One of the Great Ones
By Jesse Sublett
NOVEMBER 9, 1998: The tall pine bookcases take up the entire west wall of our living room. Roughly half the titles are crime fiction novels, the rest are split between Texana, military history, and miscellaneous subjects. The crime section bulges with a mixture of first editions and reprints of all my favorite authors, the vast majority being of the hard-boiled school. I have a lot of signed first editions by living authors, like Donald Westlake, Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, and Walter Mosley, a first edition of Raymond Chandler's Playback, a neat facsimile reprint of Dashiell Hammett's Maltese Falcon, at least half a dozen firsts by hard-boiled pioneer Carroll John Daly, and lots of other cool stuff. But I think the most prized possession in my entire collection is a Gold Medal paperback published in 1961 titled Whip Hand.
The cover art depicts a shapely blonde standing haughtily, in profile, wearing high heels and gripping a bullwhip. The cover copy reads: "Lash by bloody lash, the she-devil from Dallas would get her revenge." At first glance, you might dismiss Whip Hand as just another example of the kind of sleazy sex and adventure romps that typified male fiction in the Fifties and Sixties. Well, OK, Whip Hand is all that. But, like the currently en vogue work of rediscovered noir authors like Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Chester Himes, Whip Hand is exceptionally entertaining, beguiling in its apparently sleazy simplicity. It also happens to have been written by a writer who had genuine literary aspirations and a uniquely skewed world view, a writer who - unlike many more conventionally accepted "literary" authors - never wrote a throwaway book. And I'm not talking about W. Franklin Sanders. Although the book's cover identifies Sanders as the author, the guy who actually wrote Whip Hand was Charles Willeford - the late, great author of the classic Florida crime novel series featuring police detective Hoke Moseley (Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, Sideswipe, The Way We Die Now).
Although best-known for the Moseley books, Willeford is beloved in the annals of crime lit for his lesser-known, harder-to-find works, like The Cockfighter, which was made into a movie starring Warren Oates in 1974. Then there's Off the Wall, a novelized version of the story of David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, Guide for the Undehemorrhoided (a self-published account of the author's hemorrhoid operation, with some autobiographical segments woven in), and a series of paperback originals Willeford wrote in the Fifties and early Sixties, with titles like The High Priest of California, Wild Wives, Understudy for Love, and No Experience Necessary.
Willeford was truly one of the Great Ones. Author James Lee Burke said that he owed his friend Willeford "a great debt" for the advice he had given him on writing. Burke said of Willeford: "If someone wanted advice about writing, about how to pull it off, make it work, punch it up into the windstream right on Babe Ruth's porch, Charles could tell you how to do it."
Whip Hand isn't the best-written book in my collection nor is it the best thing Willeford ever wrote. It sure has a dynamite cover, but the covers of Wade Miller's Kitten With a Whip and Gil Brewer's Nude on Thin Ice and The Girl From Hateville are as good or better. The reason Whip Hand is so special to me is because I have the unique honor of being the guy who unearthed the fact that Charles Willeford was the real author of the book and announced it to the quirky, fanatical world of crime fiction aficionados. Think about it, brother and sister book-lovers: How many times have you discovered a favorite author, now deceased, and felt that terrible letdown once you realized that said author only wrote X number of books, and you've now read them all? I feel that way every time I re-read all of Raymond Chandler's or Dashiell Hammett's books.
And I wish I had a dollar for every crime novel I've ever picked up that had a dust jacket blurb excitedly pronouncing the book's author as being the successor to the Chandler and Hammett legacy - a bit of hyperbole that, more than anything else, usually tends to highlight the author's shortcomings. And yet, I have to say that Willeford does deserve that kind of praise. He didn't just write great prose and create unique characters. His stories have a picaresque bent to them that is unique. And like Hammett and Chandler, Willeford had literary aspirations that had him setting his sights above merely writing a successful detective series. But unlike Hammett and Chandler, who often seemed to think they were slumming by writing crime novels, Willeford found ways to pursue his "higher calling" while working within the genre. Unfortunately, the time and circumstances that allowed him to do so and simultaneously achieve mainstream success (the Hoke Moseley series) came late in his life. Miami Blues, the first Hoke Moseley novel, was published in 1984. Four years and three novels later, Willeford died of a heart attack.
