Skip to main content

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.

Comments

How's about that then?

Apochryphal Tales by Karel Čapek

Many (many) years ago, when I first read War With The Newts, after scouring the Waterstones' internal database (whimsically named Ibid, and from which one could print the details of books onto the till roll in light- and so it seems, time-sensitive purple ink which, on the inches thick ream of leaves I printed for future perusal, faded within a few months rendering my catalogued wish list so much locker mulch) for authors with a suitably Czech-sounding name, having put away an entrée of my first slim Hrabal, a palate-cleansing Kundera and in need of a meaty Moravian main course, I think I might have completely and totally missed just how funny it was, bloated as I was by the doughy and Victorian-sounding translation and the rather unlikely ideation of the future political terroir of mankind and their unusual amphibian slaves and, latterly, sappers, the newts.

How's that for a sentence David Foster Wallace? INTERROBANG.

Well, there's no chance that Čapek's typically Czech…

Free Fall In Crimson by John D. MacDonald

Trav is back, still grieving the loss of some chickadee or other whose death almost knocked him off his game, but not too shook up to set himself up with a few more lucky lovelies whilst tripping his way through another overly complicated and rather sordidly underwhelming plot. This time, some bikers are making dirty movies with minors on the set of a future classic hot-air-balloon movie. Travis falls into the action because a rich old geyser carks it in unusual circumstances and it affects the trust fund of a former marina-mate. And hirsute intellectual Meyer wets his pants towards the end. 

You may sense a fatigued, sardonic note in my precis. It's not that I don't still love John D., it's just that after embarking on the long game that is reading the entire Travis McGee oeuvre, I'm approaching the end and it feels long overdue. It's been fun, it's been enlightening, but it's also been a schlep. With the realisation I might now have fewer years left to me …

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Fup by Jim Dodge

If there was a comfort-food version of a book for me, then this would be it. It's funny, touching, humanistic, and features so many quotable quotes that its trim 120 pages could be represented in its entirety on some such authors' quotations page.

We're introduced to Tiny on the occasion of his mother's death, lured into a treacherously fatal situation by, of all things, a duck, while her 4-year-old son sleeps in the car where he wakes to a terrifying solitude. Meanwhile, we're treated to a potted but entertaining history of Granddaddy Jake, Tiny's grandfather, into whose care by fair means or foul (no pun intended) he is finally placed. But the titular Fup duck comes along only once Tiny is fully grown (and how!). A lost and lonely duckling, much like Tiny, she's discovered shivering in a freshly dug post hole, which betrays the attention paid to it by Tiny's nemesis, a wild hog called Lockjaw, who enjoys tearing up Tiny's fences just as much as he …