Reading as Escapism: Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley Novels

On day two of an almost complete lockdown, with nothing to do and nowhere to go apart from my NHS job, I’m feeling a need to write about literary escapism. My local library shut down indefinitely last Saturday, and although I’ve managed to get a stash of books that’ll last me a few weeks, I’m already missing my trips to pick up new ones. It’s all temporary, of course, and all for a good cause, but I’m probably not the only one for whom life feels rather odd and claustrophobic at the moment.

Enter reading as escapism. I’m hardly the first to come up with this idea and in the current circumstances I need books more than ever before. Even in the darkest of times books have the power to transport me away from my home into other worlds and help me to put my mind at rest. While I’m normally a lover of the macabre, I feel like the news is more terrifying than any horror novel at the moment, and I’m gravitating towards more cheerful reads. It’s a source of joy to discover that, despite my confined state, it’s still possible to discover new authors and enjoy their work.

I stumbled across Charles Willeford in the library, before it shut down (of course I stumbled across his books, not the man himself, which is probably a good thing, as he died before I was born). Admired by Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino, Willeford is a wonderful if somewhat critically neglected author, mainly of hardboiled detective novels. I’m currently tearing through his Hoke Moseley series, and trying to pace myself, but I’m finding it hard not to savour his books in one sitting. A bit like inhaling an entire chocolate cake in one go. You know you shouldn’t, but you just can’t help yourself.

The Hoke Moseley novels are set in Miami. Moseley lives with his teenage daughters, fellow cop Ellita, and Ellita’s son Pepe (who, confusingly, is not Moseley’s son). As detectives are wont to do, he tries to solve cases while fighting off mosquitoes, annoying colleagues, and assaults on his life. To a certain extent we’re in familiar territory here, and I’m liking it.

What sets Willeford apart from the competition is his attention to sensory detail. The way he describes heat and sunshine alone cheers me up while I’m curled up under a blanket in perpetually chilly England. Willeford was also clearly a lover of food, as every meal is described in detail, a stylistic choice I have a soft spot for. Although some of the dishes Moseley encounters are decidedly dodgy: candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows, anyone?

Moseley himself is no Marlowe or Spade. He’s a typical anti-hero who struggles to stick to his diet, wears dentures, and wets himself in one of the first chapters of Sideswipe. His colleagues are hardly less realistic and all the more down to earth. While Willeford’s writing lacks the grittiness of someone like James Ellroy, the utter lack of glamour and dark humour only shine more brighter as a result.

These books shouldn’t work but they do. The writing is often clunky and the characters politically incorrect (one of the reasons why it pays to separates the views of the author and the characters they create). The books are funny but not in a laugh out loud way. Miami is portrayed as a sexy city, but also as a dangerous and dirty place. I very much doubt whether Willeford has done much to stimulate tourism in the area but as someone who is partial to beauty spots gone to seed, I’m tempted to book a holiday. Once things go back to normal, of course.

Photo by Ryan Spencer on Unsplash

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