I happened to discover that Willeford was the real author of Whip Hand by a combination of luck and circumstance. Several years ago, while living in Los Angeles, I made a habit of dropping in at my favorite bookstores at least once a week. One day in early 1991, I dropped in at Vagabond Books in Westwood. My friends Craig and Patti Graham, the owners, introduced me to a guy they referred to as "Dennis," who was sleeping on their couch for the next few days. After a few minutes of conversation with the guy, I found out he was Dennis McMillan - the Dennis McMillan who has a small publishing company best known for printing all of pulp author Frederick Brown's short fiction, and for limited edition runs of trendy authors. During the late Eighties, McMillan had published several special editions of Willeford works, like Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, Everybody's Metamorphosis, and New Forms of Ugly (the latter two respectively a collection of short fiction and essays).
Naturally, then, the conversation turned to Willeford in fairly short order. We talked about our favorite Willeford books, about Cockfighter, the book and the movie, and about a lot of Willeford facts and anecdotes I hadn't heard before. We talked about other things, but we kept drifting back to Willeford. Two hours later we were still talking. Finally, I had to go. Dennis asked for my address before I left. He said he was going to send me something.
A month later, that something arrived in the mail. It was a large box. Inside the box were photocopies of a half-dozen Willeford manuscripts. Most were unpublished, or so McMillan (and everyone else at the time) thought. What a gold mine! One manuscript was a photocopy of Willeford's hardest to find novel, a Western called Hombre From Sonora, written under the pseudonym Will Charles. Another was a manuscript called Deliver Me From Dallas. This one listed a co-author, W. Franklin Sanders, and included a typed letter from Sanders, who was apparently an old Army or Air Force buddy. There was also a manuscript called Grimhaven, which Willeford had originally intended as the follow-up to Miami Blues. Without going into too great a detail, I'll say that it's a very, very dark story - too dark for Willeford's agent, who believed that submitting Grimhaven to his publisher would have been like killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
I read some of the manuscripts, but mostly just set them aside in a special place in my collection, like a secret treasure that I would savor on some rainy day. And I went on collecting vintage crime paperbacks. I specialized in early Fawcett Gold Medal editions. Gold Medal had published a lot of great tough guy writers in the Fifties and Sixties - Charles Williams, John D. MacDonald, Gil Brewer, and Wade Miller. And they had great cover art. One Gold Medal I became aware of during this period was a paperback originally titled Whip Hand. Although I loved the cover, I passed on buying several copies because they weren't in very good condition. But finally, one day, something about the author's name - W. Franklin Sanders - seemed vaguely familiar. It wasn't until my next encounter with Dennis McMillan that things clicked into place. One of the first things Dennis said to me was, "Hey, did you read the manuscript about the woman from Dallas with the bullwhip?" I gulped hard on a dry throat as I reluctantly admitted that I hadn't, and goosebumps ran down my spine as it all came together in the nooks and crannies of the dark, dusty, cluttered crime fiction library in the back of my mind. I had to get my hands on a copy of Whip Hand, pronto!
I scavenged my local book haunts, and peered through the used book catalogs that came almost every day in the mail. No dice. There was a place, I knew, that had one - a little used bookstore up in the San Bernadino Mountains at Big Bear Lake, where we used to go for weekend getaways (also, coincidentally, where Chandler spent a lot of time, and used for the setting of The Lady in the Lake). On our next trip to Big Bear, I went more or less straight to that store and shelled out four bucks for a dog-eared, slightly foxed copy. When we got home from the mountains, I pulled out the manuscripts McMillan had given me and started reading and comparing the two. It didn't take long to come to a conclusion. No doubt about it: Deliver Me From Dallas and Whip Hand are the same book. Sure, there are a few line changes, a few different names, but it's the same book. And what's more, it's pure Willeford. I don't want to slander W. Franklin Sanders, whoever he was, but I just don't see Willeford needing very much help on a story like this. I'm sure Sanders contributed something, but on the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't do much more than suggest a couple of plot ideas and do the typing. Willeford's unique style of black humor is shot all through the story, which centers on an L.A. police detective who's been busted for taking bribes. On his first day as a newly demoted traffic cop, he loses his temper with an arrogant motorist. "He shouldn't have smiled," writes Willeford. The cop punches the motorist in the face, "too hard." Fearing that he's just killed the guy, the cop leaves L.A. in a hurry and winds up in Dallas, where he quickly gets tangled up between a bizarre kidnapping attempt by a bunch of crazed Okies and the she-devil with a bullwhip. As in so many other Willeford novels, the protagonist is a genuine rascal who gets himself in a world of trouble and somehow manages to wriggle out of it. And if you're looking for a moral, don't.
By the time I made my discovery, Charles Willeford had been dead for three years. He died never having known that the book had been published by Fawcett. And, ironically, apparently Fawcett hadn't known Willeford was the actual author, either. The chief editor there had disliked Willeford's style and, after reading and rejecting several manuscripts, told his agent to stop sending submissions.
