Unpublished for 60 years, lost Charles Willeford crime novel finds its way back into print

Review by C.J. Bunce

To begin with, it helps to know that “father of Miami crime fiction” writer Charles Willeford referred to himself as a sociopath.  According to Lawrence Block, Willeford even wrote his first, self-published sequel to his hit novel Miami Blues to offend the book’s fans, specifically to ward off those wanting a sequel written (only to go ahead and write those sequels for the right price later).  Willeford is one of those celebrated pulp crime writers mentioned by other celebrated pulp crime writers, like Block, and Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarantino.  So I was looking forward to my first Willeford novel.  Unfortunately, Understudy for Death, originally published in 1961 as Understudy for Love (or Willeford’s intended title, The Understudy: A Novel of Men and Women), was probably not the best candidate.  A lost novel that for Willeford completists has been a true rarity to find in any condition, Understudy for Death is one of this year’s finds by the Hard Case Crime imprint.  In print for the first time in nearly 60 years, it’s one of the imprint’s rare selections that is of value for study of the genre and curiosity more than a crime novel for folks that simply love crime novels.

The typical reader will pick up Understudy for Death and continue, forging on, against his or her own will, because a protagonist so outrage-inducing certainly must get his comeuppance by the last page of the last chapter.  Right?  Not so for Willeford, who was known for challenging convention with his prose, with his choice of character, and their dark situations.  “Crime Does Not Pay” means nothing to Willeford or his lead character, a lazy self-absorbed newspaper writer who goes out of his way not to do his job the right way.  He also goes out of his way to belittle his wife, his marriage, his boss, his friends, and everyone ese he encounters.  He is in every way a cheat and a liar, lying to himself as he commits to writing and publishing a play, cheating on his wife, gaslighting his wife, lying to his readers, and only doing the rare good deed when it benefits himself.  Worst of all, he cheats the reader.

Or maybe that’s Willeford.  How?  Understudy for Death is not the typical eye-grabbing novel, despite the latest great retro-style Paul Mann cover.  As the cover asks, “Why would a happily married Florida housewife pick up her husband’s .22 caliber Colt Woodsman semi-automatic pistol and use it to kill her two young children and herself?  Cynical newspaper reporter Richard Hudson is assigned to find out–and the assignment will send him down a road of self-discovery in this incisive, no-holds-barred portrait of American marriage in the Mad Men era.”  Yep, that’s pretty dark stuff.  I’d venture that a thousand people could try to create an answer for the question posed and never come up with a pulp crime ending that answers the question as Willeford did.  Neither does newspaperman Hudson discover anything about himself, or change in any meaningful way between page one and page 223.  I also pity any wife that ever had a husband like Hudson in 1961 or any other era (if this is even remotely a real portrait of marriage in 1961, I am surprised women didn’t get rid of all men by 1962).  It’s the spectacularly, radically misogynistic stuff of other contemporary works like that found in Peter Benchley’s Jaws and Ian Fleming’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  Plus the 1960s racism that seems even more prevalent in this branch of crime novels.

There are torrid sex scenes from the 1950s and 1960s, and then there is the less sexy variety of violent, loveless romps found in Willeford’s book.  Originally stamped on the cover back in 1961 “Adult Reading,” the choices Willeford makes are the real challenge in getting through to the end.  Willeford’s writing is clean and concise, the work of an obviously good storyteller.  Yet several actions by Hudson are enough to walk away from the book, but that typical, expected trust of the reader that the author will “come around” at some point is the carrot pulling the reader to the end.  So for some the best nuggets will be found in the reactions of side characters, the mannerisms of this less despicable players in his story, the more thoughtful motivations and actions of Hudson’s boss at the newspaper, the sanctions against Hudson by his mistress for the way he treats his wife, and the gossip of the community theater staff that are quick to dismiss Hudson for the hack he is.

But no comeuppance for the protagonist?  No satisfactory resolutions for the plot threads?

This year is the 30th anniversary of Willeford’s death, so the release of this long out-of-print novel is a welcome prize for the fans of his other stories.  Those fans may be better able to digest Willeford’s brand of story than most, who are likely to scratch their heads or dig their fingernails into something for the non-traditional trappings that are the foundation of this book.

Stepping away from the novel, this would have been a great candidate for an explanatory foreword.  Some context is a must for anyone jumping into this read.

An understandable addition to the Hard Case Crime catalog, but not that gritty, exciting, or fun read of the typical entry, Charles Willeford’s lost novel Understudy for Death is available now here at Amazon.

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