Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane
By Charles Willeford
Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, March 2006
‘I felt the blood stir in me where it felt the most sensitive’ is probably the best sentence in this fine, too-short novel: PI Jake Blake coyly registering his desire for femme fatale Florence Weintraub. What pulls him into her web in the end is not wild lust or grand love, neither hard-on nor enraptured heart, but curiosity: ‘I’d met women in Paris, Berlin, Manila and Tokyo … but never, never one like her before … I decided to stick it out for awhile to see what would happen.’
Wild Wives was Charles Willeford’s third novel – it came out originally in 1956 – and it is evident that, even early on, he felt compelled to put a wry and ironic twist on the hard-boiled genre. There are echoes of The Maltese Falcon and The Postman Always Rings Twice here, but Willeford – thank the stars in the firmament! – couldn’t write a straight formulaic PI novel to save his life. Mind, he does have a controlling vision and here’s a summary: luck, good and bad, and chance are central to this world; law and order (an absurd word, this, in Willeford’s universe!) and justice are nowhere. Perhaps it was his experience of combat that led him to this viewpoint; Willeford walked away from World War Two with a slue of medals. At any rate, one can see how it might.
The relation between author and PI (Chandler and Marlowe, say, or Hammett and Spade) is a fascinating topic and Willeford seems to give Blake some of his thoughts on the military and war. Consider, for example, the use of the IDEAL acronym in Chapter 11, or Blake’s description of a gun battle in Chapter 13:
In a way, it was like being on patrol. I was excited. There was a taste of copper in my mouth and every sense was alive and tingling. This is why there is war. Men like this highly exalted feeling. Hunting animals is a poor substitute for the real thing. The only time a man is really alive is when he is close to death.
One small aside: the novel features an early use of the word ‘gay’, in the sense of homosexual, on page 33.
Charles Willeford has been much praised by Elmore Leonard and others in the know, yet even now he remains something of a cult figure. This is a pity, for he is a rewarding writer for any reader. Certainly, he should really be better known and more widely appreciated than he is at present. Wild Wives is an enjoyable foray into his world, yet is significant also for an understanding of Willeford’s work as a whole; and maybe for an understanding of his life too.
About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org