Notes in the MarginA blog about books
I’ve been enjoying the new Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice. The most striking thing about is that if you had handed me the first 30 pages, I would have staked my life I was reading the opening of the new Elmore Leonard.
The lean, witty lines recounting the exploits of hippy private dick Doc Sportello in Sixties LA (albeit with a nod to Raymond Chandler) absolutely smacks of Leonard and his humorous imagination (how about a crooked Jewish property developer with Nazi biker bodyguards?).
In some ways it’s a surprise to see Pynchon, one of the most sophisticated, high-caste and demanding of American writers, dancing naked; on the other hand it isn’t, because there’s something about the crime novel, the thriller, hardboiled noir , whatever you want to call it that literary novelists find fascinating and often irresistible.
My own novel Good to be God, about a failed lighting salesman who arrives in Miami and tries to convince people he’s God, doesn’t count as a proper crime novel, but I can’t deny that it was inspired very loosely by Elmore Leonard’s Touch (quite possibly his best novel and, of course, the one he had most difficulty getting published), and very strongly by Charles Willeford.
Willeford, who died in 1988, pretty much created Miami as a literary entity. A hobo during the Great Depression, a highly-decorated soldier during World War Two, Willeford wrote books that ended up in the crime section of bookshops, but he was hated by much of the crime fraternity because his work, ostensibly part of the genre, was extremely subversive and idiosyncratic.
It’s the incidental things in Willeford’s work that are so memorable. He’s brilliant on food. For me, one of the most unforgettable passages in his best-known book, Miami Blues, is where his hard-bitten detective Hoke Moseley goes home and cooks a stew. I really can’t explain why it sticks in the mind so, but it does.
Pynchon certainly gets his critical tribute and is taught at every university, but Willeford is a grossly under-rated writer, simply because his books are stocked in the wrong part of bookshops, although his prose matches anything by Ford or Updike, not so much in sparkle, but in muscle.
Another inspiration was Sándor Márai, the great Hungarian writer who ended up in exile in the United States and who committed suicide in San Diego in 1989. He too tried his hand at what Hungarians call the “krimi”. A polyglot of towering urbanity and erudition, virtually the last thing he wrote was a short thriller Burning Love, which has an afterword where he argues that The Odyssey, Hamlet, The Divine Comedy and Faust are “whodunnits” or, as the Americans like to term it, “mysteries”, and part of the same tradition as Simenon and Agatha Christie.