Book Review : Charles Willeford - Miami Blues (1984)
This novel doesn't look like much from the outside. It has a laughable cover with a black-and-white, grainy bikini girl on it and a tropical background. Its title Miami Blues doesn't mean anything particular either, except for where it is located. For all you know, it could be about a horny Floridian musician as much it could be a crime novel. But Miami Blues is the bomb. Charles Willeford was cut from a different cloth than novelists from his era. If anyone else would've written this cops and robbers caper, it wouldn't have worked as well, but Willeford made it fun.
Miami Blues is, primarily, the story of Frederick J. Frenger Jr., who travels to Florida on a stolen credit card after walking out of San Quentin penitentiary early for good behavior. Arrived at the air port, he fends off a insistent Hare Krishna by breaking his finger and makes it to the nearest hotel. Only problem is that the said Hare Krishna subsequently dies from shock and local detective Hoke Moseley is put on the case. Moseley doesn't look like much. He's depressed, constantly broke and not exactly hellbent on the rules. But he just doesn't fucking let go of anything.
The first eleven pages of Miami Blues are as good as anything I've read this year. They are insanely precise, yet wildly unpredictable *. Charles Willeford shows his disdain of genre conventions in them: Hoke Moseley doesn't exactly investigate a murder, but an unfortunate incident; the victim is constantly dismissed and ridiculed for being a Hare Krishna; no moral lines have been crossed that would make the reader root for one character over the other, etc. Miami Blues (in general, not just the first eleven pages) is such a gigantic "fuck you" to writing conventions and it's written with such an expert hand, it constantly remains fun.
Frederick J. Frenger Jr., a blithe psychopath from California, asked the flight attendant in first class for another glass of champagne and some writing materials.
Right above is the first sentence of Miami Blues. I have yet to think of another first sentence that is so precise, funny and that opens up such a world of possibilities. It's disarmingly honest about the character, portrays him as organized enough to fool an airline company and builds up mystery about his intentions. All inside two lines. It's evident when reading Miami Blues that Charles Willeford not only has tremendous writing experience, but that he's got creative genius and vision. The precision and the passion of the craft he displays in this novel makes it an absolute pleasure to read.
But Miami Blues fades a little bit over the length of its 190 pages. It's short novel, yet it has major pacing issues. There are several chapters where its characters aren't doing anything. Where Freddy and Susan are just shacked up together and learning to live with one another or where Hoke is brooding over his shit life. It's like Charles Willeford has his arm twisted into writing a detective novel and ran out of inspiration every thirty or forty pages. He has these amazing, vivid characters and no idea whatsoever what to do with them. It gets tedious and frustrating after a while.
I've thoroughly enjoyed Miami Blues. It's not even remotely similar to any detective novels I've read before and its bizarre, offbeat underbelly kept me entertained for most of its duration. Sure, it has issues that are infuriating because they're keeping it from being one of the best detective novels ever written, but it's creative and technically efficient enough that I would read it again given the right circumstances and it's more than I can say about any novel, really. Expect some more Willeford on this site before the end of 2018 because the man was a complete riot behind a keyboard.
* Yes, I needed to place two adverbs in the same sentence to express myself properly.