The first people in the book business I shared my discovery with were Dennis McMillan, a book dealer named Lynn Munroe who subsequently announced it in the pages of his collectible book catalog and a vintage paperback publication called Books Are Everything, and maverick crime fiction publisher Gary Lovisi, who made the announcement in his own magazine for bibliomaniacs, Paperback Parade. A new Willeford title was big news in that world. The price started to skyrocket.
You used to be able to find copies of Whip Hand for anywhere from fifty cents to four dollars, sometimes a little more if they were in perfect condition. The last time I saw one in a book catalog it was going for $450.
Some of Willeford's other early, out-of-print works are also priced up in the stratosphere, which makes it tough on the average Willeford fan. Fortunately, however, there's a new biography of Willeford that's so much fun it's almost as good as having a new novel by the great one. Willeford, by Don Herron (Dennis McMillan Publications, $30 hard), is a rambling, idiosyncratic work that is a pleasure to read and should be a welcome addition to any good collection of crime fiction.
Herron's name should be well-known to Dashiell Hammett fans, as he is the author of The Dashiell Hammett Tour, a guide to all the Hammett sites of interest in San Francisco. Herron also conducts this tour and it was, in fact, during one of these gigs in 1984 that Willeford and Herron met for the first time. Willeford introduced himself as an author, and along the way, shared a few tidbits about his own experiences as a writer in San Francisco. Herron was intrigued. He'd never heard of Charles Willeford.
Shortly thereafter, Herron went about finding out just who this Willeford character was. After reading just a few of Willeford's books, Herron became a huge fan. Soon the two were writing each other (Willeford lived in South Florida) and visiting each other, hanging out at Willeford's favorite haunts and, of course, talking books.
Willeford is largely structured around Herron's evolving relationship with his subject, and his attempt to play catch-up and learn all he could about the author. As Herron gets to know Willeford, the reader does, too, and it's a pleasurable experience.
We learn that Willeford was an irrepressible trickster, a lover of practical jokes. Commenting on Willeford's constant leg-pulling shenanigans, the author James Crumley once said, "He's kidding when he's not kidding." One of Willeford's recurrent sucker-jokes was about the difference between bananas and plantains. Bananas grow down the tree, he said. Plantains grow up the tree.
We also learn that in the novel The Cockfighter, Willeford was attempting to re-tell the story of The Odyssey in the hard-boiled world of cockfighting. Herron neatly captures the sly smirk and wink of his subject, and delves into the perverse impulses that drove Willeford and colored his Kafkaesque milieus, his absurdist take on life, his so-called "immobilized heroes." In Willeford's view, it takes an off-center, slightly bent protagonist to make sense in a world gone mad.
In Willeford, Herron lets the life story of his subject take a back seat to his literary career. Herron isn't, for example, very interested in Willeford's early marriages, or in sorting out his long military career, a disinterest that is betrayed by his apparent confusion over the difference between the Army air corps and the Air Force (Willeford served in both). Herron does look for connections between some of Willeford's formative experiences and the way he wrote about them in both his autobiographical books (which includes Something About a Soldier and I Was Looking for a Street) and his fiction. Willeford fans should delight in this type of research, because Herron's fairly obsessive cross-referencing is both humorous and enlightening.
Willeford was a rail-riding hobo during the Depression. He spent 20 years in the Army and Air Force. As a tank commander during World War II, Willeford participated in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded the Purple Heart. Most of these details could have been culled from reading Willeford's autobiographies, but Herron draws upon conversations and long interview sessions conducted while cleaning out Willeford's manuscript and clippings-stuffed garage to add new nuances to the facts and contradictions of his life. Why, for example, didn't Willeford write about his war experiences? Willeford simply brushed off the question by saying that Jim Jones (From Here to Eternity) had already done that, and done it pretty well. After being exposed to so much of Willeford's sardonic, trickster side, we know there must be a better answer, but a half-wisecrack will have to suffice.
Anecdotes, correspondence, and quotes from interviews leave little doubt that Willeford's experiences in the armed services reinforced his sensitivity to the many absurdities of the human condition. So too, we conclude, did his living in South Florida, a twisted paradise that has produced almost as many great crime writers as that other dark Eden called Los Angeles.
Readers should be advised that the first edition of Willeford was a limited printing, and can't be found at just any old bookstore. If you can't find it, contact Dennis McMillan Publications, 1581 N. Debra Sue Place, Tucson, AZ 85715, or go to http://www.booksellers.com/dmp.
Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics . Search
© 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch