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The Difference by Charles Willeford

The Canongate Crime Classics series was something I invested in a few years back, with authors like Boris Vian (I Spit on Your Graves), Chester Himes (Cotton Comes to Harlem) and John Franklin Bardin making up some of the most intensely readable and enjoyable crime writers of their times. Charles Willeford has a couple of spots on the list, with Shark Infested Custard the other title represented, and having read that and Miami Blues, a Hoke Mosely novel, I can endorse Elmore Leonard's assertion that "No one writes a better crime novel than Charles Willeford." However, The Difference is not a crime novel in the sense that a bookstore might classify it. It lacks a detective, and our protagonist is certainly not on the right side of whatever law existed at the turn on the 20th century in Arizona. What we have here would be better described as a western, but might unfairly be judged on such a label.

A quick plot summary for those curious about such things: a young man is swindled out of his inheritance and seeks retribution and justice whilst coming of age. But all is not as it seems. Johnny Shaw is a grasping, devious git, with little concept of honour and quite willing to shoot a man in the back. Willeford has exposed the myth of the noble cowpoke as just that - a myth - and this is what makes this such a great, if quick, read. Shaw enjoys watching his skin harden as he makes the transformation from wronged citizen to outlaw, taking pleasure in the killing of his enemies and, in the denouement, creating his own legend as lethal hired gun. That he doesn't succeed in killing all those who "wronged" him is not down to lack of desire or ability, rather disgust that they are not worth killing in the end.

Willeford's pen has created a character who, although sympathetic to start with, by the end of the novel is not truly worthy of sympathy. Lacking mercy, honour and morals, Shaw is nonetheless an intriguing character, and this is Willeford's triumph.

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