teen-age daughters. If that manuscript’s out there somewhere, I want to read it. Meanwhile, read the other four in order. Willeford wrote two volumes of autobiography, I Was Looking for a Street and Something About a Soldier . Both are a treat.

Cornell Woolrich (1903-68).

A couple of years ago I read a Woolrich short story in which a pulp writer locks himself in a hotel room and works all night to meet a deadline. When he’s done, he falls asleep, exhausted; when he wakes up, he’s horrified to discover that the pages are blank. There was no ribbon in the typewriter. Presumably the hero took each page in turn from the typewriter without noting the absence of words on it.

Cornell Woolrich was capable of this sort of plotting. Loose ends and illogical twists and turns abound in his books, but they don’t really matter. His great strength, it seems to me, lay in his unrivaled ability to make novels of the stuff of nightmares. Woolrich’s characters prowl tacky dance halls and alleyways. They smoke dope in strange apartments, swallow spiked cocktails, and run hallucinating through unfamiliar streets. The suspense is relentless, the sense of impending doom ever present.

Woolrich wrote his best books early on, starting with The Bride Wore Black in 1940.

The most noteworthy aspect of my list, it seems to me, is the number of significant writers I’ve had to leave out. I could easily have included a dozen more. If I were fool enough to include living writers, I’d have had to write a book. Because, for all the talk one hears of the mystery’s vintage years, I think it is abundantly clear that the very best crime fiction ever is being written today. These are the good old days, and a very real reason for the huge popularity of mysteries is that the genre is in its Golden Age. Many of the very best writers alive are writing crime novels, and they are doing extraordinary things within the genre, things no one has previously attempted.

If there’s a lot of wheat, surely there’s no end of chaff. I suppose 90 percent of what’s being published today is nothing special, but when was it ever otherwise? The good stuff, I assure you, is very good indeed.

You’ll excuse me, I hope, if 1 decline to point it out to you. But think of the fun you’ll have digging it out for yourself!