Today in Literary History – March 27, 1988 – hardboiled crime writer Charles Willeford dies

One of my favourite “hardboiled” writers, Charles Willeford, died in Miami, Florida on March 27, 1988, of a heart attack at the age of 69.

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An orphan, Willeford joined the Army at the age of 16. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, earning a Silver Star, a Bronze Star for outstanding bravery, a Purple Heart and the Luxembourg War Cross.

Willeford left the services in 1956. In civilian life he worked as a professional boxer, a horse trainer, an editor at Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and was a book reviewer on the Miami Herald for many years. Despite not having a high school diploma he also earned a BA and MA from the University of Miami.

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Throughout this time he also published many pulp mystery novels, such as The Pick-Up, The Woman Chaser and Cockfighter, which are now noir classics. His fame rests mostly on the Hoke Moseley series, beginning with Miami Blues in 1984 and continuing through The Way We Die Now, the fourth installment which was published the year Willeford died.

There is also a “lost” Hoke Moseley book, the unpublished Grimhaven, which was written as a sequel to Miami Blues. It is so dark that his agent wouldn’t even submit it to a publisher.

I’ve read it in a pirated copy and it is a terrific book but grim as hell. If it had been published it would have meant that there wouldn’t have been any more Hoke Moseley books. In it ex-cop Hoke murders his two daughters and it ends with him awaiting arrest and looking forward to a stretch in solitary confinement before his execution.

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Willeford wrote without sentimentality about very flawed, marginalized characters who feel adrift in the capitalist world. He’s not an overtly political writer but class divisions and the limits on social mobility are deep concerns in his books.

He liked to say, “Just tell the truth, and they’ll accuse you of writing black humor.” I think he was both — truthful and very funny.

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