Charles Willeford Essay - Critical Essays


As a crime writer, Charles Willeford is difficult to categorize. Not only did he work in different subgenres, but his writing broke the boundaries of genre as well. His early work can best be described as pulp noir, in the tradition of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, but with a comic twist. Wild Wives, for example, seems almost an absurdist parody of a private eye novel, until the intrusion of a brutally realistic murder. Marshall Jon Fisher, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, noted that Willeford never found humor and violence mutually exclusive. The doomed romanticism of writers like Cain and Cornell Woolrich is absent in Willeford’s work; instead, there is a self-contained, confident pragmatism and an eye for the quirky details of everyday life. Whether his heroes are smooth-talking car salesmen, silent cockfighters, pretentious art critics, or middle-aged, chain-smoking detectives, Willeford takes the reader fully into their world. Readers know Willeford’s characters: how they speak; what they eat, and, more important, what they drink; the cars they drive; how they dress (often eccentrically, as with Hoke’s yellow jumpsuit); and the routine of their work, whether that work involves solving crimes or committing them.


Pick-Up (1955) is representative of Willeford’s early pulp period, the bleakest and perhaps the best of his 1950’s paperback novels. It was collected in the Library of America’s prestigious series Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s, together with the work of Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, and other classic noir authors. This short novel tells the story of Harry Jordan and Helen Meredith, lovers who share a weakness for alcohol and an inability to live in the world. Dark, nihilistic, and disturbing, Pick-Up is one of Willeford’s most serious works, with only flashes of the black humor that infused his later novels.

When Harry Jordan, a failed artist and unemployed art teacher working in a diner, meets beautiful and reckless Helen Meredith, a woman from an upper-class background who prefers to lose herself in drink, they form an instant connection. However, Helen’s love for Harry is not enough to end her self-destructive behavior. When Harry finds her in a bar, helplessly drunk and being fondled by a sailor, he erupts in a jealous rage and beats the man, slashing his face with a broken bottle. The lovers decide that death is their only way to attain peace, so Harry strangles Helen and tries to gas himself to death. Ironically, he fails even at suicide, having left a window open. He confesses to Helen’s murder and eagerly awaits execution, but in a final ironic twist, an autopsy reveals that Helen actually died of natural causes, and he is free to resume his hopeless existence, a “tall, lonely Negro” walking the rainy streets.

Willeford’s use of the theme of interracial romance, a motif also used in Honey Gal (1958, originally titled The Black Mass of Brother Springer), was...

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