Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Miami Blues, by Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford and, in particular, Miami Blues seem to be making the rounds of that small portion of the crime writing world I frequent and Adrian McKinty's review of this first book in the Hoke Moseley series has called forth a lot of reminiscences from other readers. I had for some reason started with the second book in the series, New Hope For the Dead, when the paperback first came out in these eye-catching yellow covers many years ago, and liked it a lot, though perhaps more for Moseley's trying to adapt to the new reality of daughters foisted upon him than for anything strictly related to crime solving.

As I recall, I read the next book in the series, Sideswipe, and was put off by some violent event that occurred, I'm not sure what. In any case, I never got to the first one.

In this first book, I'd say that Moseley is more or less a work in progress, while the character who proves most interesting is the villain of the piece, Freddy Frenger. "Fredrick J. Frenger, Jr., a blithe psychopath from California", as the first sentence tells us, seems to have pre-dated the sort of actors that I can see playing him now--a Leonardo DiCaprio or a Brad Pitt. Charming and without any scruples involving others whatsoever, Frenger lands in Miami and causes a death right away. Freddy assumes from the get go that his release from prison will be a temporary sort of thing, which makes some sense out of the improvisational nature of his jaunt through the greater Miami area. Along the way, he becomes entangled with Susan Waggoner, a prostitute and naïf who is a transplant to Miami herself. Frenger quickly inveigles her into what he calls a "platonic marriage" in which he is by turns kind and cruel. Willeford somehow manages to make Frenger attractive as a character even though he is not, well, a nice person. To say the least.

The novel is both casually misogynistic and homophobic, and, as with many other books of the era written by men, it's hard to tell whether this is a portrait of the protagonist and his buddies or attitude of the author himself. Suffice to say, if you are going to derive the pleasures the book offers, you'll just have to put up with it. If you're a woman, you've no doubt done it before.

One thing I do want  to take issue with, though, is the constant description of Susan as dim-witted. By random coincidence, I have just recently read The Stranger for the first time, and in fact it is the subject of my last post. I find Susan Waggoner and Meursault, the protagonist of The Stranger, to be remarkably similar characters, but Meursault is praised for  his qualities of openness, honesty and transparency, while Susan is called dim-witted for similar actions and attitudes. Meursault is the hero of his own story, while Susan is portrayed as simply the foil in another person's trajectory. Both are incredibly naïve, but only one is shown as stupid because of this, and I don't think I'm wrong in thinking that gender has some small part to play in this.

Not that I'm equating the two works as a whole. The Stranger is a masterpiece and Miami Blues simply an enjoyable comic tale. But I think even Camus would have to defer to Susan Waggoner (and Willeford) when it comes to vinegar pie.      


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